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The Research Evidence About Coaching

What's Coaching Used For?

Two prominent uses have been defined in the literature (see, e.g., Kruse & Zimmerman, 2012): (1) improving individual educators’ professional capacities and (2) improving organizations’ capacities (school and district improvement). These findings match up well with the ways school districts in Ohio actually use coaching.

But the picture gets a bit more complex, given the roles that are usually coached: teachers (instructional coaching) and principals (leadership coaching). And it gets even more complex when certain reform assumptions are understood as necessary to improvement. Those assumptions pertain to the need to cultivate open and collaborative school and district cultures—an important assumption on which the Ohio Improvement Process (OIP) depends.

At this level of complexity (individual and organizational purposes combined with the challenges of cultural change), coaching takes on a distinctly political tone (see, e.g., Coburn & Woulfin, 2012; Huguet, Marsh, & Farrell, 2014). For example, coaching efforts that help teachers and administrators make effective use of inclusive, equitable instructional and educational practices promotes systems change to address unfair power differentials in schools and society. In fact, all coaching on behalf of educational equity and improvement occupies this difficult territory all the time (see e.g., Pomerantz & Pierce, 2019; Robertson et al., 2020). It’s why the term "systems coaching" often applies to what coaching efforts try to accomplish.

Handling the inherent contradictions productively is a huge challenge for all sorts of school and district leaders (teacher-leaders, coaches, principals, supervisors, superintendents). What does this really mean? It's easier to get coaching efforts wrong than it is to get them right (Deussen et al., 2007; Knight, 2009; Showers & Joyce, 1996).

Which different kinds of coaching to "get right," and in what ways, continues to receive a lot of research attention (see, e.g., Elish-Piper & L’Allier, 2011; Ermling, Tatsui, & Youhg, 2015; Huguet et al., 2014; Kraft & Blazer, 2018; Reddy, Dudek, & Lekwa, 2017; Robertson et al., 2020). The professional literature has reached a consensus, though at a fairly abstract level—and again the conclusions aren’t surprising. The consensus is that (1) purposes need to be clear (is the focus of coaching individual performance or organizational performance?) and (2) roles need to be clear (what are the leadership roles of principals, coaches, and teachers?). Those are critical points, but perhaps even more critical is the partnership of principals and coaches (see, e.g., Matsumura & Wang, 2014). And there’s more. Both principals and coaches need to cultivate the trust of teachers.

Needless to say, these prerequisites for good coaching don’t characterize all or even most schools, and they are difficult to attain in schools and districts judged most in need of improvement. In other words, the context in which coaching takes place exerts a strong influence on the chances that any sort of coaching will succeed (see e.g., Huguet et al., 2014; Mangin & Dunsmore, 2015; Robertson et al., 2020). And, obviously, poor implementation also undermines the prospects for changes in practice (Blazer & Kraft, 2015).

Beyond this level of abstraction, however, sharp differences in the translation of research to practice prevail. For instance, most conceptions of the coaching role commend feedback as a coaching function, but Showers and Joyce (1996) reported that they eliminated feedback from their model as counterproductive. Of course, theirs is a peer-coaching model (one of the oldest, though not necessarily one of the best-funded). Whatever the model, though, both researchers and practitioners who write about coaching agree that coaches themselves need professional development and that the best professional development includes coaching or mentoring (Howley, Dudek, Rittenberg, & Larson, 2014).