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Instructional Coaching

Instructional coaching is part of a PD effort to improve teaching practice, the effectiveness of which is evidenced by improved student achievement (Kraft, Blazer, & Hogan, 2018; Cornett & Knight, 2009). In other words, PD for teachers often (perhaps usually) is given in the hope that it will improve student outcomes.

This common view is tantamount to a theory of action. Instructional coaching improves the effectiveness of PD, first by improving teaching practice and thereby improving students' learning as demonstrated on tests (see, e.g., Biancarosa, Bryk, & Dexter, 2010). It's a very simple theory. But it indicates that coaching is the clinical provision within an otherwise didactic PD program that—when done well—can produce anticipated results (that is, improved achievement).

Too often—when conditions don't line up—the theory of action will not be affirmed (i.e., the PD design is inappropriate, the training doesn't "take," student engagement doesn’t change, and achievement stays flat). Moreover, the theory of action is violated when the entire PD effort rests on coaching alone. This approach, which is very common (e.g., Luebeck & Burroughs, 2017; Pomerantz & Pierce, 2019), tends to reduce outcomes (Robertson, Padesky, Ford-Connors, & Paratore, 2020). In other words, when districts hire instructional coaches unmoored from a well-conceived PD program, a beneficial influence on student outcomes should not be anticipated. If, by contrast, coaching is a thought-out part of a fully-fledged PD program, the coaching role will be better defined and better supported. And it will help improve achievement.

Baseline data collected by instructional coaches includes formative data on the teacher’s planning, assessment, and instructional strategies. Based on what is learned from baseline data and formative data as the coaching relationship progresses, instructional coaches help teachers identify, use, and evaluate methods and materials likely to promote their students’ academic success. Some PD efforts also collect information on the performance of students.

Tracing the links in the theory of action through research, though, is much harder than it looks. Why? One needs to rule out the many, many competing influences. (See Biancarosa and colleagues’ study for an example of just how difficult such a task is.)