To break down the isolation that many teachers experience in their classrooms, California schools are using instructional coaches as a key tool to help teachers adapt their instruction to implement the Common Core standards in math and English language arts.
Enter Geetha Lakshminarayanan, a math coach who on a recent morning was making her weekly visit to Oakland Technical High School and watching closely to see how students were grappling with exponential equations in Johanna Langill’s Algebra 1 class.
Districts have used coaches – more formally known as instructional or training specialists – for years to improve the effectiveness of classroom instruction. Many coach positions were trimmed as a result of cutbacks during the Great Recession. But with the improving economy and the need to get teachers up to speed on the new Common Core standards, districts are turning to instructional specialists as an essential resource.
Now, their help and training is needed more than ever as teachers make the radical shifts in instruction set by the Common Core State Standards, the new academic guidelines for what students should know at each grade level in math and English Language Arts.
A survey by EdSource of six California districts – Garden Grove Unified, Santa Ana Unified, Whittier Union High School District, Visalia Unified, Oakland Unified and San Jose Unified – showed that all are relying on coaches as they move forward to implement the Common Core.
Oakland Unified, with an enrollment of over 37,000 students has between 45 and 50 coaches who are each assigned to work full time at a particular school. That’s double the number from three years ago, said Nicole Knight, the district’s interim co-director of teaching and learning
Lakshminarayanan is one of an additional 35 coaches who specialize in different subject areas and move from school to school. She works with six to eight teachers each week at two different schools. She and the other coaches help out in a number of ways by observing classes, giving feedback to teachers during or outside school hours, responding to teachers’ questions by email or giving demonstration lessons.
Next year, the district intends to reduce the number of coaches that travel to different schools and add 20 Common Core coaches assigned to specific schools, Knight said. Coaches at Oakland Unified are funded by a combination of state funds districts receive through the Local Control Funding Formula, grants from the S.D. Bechtel Jr. Foundation, federal Title II funds for teacher and principal training and Title III funding for English learners.
Other districts have to manage with far fewer coaches. At Visalia Unified, a 27,000-student district near Fresno, a single coach is assigned to serve all teachers in each elementary grade. A total of four coaches work with teachers in 7th- to 12th-grade classrooms. Sacramento City Unified, with 43,000 students, has 12 math coaches, each of whom is assigned to five or six schools. But that number is up from only two coaches in 2010-11.
“We have grown the number of coaches each year, but we definitely need more of them,” said Iris Taylor, the district’s assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction. The coaches, she said, “are the most critical component of our capacity building [to implement the Common Core].
These specialized instructors, she said, “are able to provide a more in-depth and stronger layer of support, and are able to work with more teachers than we are able to touch through professional development sessions alone.”
Without coaches like Lakshminarayanan, teachers may not know for certain if they’re getting the new Common Core approaches to math instruction right, said Robert Rosenfeld, director of the curriculum and assessment training team at WestEd, the nonprofit research and consulting firm headquartered in San Francisco.
“Until you actually try it out with students and have a thought partner (such as a coach) to give you feedback, we don’t see any meaningful changes in the classroom,” he said, referring to the need for coaches. “With the Common Core there are so many things we’re expecting to see in the classroom, you really need a guide.”
Lakshminarayanan observed how Langill was helping her students engage with each other by asking them how they arrived at their answers on their homework assignments.
In the back of the classroom, she quietly debriefed an EdSource reporter about what she was seeing. She explained that she was looking at how students approached the math problem. Are they talking among themselves about the assignment? They should be. If not, what is Langill doing about it? If so, what are they saying to each other?
“With the Common Core there are so many things we’re expecting to see in the classroom, you really need a guide,” said Robert Rosenfeld, director of the curriculum and assessment training team at WestEd.
She referred to a student in a red and white plaid shirt who was talking to Langill.
“I just saw that student ask Miss Langill a question and before she even started responding to him, she pulled in the other two students [into the dialog],” Lakshminarayanan whispered. “That was a good move. He [the student] should ask the other kids first and they need to also pay attention and talk to each other.”
In order to successfully impart the Common Core standards, math teachers’ roles are changing substantially, Lakshminarayanan said. Teachers should act more like facilitators of discussion and debate rather than an instructor with all the answers, she said.
A former Oakland high school math teacher, Lakshminarayanan left classroom teaching two years ago to become a coach, and the district provided a week of training in the summer, plus ongoing training every other month. Additionally, the district has brought in experts on various Common Core math topics that she and fellow math coaches request, and Lakshminarayanan meets for about three hours each month with fellow math coaches. During the meetings, coaches take turns training one another in the areas within which they have expertise, she said.
One of the eight Common Core “Standards for Mathematical Practice” that applies to all grades is that students “construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others.” As a result, students are expected to be active conversationalists in the classroom.
To encourage students to engage each other in such conversations, teachers implementing the Common Core typically assign students to sit in small groups. In Langill’s class, she’s assigned “facilitators” to each group. Those are students whom she hopes will take the lead in prompting discussion among their classmates.
In some cases, the initial groupings don’t always work out as she had thought they would. In her meeting with Lakshminarayanan after class, Langill shared her concerns about the different groups. In one group, there wasn’t enough interaction.
In another, the designated student “facilitator” seemed to only be communicating with the girls sitting on either side of her, instead of the entire group.
Lakshminarayanan had also noticed the lack of communication, and wondered if the girls who weren’t participating couldn’t hear the facilitator or just were resigned to thinking that they were not going to be included in the discussion.
She suggested to Langill that a simple solution might be to change the seating arrangement.
San Jose Unified Assistant Superintendent Jason Willis said that before the Common Core was introduced, in math at the elementary school level “a lot of content was scripted, you kind of read from the book,” and it drilled students on things like multiplication tables.
To help teachers adjust to the new Common Core standards, his district has also assigned a coach to each grade level. Last year, some schools had part-time instructional coaches. This year, most of the elementary schools utilize full-time coaches. Additionally, 10 coaches who have been working with middle and high school teachers over the last five years are now helping them settle into the new standards.
Lakshminarayanan, who has been observing Langill’s classes since the beginning of the school year, said she’s witnessed critical changes in Langill’s algebra class. “I see kids relying more on each other and on their own reasoning instead of Miss Langill,” Lakshminarayan said. “They know that when she comes over she’s going to ask them more questions, she’s not going to tell them how to do it.”
For Langill, Lakshminarayanan’s input has been invaluable. “It’s made such a difference,” Langill said. “Sometimes it’s just talking through successes and what is frustrating me that can help me identify what kids need next and what I can do to meet those needs,” she said of her interactions with Lakshminarayanan. “It helps me see the progress that I have made and kids have made.”