Instructional coaches ease Common Core transition

Many districts that cut coaches during recession now bringing them back
By: | Issue: April, 2015
March 13, 2015

Districts in the midst of Common Core implementation are increasingly turning to instructional coaches to help teachers master the new skills needed.

Administrators say these coaches, whose positions were cut in many districts during the recession, are now a valuable investment for time-strapped principals working to ensure schools are transitioning smoothly to the new standards.

“People underestimate how complex implementation is,” says Jim Knight, director of the Kansas Coaching Project, a University of Kansas-based office that studies the role of instructional coaches in professional learning and improving academic outcomes. “It’s naive to think a teacher can learn a whole new set of teaching practices without seeing them done first, and with no support.”

There are no national statistics on the number of instructional coaches now in schools. But a number of large districts have reportedly hired more in recent years. For example, the District of Columbia Public Schools now has 113 coachesÑone for nearly every school. And Oakland USD has doubled the number of coaches, from about 25 to 50, in the past three years, according to published reports.

The “linchpin” of implementation

Sacramento City USD, a district of 43,000 students, has 12 math and 11 ELA coachesÑup from just four coaches in 2010-11. Each has a caseload of five to six schools. They help teachers plan lessons, and also do demonstration lessons, conduct observations and provide feedback.

“The coaches are the linchpin of our Common Core implementation,” says Iris Taylor, assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction at Sacramento City USD. “They’re able to touch more teachers than we would ever be able to and can see them more frequently to continue the work.”

Leadership teams, which include the coaches from each Sacramento City school, convene three times per year for ELA PD and four times per year for math PD. The coaches take the concepts covered at these meetings and put them into practice with classroom teachers.

For example, last school year, a main coaching focus was on teachers creating multiple ways for students to show understanding of academic concepts. The coach demonstrated strategies to get students to show their work in different ways. The teacher then used that work to help other students form an understanding of the concept being taught.

Sacramento City has so far added three additional coaches with an anonymous, four-year grant it received two years ago to expand math coaching. The district intends to keep the coaches after the grant has ended if the funds are available, Taylor says. The other coaches are paid with categorical funding.

Getting teachers to buy into new curriculum ideas is key to Common Core implementation, Knight says.

“Teachers have education and experience, and want to be part of the thinking,” Knight says. “The coach doesn’t replace the principal, but helps the principal be an instructional leader by doing things the principal doesn’t have time to do.”