Instructional coaching holds promise as a method to improve teachers’ impact

A teacher
Editor's note:

This post previously reported that schools spend between 74 and 181 million dollars per year on professional development programs to improve teacher quality; this value range represents 6 to 9 percent of the operating budgets of the school districts participating in the study that produced the cost estimates.

Providing students access to a high-quality education begins first and foremost with an effective teacher in every classroom. To move closer toward ensuring all classrooms have a quality educator, state and federal governments have invested in professional development (PD) programs, typically including workshops and presentations given to teachers to further their skills and content knowledge. Yet, the “typical” PD program is often too generic to meet teachers’ needs, leaving room for improvement and rarely showing impacts on student outcomes.

In the U.S., school districts spend an estimated 6 to 9 percent of their annual operating budgets on professional development programs to improve teacher quality. Researchers have found no significant improvements in teacher instruction from year to year, and teachers continuously complain that these programs fail to fit their needs.

To personalize professional development, many school districts have started to hire instructional coaches for their teachers. Instructional coaches help educators and administrators develop expertise in academic content standards by, for example, “helping districts coordinate textbook adoption, developing curricula, and providing professional development and mentoring to teachers.” Accelerated by federal education policy like No Child Left Behind, the staffing rate of these coaches doubled from 2000 to 2015. In this post, I explore the current evidence on the effects of instructional coaches on teacher instruction, student achievement, and other student outcomes.

Instructional coaching versus traditional professional development

The most common form of professional development is the “workshop.” Teachers attend these sessions at scheduled times—often after school, on the weekend, or during the summer—that are led by leaders with special expertise. Institutes, courses, and conferences are other forms of professional development that share many features of workshops. Michael Garet and co-authors suggest that the traditional workshop form of professional development struggles to produce meaningful change in teacher practice because workshops are often too general in content or do not offer active learning opportunities—the preferred method for adults and teachers to practice before going back to the daily grind.

In contrast, instructional coaching occurs during the process of classroom instruction or regularly scheduled planning time. Instead of presenting a general workshop, instructional coaches observe teachers in their classroom, provide feedback, and engage in meaningful discussion with teachers about their lessons. Sarah Galey, a researcher at Michigan State University focusing on instructional coaching, states that coaches also provide support when teachers plan lessons and can facilitate teachers’ learning by organizing peer groups where teachers can share and discuss lesson plans and classroom management strategies with other teachers. According to Garet et al, professional development programs like instructional coaching are more effective than the traditional PD workshop model because they are integrated in a teachers’ day-to-day activities at the school and respond better to the active way teachers learn best.

There is currently no standard model or definition of an instructional coach’s role or licensure requirements across programs or states. Looking across studies by Kowal & Steiner and Sailors & Price, instructional coaching models vary in purpose and practice because many were designed to meet local needs using available resources. Coaching models differ in who they prefer to hire (excellent teachers within the school who serve as mentors versus outside consultants brought in to institute reform); the strategy of the coaching (whether the coach relies on joint inquiry or assumes the role of an “expert” directing teachers); and in the focus of the program (whether the program focuses on approach and content or improving professional culture among the faculty).

Across instructional coaching studies by Jim Knight and Galey, there is consensus that instructional coaches need to combine teaching and content expertise with strong interpersonal and organizational abilities as coaches attempt to improve teachers’ practice while navigating complex relationships between policy mandates, school administrators, and wary teachers.

Promising evaluations of instructional coaching

While schools hire more and more instructional coaches, critics have pointed out that the dramatic growth of non-teaching personnel has not resulted in improved graduation rates or test scores. They argue that this massive amount of money could be more effectively used elsewhere.

Despite the criticism of “top-heavy” schools, however, evaluations of instructional coaching programs show that coaching can create meaningful change in teachers’ instruction in reading, science, and math. In fact, Kraft, Blazar, and Hogan’s recent meta-analysis of 60 instructional coaching evaluations found large, positive effects of coaching on instructional practice (0.49 standard deviations).

The paper found, however, that coaching has a more limited effect when it comes to student achievement (0.18 standard deviations). They interpret the evidence to suggest a much weaker relationship between instructional inputs and achievement outputs. Some prior studies suggest that coaching improves areas of instruction, such as the richness of concepts taught and eliciting student thinking and participation that ultimately appear unrelated to student achievement.

Instructional coaching’s positive effects appear to extend beyond student achievement. Qualitative evaluations of instructional coaching conclude that coaches can play an important role in the implementation of instructional reform by helping teachers connect faraway, standards-based policy with their day-to-day teaching strategies. In addition, research shows that instructional coaching may help close the racial discipline gap and ensure equitable treatment for students. Anne Gregory’s recent study found that instructional coaching successfully closed the racial discipline gap by helping teachers incorporate higher-level thinking and hypothesis generation into their lesson plans. As a result, all students were more engaged and the coached teachers no longer referred black students for disciplinary action at a higher rate than their non-black peers.

Instructional coaching moving forward

Although evidence on instructional coaching suggests it is more effective than the traditional “workshop” PD model in improving instructional practice, there are several factors to consider moving forward. First of all, these programs need to be cost effective. Many of the current instructional coaching programs are small scale and very expensive to implement.

While it is unclear whether these programs could continue to make an impact when brought to scale, creative tools like the use of technology could help deliver this coaching in a low-cost, flexible manner to a larger group of teachers. A recent intervention used video recording, playback, and video conferencing to deliver coaching sessions to science teachers in rural middle and high schools. The use of technology provided maximum flexibility to teachers, while also allowing instructional coaches to help multiple teachers at once in a cost-effective manner.

When determining the feasibility of technology-based interventions, however, policymakers must keep in mind that there are significant differences in how well disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged schools provide the resources and support for teachers to incorporate digital tools in the classroom. Policymakers must overcome this “digital divide” in schools to ensure that technology-based instructional coaching programs meet their full potential.

Since school districts are already making huge investments in professional development (as noted above), perhaps policymakers and district leaders can repurpose and redistribute funding toward innovative and cost-effective programs like technology-driven instructional coaching to maximize their investment’s impact on instructional quality.

Secondly, according to Galey and Knight, instructional coaches, school administrators, and policymakers across the country need to work together to standardize and develop a clear and comprehensive definition for the role of an instructional coach. Their research found that coaches report operating best when their role is well defined, and the current lack of a clear and shared definition creates tension for coaches and causes co-workers to underappreciate an instructional coach’s work. In order for instructional coaches to meet their full potential, they ultimately need a clear and standardized definition of their role in schools.


A number of studies have documented both the importance of having an experienced teacher leading a classroom and the extent of unequal access to quality teachers. Promoting higher quality instruction could potentially impact the least-advantaged students the most.

Helping teachers become more effective in the classroom has been a federal and state priority for the last 10 years, and instructional coaching can play an important role in this effort. By providing more personalized support to teachers, coaching can improve the classroom instruction students receive and can ultimately ensure that more students are taught by effective teachers and benefit from a high-quality education.

Hana Dai contributed to this post.