How coaching is narrowing achievement gaps in South Carolina

High-poverty schools accounted for most of the Greenville County schools that were not meeting expectations
By: | October 16, 2020
Greenville County Schools instructional specialists work closely with teachers over a two- to three-year to develop more student-centered instruction and close achievement gaps.Greenville County Schools instructional specialists work closely with teachers over a two- to three-year to develop more student-centered instruction and close achievement gaps.

Simply improving third-grade math scores is not a sufficient goal for Superintendent Burke Royster and his team in Greenville County Schools in South Carolina.

Greenville’s administrators take a far more targetted approach to school improvement through their “Focused School Support” professional development and teaching coaching initiative.

“Focused School Support” launched in 2017, is this month’s District Administration Districts of Distinction winner.

“We’re not just saying we need to improve eighth-grade math or third-grade ELA,” Royster says. “We’re targetting within the subject, within the grade level, down to the teacher’s classroom. We might have five teachers in a subject at a certain grade level, and some  are doing a stellar job while some are not.”

More from DA: How to provide mental health care before students start school

The purpose of the program is to help teachers improve their craft, not move them out of the district, says Royster and Assistant Superintendent Jeff McCoy, who oversees the program.

“Our whole goal is not to get rid of teachers,” McCoy says. “Our whole goal is to get teachers to be the best they can be.”

‘No one feels singled out’

Administrators first took action when they determined that—based on test scores—high-poverty, Title I buildings accounted for most of the district’s schools that were not performing as expected.

“We had particular schools where we were not making the progress we needed to make,” Royster says. “Although we certainly believe in the value of autonomy at the school level, in some places that autonomy was not working for us in moving students in achievement gap populations forward.”

More from DA: How solving real-world PBL problems energizes students

The key to the program is that, once a school is identified as needing support, a full team of instructional coaches begin a two- to three-year intervention initiative in the building.

The support is multi-tiered and targeted and designed to develop teacher and administrator capacity. The team holds monthly meetings with building leadership, instructional coaches and district academic specialists.

The team reviews data and then conducts ongoing instructional rounds and modeling, classroom observations and multi-week coaching cycles for teachers.

“When everyone is working to get better, no one feels singled out,” McCoy says.

To generate buy-in, administrators start work with teachers who are most eager to participate and willing to receive coaches. Those teachers then become the program biggest advocates, telling their colleagues how much they’ve learned in engaging students, McCoy says.

‘Better than test scores’

Building capacity is critical during a time when most of the nation is experiencing a teacher shortage. And Greenville’s educators are now seeing results in the schools that have participated in the program.

Greenville County Schools

  • District size: Approximately 76,000 students
  • Superintendent: Burke Royster
  • Initiative launched: 2017-18

“When a Title I school begins to believe they can’t achieve at the same level and then they begin to grow 10, 20, 30 percentage points on state assessments,” McCoy says. “when that happens, the staff is motivated to stick with the process.”

This shift in mindset leads to teachers setting higher expectations for their students, he says.

“Several schools have exited the Focus School initiative and continued to post gains, showing that sustainability is possible if districts focus on building instructional leadership capacity among all stakeholders, rather than relying on monitoring and correction alone,” he says.

More from DA: How CTE soars on Wichita high schools’ aviation pathway

To replicate the program, other district leaders should on high-quality support over accountability. While difficult conversations may be necessary, a collaborative culture can be built around student-centered solutions.

Because senior leadership in schools on a regular basis, it builds relationships between central office personnel and school-based educators.

“We want all of our students to graduate with college credits, an industry certification, or both,” Royster says. “That’s better than any test score to show students are college or career ready.”