Increase Student Achievement Through Building Sustainable Professional Development Structures

Increase Student Achievement Through Building Sustainable Professional Development Structures

We use the following question to develop a laser-like focus on our work: To what extent would our coaching work exist next year if we were not there to support it? We believe this question helped us to work smarter, and with a sense of urgency that was not there for my prior coaching experiences. We really feel like our time and resources are limited, so we are constantly encouraging each other to make our work meaningful and sustainable. This means not doing all of the presenting and facilitating but using the gradual release of responsibility to support teachers to become professional development leaders.


Professional Development Core Principles:


–           Support specific, measurable goals

–           Partner with Principals, School Leadership Teams and Teachers

–           Use “Agreements” to set expectations and outcomes for work

–           Build capacity with a sense of urgency

–           Use multiple measures to determine effectiveness of work including student achievement data

–           Embed coaching regarding effective teaching and learning

–           Use consistent tools and processes grounded in research and data to plan, manage, and accelerate teacher effectiveness

–           Use immediate reflection and feedback


The Core Beliefs


If we believe that teachers are the most important lever in improving student achievement, then:

–           Teacher improvement leads to improved student achievement.

–           We work primarily in schools, with teachers.

–           That everyone is able to grow/improve and needs to be respected/given choice.

–           Teachers’ instructional practices must focus on student learning and intended results.


Coaching Processes


–           Professional Learning Communities

–           Data Teams

–           One-on-one Coaching (Cognitive Coaching and Content-Focused Coaching)

–           Just in Time Coaching (Using No-Nonsense Nurturing)

–           Video analysis

–           Learning Labs

–           School/class visits (“pockets of excellence”)

–           Book studies (Teach Like a Champion, Tovani)

–           Modeling (Co-teaching)


Problem Statement


First, we need to look at the student achievement data to determine gaps. Then we need the skills to engage the school leadership teams in difficult conversations such as re-aligning the schedule to serve students not teachers; or to serve the special education students well without alienating them through tracks.


To what extent can school coaches use difficult conversations to move a school forward? What are the greatest leverage points for underperforming schools to make student achievement gains?


The importance of this focus could re-ignite the interest in coaching initiatives state-wide. We have seen many coaching initiatives go away because of poor implementation and the failure to show the direct effect on student achievement. These programs went away because the Administration had lost faith in coaching as a professional development tool to move a school and district forward. There is much research that shows coaching is the best means to help teachers grow in their profession.


The prior research that we used primarily is the coaching books that reveal best practices including Blended Coaching, Masterful Coaching, and Literacy Coaching. From this research we concluded that we must start where the schools are. We must start with their students’ data and the school’s Unified Improvement Plans. We would lose credibility if we came in with mandates or advice. Cognitive Coaching helped us to use questioning strategies to influence teachers and leaders toward achieving their own goals.


We also looked at prior successful coaching initiatives. From them, we learned of the importance of team coaching. We learned that we can make greater impacts if we worked with teams to help them become high-performing; then we can coach teachers who share a common goal. This makes them more able to use each other as resources when the coach is not there; which is part of our mission to help teachers (and teams of teachers) to become more independent.


Most coaching initiatives end because of the lack of money; but if results are clearly shown then the cost is justified. Most coaching initiatives never made the clear connection between the work and the growth of student achievement. We are determined to show the correlation more clearly than any other coaching initiative. There is no literature that shows how coaching initiatives can help schools and districts build capacity in order to sustain their own work on professional development and coaching.


Problem Statement


–           To what extent can school coaches use different conversations to move a school forward?

–           What are the greatest leverage points for underperforming schools to make student achievement gains?


As district-level coaches we have “no teeth,” no accountability over principals or teachers. All we can do is coach, influence and “nudge.” Once we look at the data and agree as at school team what we need to do, there is still reluctance to make change happen. This is when our nudging techniques come in handy.


We determined that the difficult conversations were not the starting point or the end-goal, but rather a technique or strategy to employ once the coach realized that we needed to focus on a greatest leverage-point. We then revised our goals to focus on how to determine the greatest leverage point rather than just having difficult conversations. This was the real turning point for our team that made our work have more impact. Our own professional development focused more on how to discuss what matters most for schools.


Greatest Leverage Points


If we are going to make a difference we are going to have to challenge people’s beliefs. Hard questions to school leadership teams were our goal. “What are kids capable of accomplishing?  Who says our kids can’t do it? Show me how you know the students got it?  Why are all the Special Education students grouped together for most of the day? How is this curriculum culturally relevant to your students? How are you supporting your second language learners? Is this activity rigorous enough; how can we make it more rigorous?”


Professional Development


There was much professional development that I planned and delivered in order to focus on and implement the work on difficult conversations and greatest leverage points. This year, we have expanded to include work on monitoring the progress of those goals through indicated “milestones.”


Finally, we used a lot of coaching on each other’s work, helping to make each other’s Agreements and coaching work refined. We took time to audit our school’s systems in order to look for the places of greatest impact. For instance, the audit showed that some schools didn’t even have sufficient collaboration time among teachers who shared the same students or discipline of study. Other audits showed the processes that were in place so we then looked to discern the effectiveness of those systems.




We used principal and leadership surveys to determine the perception of the effectiveness of the work in the schools. We also looked at some student-achievement data, but since this coaching initiative is only a year old, we did not have longitudinal data to determine our overall effectiveness. This year we will look at median growth percentile to look at the specific students in teacher classrooms and compare their growth from last year. We also interviewed the coaches in their end-of-the-year review, asking them how they felt our supported them to have difficult conversations and to focus on the greatest leverage points in their schools.


Data Analysis


The data that we collected showed that principals overwhelmingly felt that the coaches work was “very helpful” (78%) in helping them to develop professional development structures. Principals also said that coaches had a positive or somewhat positive impact on instruction (96%). Principals believed that coaches supported their leadership team (85%) in an effective way and that they supported the Teacher Leaders (76%) effectively, too.  Teacher Leaders were one of our main strategies to support schools to build capacity for them to plan and implement their own effective professional development. Certainly, this success isn’t overwhelming and there should be more conversations from senior leadership on how to best support our schools given the support of the coaches.


Examples of Difficult Conversations from Participating Schools


School #1 – Support principal being an instructional leader; Set up a time to meet with the topic of working well together

School #2 – Scheduling; tracking; Wilson, no English class

School #3 – Transition to one school; principals to work collaboratively

School #4 – Schedule and packets; observations of whole class instruction vs. never happens because they are doing packets

School #5 – Addressing the need for higher accountability and collaboration;  Defensiveness of getting scores up this year – conflict because if their instruction changes then if could take a few years

School #6 – Document examples of not working collaboratively, i.e. preparing for meeting; Follow-through with initiatives

School #7 – Special Education needs; intervention/instructional strategies

School #8 – Directors need to sit down with principals to make the role clear this summer;  principal and coaches working together

School #9 – Accountability of teachers; principal to come to data teams; have teachers try new strategies; Debrief with principal after a debrief; Coaching is an opportunity and principal needs to sells it

School #10 – High honors need to go deeper instead of faster; No low group labeled

School #11 – Showing data to talk about where their students are; and that the majority of students are not understanding material. Teachers feeling pressure to pass students; increasing rationale for rewriting curriculum and assessments; administrations have allowed teams to deviate from the curriculum in order to serve their students’ needs best


A Synthesis of Our Learning


There were many things we learned from the focus on difficult conversations that will help a schools focus on their greatest leverage points. There were many things the coaches learned such as:

–           Seek to listen, understand, and empathize first

–           Be direct and honest, but humble

–           Use Instructional Coaching planning and reflective maps to ask important questions

–           Use team for support and planning; stronger together

–           “Confront the brutal facts.”

–           Data at the table; not a subjective opinion

–           Believe that the “right person is on the bus” when working with a school and its faculty


Next Steps


For our next steps, we are continuing to focus on transformative conversations; that is, difficult one’s that help schools to focus on what is essential to have a positive impact on student achievement. One thing we learned from interviewing the coaches at the end of the year was to clarify the role for principals over the summer and that has made an incredible difference in targeting the work of the coaches. We started the year off in leadership roles at schools versus last year when we needed to start the year cautiously, asking questions and listening.


Jeff C. Palmer is a teacher, success coach, trainer, Certified Master of Web Copywriting and founder of Jeff is a prolific writer, Senior Research Associate and Infopreneur having written many eBooks, articles and special reports.



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