Can Coaching End The Achievement Plateau?
2/n: It's for tennis superstars. Should it be for teachers, too?
One of my favorite TikTok follows is @patrickmourtoglou, the former coach of tennis superstar Serena Williams. His short videos show the power of coaching: his simple cues and instruction yield immediate improvements (thanks to the power of video editing). Private lessons at his spectacular academy in the French Riviera cost $160/hour. It makes sense that elite athletes and top-level surgeons might want a coach to reach the pinnacle of their profession. Perhaps more importantly, they’re also in a position to afford it.
This is quite different from how instructional coaches are most often used in school districts. Often, the basic premise of instructional coaching is that many teachers aren’t good enough at their craft and need coaches to get better. Novice teachers are the majority recipients of instructional coaching, followed by teachers who earn poor ratings and need to improve to maintain their job. Essentially, we use instructional coaching to move teachers from “unsatisfactory to proficient.”
There’s little doubt that a good coach can improve teacher practice — plenty of studies verify that. In a 2018 meta analysis, researchers found that, “With coaching, the quality of teachers’ instruction improves by as much as—or more than—the difference in effectiveness between a novice and a teacher with five to 10 years of experience, a more positive estimated effect than traditional PD and most other school-based interventions.”
Those researchers also found, interestingly enough, that even though coaching improves teacher practice, it doesn’t always yield great gains in student achievement. Why? The authors suggest that teaching, as I’ve written before, has a somewhat limited impact on student achievement compared to other, non-school factors. Interesting.
Even so, we should still want well-trained, competent, high-quality teachers in every classroom to maximize the effect teachers do have. But is providing 1:1 instructional coaching the best approach to move teachers from not good to proficient?
A study from 2012 found that instructional coaching costs anywhere from $3,260 to $5,220 per teacher — a figure that is 6 - 12 times the cost of traditional professional development approaches, like whole-group workshops.
Some time in the early 90s I got into tennis. My grandmother would drop my friend Dan and I off at Torresdale playground on her way to work at the water ice store. Along with a few dozen other kids, we’d do drills, play matches, and whack tennis balls over the fence for a few hours until our coach drove us home in his Lincoln Mark VII. Over the course of two summers, I went from an uncoordinated hack to proficient enough to play some varsity tennis in high school. That program, the Arthur Ashe tennis program, stills runs today — and costs just $300 for 13 weeks of 90-minute classes — a bargain when compared to 1:1 coaching from Mourtoglou’s academy.
The Inquirer just published a report showing a dramatic decline in teachers entering the profession. Most concerning: in 2021, more teachers entered the profession on an emergency permit than having completed a teacher certification program. While I’m all for eliminating unnecessary red tape for new applicants, we now have a conundrum: lots of new, untrained teachers who will surely need a lot of support, and who will likely get it in the most expensive form — 1:1 coaching.
Consider also that as we’ve doubled the number of coaches supporting teachers in the last two decades, teachers also feel less and less supported, with record numbers considering leaving the profession.
When we choose to provide students individualized instruction, we first have to make sure we’re doing everything possible to support them during whole-group classroom instruction. We’ve learned that rushing to provide individualized interventions to lots of students sometimes means we need to turn our attention towards poor practices in whole group instruction.
Shouldn’t we be doing the same when it comes to preparing teachers to be proficient on their first day in the classroom?
There’s no doubt that coaching can help improve teacher practice — but what is its true opportunity cost? In the world of limited education resources, when we spend ever-increasing amounts on coaching teachers, what are we giving up?
Finally, I know I haven’t published as regularly in the last few weeks. The end of the school year is upon me and I haven’t found as much time to type out coherent thoughts here. I promise that will change after the year ends next week!
In the meantime, thanks for reading — and have a great week.