Coaching Makes the Difference in Professional Development

By Scott Sterling

A recent study by TNTP, formerly The New Teacher Project, was covered by the Wall Street Journal and others under a headline that teacher professional development is, as a whole, ineffective. But if you dig deeper into the study, you can see that there are research-based findings that concerted, intensive professional development—including long-term coaching—has a positive effect on student achievement. It is, in fact, the quick-hitting “sit-and-get” form of professional development that has not demonstrated value.

That shouldn’t come as news to anyone. That kind of haphazard spending of professional development dollars and educators’ time is trying to find a magic bullet for student achievement. To truly affect teacher growth, professional development needs to be personalized to the needs of the students and teachers and should be an ongoing process toward improvement.

Think about it like this. What if a football coach’s approach was only to give a rah-rah speech before the game, without instructing his players on the intricacies of the sport and game planning for the upcoming opponent? How successful do you think that football team would be? Sit-and-get professional development is usually no more than a rah-rah speech, but the stakes are much greater than a few touchdowns.

Effective professional development has some common denominators that need to be considered:

Should align with school and district goals

Education is not one-size-fits-all. Every school and district is different. Any effort to improve the craft of teachers needs to take those unique traits into account before moving past the planning phase. The effort needs to take a long-term, systematic approach.

Those goals should be measurable

It does everyone a disservice to spend resources without knowing if you are achieving desired results. Metrics should be identified in the planning stage and monitored throughout the process. If necessary, a change of course should be undertaken in order to reach the goals. The bottom line: teachers should be able to show demonstrable improvement in their craft and students should be able to show demonstrable improvement in their skills.

Coaching should take precedence

A study from Joyce and Showers showed that when teaching staff development is limited to a discussion of theory, only 10% of the participants actually gain the knowledge. 5% actually gain confidence in the skill. But none of them implement the skill in the classroom. In contrast, when peer coaching and collegial support play a role in development, 95% of teachers gain the knowledge and skills. Most importantly, 95% also implement the skills in the classroom. That’s a huge disparity!

As in the football analogy, the coach’s role cannot be compressed into a short period of time. It’s a systematic method that occurs over weeks, months, and even years. But when done correctly, mastery is achieved. Improving teachers is no different. Support needs to be available on a consistent basis throughout the program. Only then will you see student achievement.

No one would argue that America’s teachers do not deserve the best tools in order to reach their full potential. But those tools aren’t found or implemented overnight.