Study examines whether students benefit from math instructional coaching program

Elementary Pupils Counting With Teacher In ClassroomDeploying an instructional coaching program in a school requires a great deal of skill and finesse. Many administrators are all too familiar with the delicate politics and maneuvering that surround efforts to motivate teachers to make changes in their classrooms.

Are these efforts worth it? Beyond creating professional development opportunities for the more receptive teachers, are students benefitting from these programs? Do mathematics coaches really work to improve student performance in the elementary grades?

Yes, say 2 University of Maryland researchers who conducted a 3-year study on the effects of math coaching on the state math assessment scores of 24,759 Grade 3-5 students in 36 Virginia schools.

Benefits are not necessarily evident in the first year of a coaching program. But over time, the 3-year randomized control study found that coaches positively affected student achievement in grades 3, 4, and 5.

“Over a 3-year period, the students in this study who were enrolled in schools with an elementary mathematics coach had significantly higher scores on their state’s high-stakes standardized mathematics achievement tests (grades 3-5) than did students in the control schools,” the researchers write in The Elementary School Journal.

While significant for all 3 grades, the impact was stronger in grades 4 and 5, probably because of the increased abstraction of the upper elementary math curriculum, the researchers write.

Interestingly, researchers found no difference in effectiveness between teachers with master’s degrees and teachers without an advanced degree.

The study employed a control-treatment design with 12 “triples” of similar schools. Triples consisted of 2 experimental schools and 1 control school. One school had a 3-year coaching placement, a 1-year coaching placement and one served as the control.

Each of the matched schools in a triple were within a single district, with no school having had an elementary math coach in the past. A total of 5 school districts participated.

Coaches were randomly assigned to the experimental schools in each triple. Coaches completed 5 mathematics content courses and one leadership coaching course prior to placement as well as a second leadership coaching course during their first year of service as a coach.

Roles of math coaches

About half of the coaches (12), were placed in schools in the last year of the study so that researchers could measure the effects of a single year of coaching on students’ test scores.

The math coaches in Virginia were expected to play the following roles:

  • Assist administrative and instructional staff in interpreting data and design approaches to improve student achieve- ment and instruction
  • Ensure that the school curriculum is aligned with state and national standards and their school division’s math curriculum
  • Promote teachers’ delivery and under standing of the school curriculum through collaborative long-range and short-range planning
  • Facilitate teachers’ use of successful, research-based instructional strategies including differentiated instruction for diverse learners such as those with limit- ed English proficiency or disabilities
  • Work with parents/guardians and com- munity leaders to foster continuing home/school/community partnerships focused on students’ learning of mathematics
  • Collaborate with administrators to pro- vide leadership and vision for a school wide math program.

Coaches detailed the percentage of time spent on each of their daily activities using a data-collection-transmittal program operating on a personal digital assistant (Dell Axim X50; PDA). Instructional Specialist Activity Manager (ISAM) is a menu-oriented entry interface that allows coaches to log their daily activities.

Researchers analyzed the performance of students from the 36 schools on Virginia’s high-stakes assessment, Standards of Learning Assessment (SOL). While controlling for student-level prior achievement was not possible, 2 school-level measures were included, low academic tradition and high academic tradition.

School districts were paid an allotment of $25,000 per coach per year in order to offset the cost of replacement classroom teachers.

Many schools are using their Title I funds to finance mathematics coaches. Rural districts are using math coaches to provide professional development for small populations of teachers spread over large geographical areas. In urban areas, districts are using mathematics coaches to try to advance test scores.

The results of this study provide evidence that a well-designed and implemented math coaching program can indeed produce measurable increases in student learning.

“The Impact of Elementary Mathematics Coaches on Student Achievement,” The Elementary School Journal, Volume 111, Number 3, 2011, pp. 430-454.

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