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WASHINGTON — Former teacher Lauren Castillo sat in the back of a first-grade classroom at Truesdell Education Campus watching Sarah White’s morning lesson slowly fall apart. The students, many of whom speak a language other than English at home, were struggling to make an outline for a paragraph that would answer the question, “Why is it important to save money to meet your needs?”
Castillo jumped in when it became clear that even White’s keenest kids were totally lost, but still, by lunch, none of the first-graders had come up with a concluding sentence for their nascent paragraphs.
Both Castillo and White, who planned the lesson together, knew that it was going to be challenging for the five-year-olds, but the lesson was on par with what White is expected to do under the Common Core educational standards, a set of grade-level expectations in English and Math adopted by more than 40 states and the District of Columbia.
Diane Sweeney, a consultant who works to improve teacher coaching programs, said many districts are revamping their programs as they put into place new curriculums aligned to the Common Core and ask teachers to make big changes to how they teach — such as focusing on a conceptual understanding of mathematical principles, reading more nonfiction and having students write essays using evidence from texts.
In Washington, the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) is hoping for even more from its coaching program. Having retained the controversial reforms put in place by former superintendent Michelle Rhee, such as using test scores to rate teachers and as grounds to fire the lowest-performers, DCPS is counting on a cadre of educators like Castillo, not only to help make the transition to Common Core, but also to transform the city’s long-struggling public schools. These instructional coaches are tasked with observing teachers’ classes, helping them plan lessons and — particularly for newer teachers — helping them become more comfortable in front of a classroom. In turn, DCPS evaluates coaches, in part, through whether the teachers’ students improve.
Related: Will weak teacher training ruin the Common Core?
In spring 2011, as they prepared to roll out Common Core that fall, DCPS administrators took a closer look at the support they were giving their teachers and decided to revamp the District’s coaching program. The new program strictly outlines the coach’s role in a school building, largely taking that power out of the hands of principals. The new program mandates that 75 percent of a coach’s time is working with teachers on their instruction, 5 percent is spent working with teachers on improving their data analysis skills, and another 5 percent is spent in trainings. That leaves just 15 percent up to the principal’s discretion.
Several districts, including the Las Vegas-area Clark County School District are tightening their coaching models in this way, Sweeney says.
“It’s exploding, there’s demand across all types of school systems,” said Sweeney. “Affluent districts, charter schools and urban districts are all looking to get more out of their coaching programs.”
Improving the quality of teachers has long been a priority for DCPS. But a recent report, commissioned by the District, found that seven years after Rhee’s reforms were put into place, poor and minority students are still far less likely than their affluent peers to be taught by an effective teacher.
The U.S. Department of Education has asked each state and the District of Columbia to submit teacher equity plans that identify gaps in teacher quality between schools and come up with strategies to address them. The District’s plan, submitted last month, identifies teacher coaching as one of the ways it will address the gap.
Brian Pick, the District’s chief of teaching and learning, said that he couldn’t imagine transitioning all of the District’s 111 schools to the Common Core without the 107 teacher coaches.
Related: For teachers of English learners, Common Core means double the work
“In the past, schools have tried a lot of things to improve teacher practice, but really the only way to get that change is teachers working with peers who have seen their lesson and will work with them on their next lesson,” said Pick. “You can send teachers to graduate school or to professional development sessions, but this is really the only way you can improve their teaching.”
For many teachers, their primary exposure to how to teach to the Common Core is coming from short workshops in which experts describe a new skill or technique. After the workshops, the teachers are expected to go back to their classrooms and put what they’ve learned into practice.
But that’s easier said than done. Proponents of coaching often cite the work of Bruce Joyce and Beverley Showers. The pair, who have been studying teacher training for decades, found that participation in workshops alone translates to classroom changes only 10 percent of the time. But when teachers have someone, be it a coach or another teacher, come to their class to watch them try out what they’ve learned and give them feedback, that rate surpasses 90 percent.
Joyce and Showers’ work landed on the long reading list that Maggie Slye drafted after being tapped to retool Washington’s coaching program.
Slye, who has since become vice principal at Tubman Elementary School in the Columbia Heights neighborhood of the city, says that with Common Core coming, the District wanted to get more “bang for our buck.”
Related: Tennessee’s wavering over the Common Core discourages new teachers
In 2011, Slye devised the new coaching program around a few core principles she saw as essential to good teacher training: It should be provided by an expert who knows what good teaching looks like, it should be ongoing so that a teacher gets training multiple times, and it should be tailored to each teacher’s needs.
While the specifics look different at every school, each coach typically works with eight to 10 teachers for six-week periods. The cycles start with a teacher and coach coming up with specific goals and plans. The coach then spends the next six weeks sitting in on the teacher’s classes, discussing what worked and didn’t work, and then helping the teacher plan his or her next lesson. How much one-on-one coaching a coach does varies greatly by school and teacher. In some cases, a coach is visiting a teacher’s class multiple times a week, while in some schools, coaches are doing more group sessions with sets of teachers.
“Every time a coach is working with a teacher, there is a plan,” said Tovah Koplow, director of instructional coaching at DCPS. “Let’s say we want Melissa’s students to be able to answer text-dependent questions. We would plan questions together. We would start tracking on day one, ‘here’s the types of answers students gave in week one.’ In week six, they are using evidence and connecting Homer’s ‘Odyssey’ to something else that they’ve read.”
At Truesdell, when White and Castillo sat down to debrief the paragraph lesson, Castillo started with the positives. She commended White for taking a risk with such a tough lesson, and for maintaining positivity. White offered up what she thought went well — including her students recalling facts from a reading about wolves from months earlier — but quickly turned to where she thought the lesson went awry, namely how her students struggled to write topic and concluding sentences. Castillo then offered an additional weakness — only about a fifth of White’s students were volunteering to speak in class, and asked White how she thought she could fix that. White said that she could walk through more examples for her students, while Castillo suggested that maybe White could plan less ambitious lessons in the future — for example, just on topic sentences or on concluding sentences.
Throughout the conversation, instead of directly telling White what she should have done, Castillo discussed strategies she had used as a teacher when she faced similar challenges.
Castillo told White about how she would bring dice to class and rolling them to determine which student would answer in an effort to get more kids to participate. “That way, you turn it into a game, they get excited,” Castillo said.
When hiring coaches, Koplow said that she is looking for more than just Common Core math and reading experts. A coach must not only be able to work well with adults but also must be what Koplow calls a reflective practitioner, a person who sees that they, as a coach, also have room to grow.
Related: Can the new tests quell teacher anger over Common Core?
“It won’t work if I’m coaching someone but saying, ‘I’m perfect,’” said Koplow, who spent two years as a literacy coach in Boston. “That’s a mindset thing, that’s not something that is easy to train.”
White, at Truesdell, agreed that for the coaching model to work, coaches must build relationships with the teachers with whom they are working.
“Teaching is such a personal profession,” said White. “A teacher has a style and a relationship with their kids. It’s important that the coaches are nonjudgmental. No one is giving you a score, so you aren’t defensive. Lauren and I have a personal relationship, that’s why it’s really comfortable.”
Another fan of the coaching program, Eric Bethel, a first-year principal tapped to turn around long-ailing Turner Elementary School in the city’s Anacostia neighborhood, thinks that coaches are particularly important at schools like his.
“The big truth is that 79 percent of our kindergartners are already far below grade level,” said Bethel. “We need great teachers here, but everyone in education knows great teachers aren’t born. As principal, I’m very focused on instruction, but for me priority one this year is school culture. Everyone from parents to teachers to students said what they wanted most was a safe school. I just don’t have the capacity to turn every teacher in this building into a great teacher, but that’s where the coaches come in.”
Steve Aupperle, the assistant principal at Truesdell, said that the program is particularly important in inner-city schools because of the high levels of teacher turnover they usually see.
“With teachers not staying in the profession as long, coaching becomes even more important,” said Aupperle, who formerly coached teachers at Truesdell. “We are asking these first-year teachers to do truly extraordinary things. We had one first-year teacher raise proficiency from 30 percent to 70 percent. That’s what great teaching and coaching can do.”
While White, a second-year teacher, understands why many teachers might be uncomfortable having a coach in their class, she says she couldn’t really imagine learning to teach any other way. “I don’t know what I would have done without a teaching mentor last year.”
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about Common Core.
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