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Coaching Sparks Change in Boston Schools

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In schools, as in business or government, accomplishing change is never easy. In 1996, Boston schools embarked on a rigorous, multi-year "whole-school change" initiative. All of Boston's public schools are now part of that change effort, which is driven by the learning needs of students in each school. Whole-school change, literacy, and math coaches have been deployed throughout the system to train and support Boston educators. Recently, Education World spoke with administrators, lead coaches, and a teacher for a close-up look at how this coaching approach is working in Boston.

Accomplishing whole-school change in Boston, Massachusetts, "has been harder than we thought it would be," Jim Kirk, principal of Ludwig van Beethoven Elementary School in the city's West Roxbury section, tells Education World. "But the coaching has really encouraged kids to be independent writers and readers. The model works very well when implemented properly.

"So much of whole-school change depends on the coach," Kirk adds. "Our coach really guides us through the process. For instance, she trains and then meets with the school's Instructional Leadership Team and facilitates it. She figures out how to communicate our school focus to teachers and parents. The community plays a huge part in school change here."

The Boston Public Schools (BPS) reform work that kindled the whole-school change coaching Kirk describes was rolled out over several years. One-quarter of all schools started each fall since September 1996. All 132 schools in the city have had at least one change or content coach since September 1999. Math coaches were added two years ago.

As an external partner, Boston Plan for Excellence (BPE) developed the reform model that was adopted by the district as the model for all schools. BPE is a local education foundation "whose mission is to be a catalyst and support for the city's school district in transforming instruction to improve the performance of every student," Mary Ann Cohen of BPE tells Education World. "As a partner with the school district, BPE has raised almost $40 million in private funds for the district's ten-year reform effort since 1996."

"At the heart of the reform effort," Cohen says, "is the recognition that teachers need high-quality, in-school professional development that is driven by their students' learning needs. That professional development must be collaborative and school-wide to build coherence; it must also reflect the school's instructional philosophy. At the same time, it must be linked to the district's instructional priorities." At the center of reform is the idea of students as proactive learners -- readers, writers, and mathematicians -- rather than simply recipients of learning from a teacher.

CHANGE COACHES LEAD THE WAY

Betsy Balmat, a lead whole-school change coach, functions as a catalyst for improvement at four schools, including Beethoven Elementary. "I work with other change coaches to set up professional development and also directly as a whole-school change coach myself," she tells Education World.

"My priority," Balmat says, "is to help build an internal structure within a school that allows for continual implementation of the school reform initiative. I work with groups of teachers as well as administrators to set up systems of shared leadership."

Whole-school change coaches work to bring about change in a variety of ways, Balmat explains. They work at

  • developing instructional leadership teams
  • creating and executing a whole-school improvement plan
  • setting up a system for teachers to look at student work
  • analyzing data.

At Beethoven, Jim Kirk credits Balmat with helping to energize and empower the school's faculty. "She gave what's called Looking at Student Work a whole new perspective -- [she trained us] how to use it to help individual children in Writers' Workshop. She trained the Instructional Leadership Team, then grade-level facilitators."

Balmat relates another successful on-the-job experience. "Last year, I began working with a middle school that had not established an Instructional Leadership Team. That meant that decisions about the instructional focus were being made by a small group of people, and the ownership for the work was not as high as it could have been.

"I spent time establishing basic meeting skills, shared decision making, and a system of communication among the entire staff," Balmat continues. "Now, after a year-and-a-half, the teachers are more actively involved with the implementation of the school's instructional focus.

"At other schools, the most effective work has been in Looking at Student Work (LASW). While teachers are implementing elements of Learning Across the Curriculum or Readers' and Writers' Workshop, they use the system of LASW to identify student concerns and refine classroom practices."

LITERACY AND MATH COACHES OFFER INSTRUCTIONAL LEADERSHIP

Lead literacy coach Maryann Ouellette coaches at two schools on a regular basis as well as doing peer coaching and providing general support for colleagues. "The work of the literacy coach may look different from one school to the next," Ouellette tells Education World. "It may take the form of one-on-one coaching in an individual teacher's classroom or demonstration lessons for individuals and groups of teachers.

"In some schools coaches are facilitating 'lab sites' where several teachers gather in a classroom once a week for six to eight weeks and take turns teaching. This is followed by a debriefing session, led by the coach.

"In optimum circumstances," Ouellette goes on, "the in-class coaching goes along with study groups and other professional development opportunities in order to build knowledge of theory and provide opportunity for reflection."

IS COACHING WORKING?

"How coaching goes depends on the coach, not on the model," one Boston teacher, who asked not to be identified, tells Education World. "The model is a sound one, and it can work well. I think the model is most effective when the coach establishes a good rapport with the staff.... We have had a number of coaching experiences [at school]. The quality has been varied."

"The whole-school change process requires a good deal of paperwork," that teacher adds. "The coach handles most of it. The principal and staff members check to see that all reports submitted reflect our points of view. If we did not have a coach, I would be asked to do this paperwork; her presence gives me more time to focus on my own work."

"Change is always hard," adds Kirk, who has been an educator for 39 years. "There's always a little bit of difficulty because at some point you're pushing for a change, and you're going to push some buttons."

"You provide all the support you can, but you must reach the point where you say the workshop format must be followed," Kirk continues. "But the whole-school coach helps enormously. The coach explains and models how to do things and pairs teachers within a building when mentoring is needed. With a good whole-school change coach, you have much less resistance to change than you ordinarily would have."

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES

Collaboartive Coaching
The Boston Plan for Excellence offers this rationale for collaborative coaching. (Adobe Acrobat Reader required)

Fact Sheet: The Essentials of School Change
Another resource from the Boston Plan for Excellence. (Adobe Acrobat Reader required)

Coaching Isn't Just for Athletes: The Role of Teacher Leaders
An article from the Phi Delta Kappan about Boston's change coaching program.

Leading Change from the Classroom: Teachers as Leaders
The Southwest Educational Development Laboratory (SEDL) explores the need for teachers to extend their sphere of influence beyond the classroom and into schoolwide leadership activities.

Teacher Quality
This article from PEN (Public Education Network) offers insight into school reform, including mentions of coaching for school change.

Coaching for a Change
This is a chapter from Jamie McKenzie's book How Teachers Learn Technology Best.

Essential Leadership in the School Change Process
The Coalition of Essential Schools offers this description of what it takes to lead people through school change.

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