Education Week - June 13, 2018 - 6
To Improve Math Teaching, Coaches Get Ongoing Lessons
By Madeline Will
To improve teachers' mathematics instruction, enlist a team of
coaches. But to find out what actually makes for effective coaching,
That's the premise of an instructional coaching program in Tennessee. Over the last four years, select
coaches have been working with
math teachers in grades 3 through
8 to promote high-quality teaching
that's rooted in complex thinking
and aligned with state standards.
Researchers with the University of
Pittsburgh have been evaluating the
coaches to better understand how to
help them do their jobs better.
"As our state was transitioning to
more rigorous standards, we needed
a way to support our teachers," said
Laura Booker, the executive director
of research for the Tennessee education department. At the same time,
"we realized there was a real lack of
training on how to be an instructional
coach and work with adult learners."
The coaching program tackles both
of those challenges. Funded by a federal Institute of Education Sciences
grant, the program uses a continuous
improvement process, in which researchers analyze the coaching data
periodically and then refine the guidance they provide to coaches.
The ongoing feedback loop helps the
researchers determine the best coaching practices and create a model for
guiding math coaches, said Jennifer
Lin Russell, an associate professor
of learning sciences and policy at the
University of Pittsburgh, and the lead
researcher on the coaching program.
So far, more than 70 coaches
across 31 districts in Tennessee have
been trained in the model, which
emphasizes higher-level thinking in
mathematics. Researchers are still
analyzing the data collected. Results
on student achievement are expected
later this summer.
But so far, researchers have found
that when coaches and teachers had
deep and specific conversations while
planning lessons, the teachers were
better able to orchestrate high-level
and open-ended mathematics tasks
in the classroom. They became more
skilled at helping students better understand math concepts.
Teachers also became more comfortable allowing students to do most
of the thinking about math problems,
rather than jumping in and providing
assistance as soon as students started
to struggle, Russell said.
Booker said she remembers getting
"cold chills" when she realized the
process was working. "[One teacher
said], 'I feel like my teaching has so
dramatically improved,' " she said. "It
was like, this is why we're doing this."
'Grappling in the Learning'
The coaching model asks coaches
to provide evidence-based feedback
to teachers; establish mathematics
and pedagogical goals before lessons; and engage teachers in deep
and specific discussions of the "instructional triangle," which is made
up of content, pedagogy, and student
thinking. Coaches work with their
GUIDELINES FOR COACH-TEACHER CONVERSATIONS
Researchers from the University of Pittsburgh incorporated key coaching practices into a designated
routine for math coaches and teachers. Math coaches in Tennessee were asked to go through
the discussion process with teachers at least three times a school year, so researchers could
continuously evaluate the coaching and then refine the process.
Goal Setting and Task Selection
Coach and teacher set or clarify the
mathematical learning goal.
Coach and teacher independently
work out solutions for task prior to
Coach and teacher communicate to
select a high-level task for the cycle.
Researchers could see what the
challenges of the implementation
were, in close to real time, she said.
For example, the researchers
wanted coaches to be having deep
and specific conversations with
teachers about mathematics, pedagogy, and student thinking. As the
school year went on, the researchers were able to better refine the
training and guidance they gave to
By the end of the year, the researchers could see noticeable improvements in the quality of coaches'
discussions, Russell said.
Learning to Be a Coach
Pre-Observation Planning Conference (20-45 minutes)
Coach and teacher
within 24-28 hours
Coach and teacher mark
goals in service of the
for the lesson and both
commit to working
toward the goals.
Coach and teacher
engage in a deep and
of the mathematical
goals and the
pedagogy to support
Teacher is asked to
commit to enacting
in class what has been
Coach observes the teacher
teaching the lesson.
Coach and teacher gather evidence
related to student understanding
of the mathematical goals and
pedagogy that supports student
Post-Observation Planning Conference (20-45 minutes)
Coach and teacher schedule a
post-observation conference within
48 hours of observation.
Coach and teacher analyze
evidence to highlight the goals that
were and were not accomplished
via evidence-based feedback.
Coach and teacher co-construct
pedagogical goals for the next cycle
and commit to working toward goals.
SOURCE: Institute for Learning at the University of Pittsburgh, originally published in The State Education Standard journal
partner teachers before, during, and
after a lesson a minimum of three
times per school year.
This level of intensive coaching
requires time and resources. Still,
high-level coaching can transform
the instruction of a teacher who, for
example, is great at language arts
but struggles with teaching math,
said Jim Knight, a senior partner at
the Instructional Coaching Group, a
consulting firm that partners with
states and districts to train coaches.
"If you keep that great teacher in
the system, it's worth that kind of support," said Knight, who is not involved
in Tennessee's coaching work.
To evaluate the coaching, the Pittsburgh researchers looked at planning
documents and transcripts of videos
of the coaching cycle: the pre-lesson
conference, the lesson observation,
and the post-lesson reflection.
"We would go out into the field, work
with the coaches, and then we'd listen
to what the coaches are doing and
study their videos. That would call
into question things that needed to be
6 | EDUCATION WEEK | June 13, 2018 | www.edweek.org
modified in the coaching project," said
Victoria Bill, a senior fellow at the Institute for Learning at the University
of Pittsburgh, which provides the professional development for the coaches.
For example, coaches were asked to
set learning goals with the teachers
before lessons. But when Bill's team
watched coaches' videos, the researchers realized that the coaches had
a different understanding of math
learning goals than they'd intended.
"We showed them some examples,
but it wasn't enough for them to learn
it," Bill said. "They needed to grapple
in the learning with us."
Coaches were trained to push the
teachers to think and reason deeply
about the mathematical concepts, as
well as consider how to make sure
students understood the concepts.
"There was all this educating of
pedagogy, student learning," Bill said.
"And these are the people who are ...
already the expert teachers. But I
think they learned what they didn't
know, and we learned about what
they need to learn more deeply."
Jamelie Johns was part of the
first cohort of math coaches in the
program. She said the researchers
taught her how to have conversations
with teachers that press for both
depth and specificity.
"I was able to get feedback [that
said], 'When you did this, we saw the
teacher change her practice in this
way.' That's a move I want to continue to make," Johns said. "If we saw
something that wasn't as impactful, [I
The continuous improvement model
was a "big departure" from previous
research projects, said Pittsburgh's
Russell, who is also a research scientist in the Learning Research and
Development Center at the university.
Mainly, it was faster.
"We're used to these long cycles
of data collection and analysis, and
here we were, ... engaged in much
more rapid analysis," she said.
"The way we were engaging with
[the coaches] in a very regular way
helped us understand what was happening in the data."
For Johns, who is now the director
of elementary math and science for
Hamilton County schools, the biggest challenge in becoming a coach
was learning how to work with adult
learners, rather than students.
"As adults, we're more fixed in our
ways," she said. "I think the perception is that teachers are expected to
know everything because we're the
ones teaching, but it's not that at all:
Teachers are learners."
That learning curve is why coaches
need coaching, too, said Knight, who
is also a research associate at the University of Kansas Center for Teaching
Coaches need professional development to learn how to set goals with
teachers, gather data, and pass their
knowledge on to other adults, he said,
adding that it's tough to create lasting
change in teachers' instruction.
"To dramatically change the way
you do your work ... it's like changing
your personality," Knight said. "It's
going to take some time, it's going to
take some support."
Ultimately, the three teachers
Johns coached through the model had
gains in both student achievement
and student growth.
Now, there are 12 elementary math
coaches in the Hamilton County district, which includes Chattanooga.
A few have been trained in the state
model, and the rest have learned the
process from their peers.
"The selling point we often make [to
teachers] is even professional athletes
have coaches," Johns said. "Coaching
isn't for weak people. It's for strong
people who want to get better."
The $2.5-million federal grant that
has funded the research in Tennessee runs out at the end of December,
and the state education department is
strategizing on how to keep the program going past the life of the grant.
Booker, of the Tennessee education department, said the plan is to
divide the work into three regions of
the state, with math consultants from
the education department convening
networks of coaches in each region.
This could eventually scale up the
program, she said, as the consultants
extend the training to new coaches.
Coverage of continuous-improvement
strategies in education is supported
in part by a grant from the
Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
Education Week retains sole editorial
control over the content of this coverage.