We started our series by asking, “What does it take to become an effective math coach?” We described how coaching is a complex endeavor that, in addition to practical experience, requires certain types of knowledge, including Mathematical Knowledge for Teaching (MKT; Hill & Ball, 2009) and the coaching knowledge outlined in the Examining Mathematics Coaching (EMC) framework (Sutton et al., 2011).
We are now going to look at two other critical considerations that effective math coaches should pay attention to when assisting teachers in making better instructional decisions.
Collecting and Interpreting Data
As we have seen, an effective coach needs to know how to diagnose teachers’ needs, how to gather and infer student thinking to inform instruction, and how to assess and use teacher content knowledge and pedagogical content knowledge to inform, grow, and support teachers (Sutton et al., 2011). All of these activities involve collecting and interpreting data.
A coach’s use of data in their coaching practice is important to best support teachers, and it can increase the supported teachers’ use of data in their instructional decision-making (Shoemaker, 2014). It is critical to consider the knowledge and skills coaches bring to their practice regarding data use. A math coach’s ability to effectively use data cannot be dissociated from their level of MKT or coaching knowledge. Using data to drive math coaching depends on strong content knowledge and knowledge for coaching.
As an example, one state educational agency, Alabama, recently created a statewide coaching framework that describes coaching responsibilities associated with the effective use of data. The Alabama Coaching Framework notes that “Effective coaches are skilled in the collection and organization of data to best support and target instructional practices and learning targets for both educators and students” as well as “know how to best share data with educators and empower them in their own examinations and uses of data” (Alabama State Department of Education, 2020, pp. 12–13). The Alabama Coaching Framework describes the important role of embedding the collection and analysis of teacher data (e.g., observation, diagnostic, fidelity) and student data from multiple assessment sources (screening, progress monitoring, diagnostic, and outcome) within the coaching cycle as a means to facilitate continuous improvement.
Systems for Professional Learning
As should be clear by now, teachers are not the only ones needed to commit to a process of lifelong learning. Effective math coaches seek to address gaps in the mathematics content expertise of teachers as well as their own. It is thus imperative to build organizational and system capacity to develop effective coaches who possess the optimal level of content expertise and skillsets to positively impact teacher practice.
In addition to content expertise, coaches must understand how to drive implementation practices not only in a one-to-one coaching session but within school ecosystems through fostering teacher teams that function to build the teachers’ collective capacity both vertically and at grade level. Coaches must have the knowledge and skills to address the gaps “beyond the product of standards themselves by providing…[the] guidance, support, and leadership tools necessary to help the adults in their system to achieve mathematics program greatness within the context of higher levels of demonstrated student learning and performance” (Kanold & Larson, 2015, p. 1). Research suggests that a strong professional development system for coaches and teachers alike should provide strategic, ongoing, and sustained rather than episodic professional development. It should be collective rather than individualistic. It should be job-embedded so that the learning is at the point of use and should encompass results-oriented activities that have a clear link to improved student achievement (Kanold & Larson, 2015).
Effective math coaches are agents of change but are incumbent upon the professional learning system to determine the scope of their responsibilities and ensure that the necessary preparation for those expectations is included in the system. Will a math coach be responsible for one teacher or a whole department? Will a math coach work collaboratively with other school specialists or on their own? In most scenarios, a coach might be tasked with improving mathematics instruction and the performance of an entire school. Part of the coach’s preparation thus must include how to effectively work with an entire staff rather than just one or two teachers. Implementation of what is learned from the mathematics coach is critical to build capacity. Coaches must assess the level, or fidelity, of implementation of their teachings and ensure that the effort goes beyond building individual capacity to ensure sustainability.
Coaches can incorporate their efforts into a true professional learning system so that the learning becomes embedded in the culture and routines of the school or district. Building school- or system-level capacity should involve group processes, such as how a department can function to collectively examine student work or how the school can incorporate strategies such as lesson study to develop lessons for the entire math department rather than for individual teachers. By building capacity at the system level, a school district would be closer to achieving sustainability and mitigating turnover (Carver-Thomas & Darling-Hammond, 2017).
It is crucial to take inventory, assess, and analyze the current system to ensure that math coaches are provided professional learning and supports to improve their content knowledge, become competent in the collection and application of data for decision-making, and become experts in the facilitation of evidence-based best practices, specifically in mathematics coaching, to foster teacher growth and improve student outcomes.
Author: Guillermo Farfan, PhD, Region 7 Comprehensive Center
The contents of this blog series stem from a 2021 R7CC resource titled Considerations for Developing: A Content-Driven Perspective, which can be accessed here.
Alabama State Department of Education (2020). Alabama Coaching Framework. https://compcenternetwork.org/sites/default/files/AL_Coaching_Framework_FINAL.pdf
Carver-Thomas, D., & Darling-Hammond, L. (2017). Teacher turnover: Why it matters and what we can do about it. Learning Policy Institute. https://learningpolicyinstitute.org/sites/default/files/product-files/Teacher_Turnover_REPORT.pdf
Hill, H., & Ball, D. L. (2009). The curious—and crucial—case of mathematical knowledge for teaching. Phi Delta Kappan, 91(2), 68–71. https://doi.org/10.1177/003172170909100215
Kanold, T. D., & Larson, M. R., (2015). Beyond the Common Core: A Handbook for Mathematics in a PLC at Work.Solution Tree Press.
Lasserre-Cortez, S., Cox, P., Goertzen, H., Jetty, L., Molina, C., & Vandeborne, L. (2021). Considerations for Developing Effective Math Coaches: A Content-Driven Perspective. Region 7 Comprehensive Center.
Shoemaker, B. Q. (2014). The effect of academic coaches on teachers’ effective use of data for instructional decisions [Unpublished Doctoral Dissertation, Eastern Kentucky University].
Sutton, J. T., Burroughs, E. A., & Yopp, D. A. (2011). Coaching knowledge: Domains and definitions. Journal of Mathematics Education Leadership, 13(2), 12–20. https://www.montana.edu/emc/documents/NCSM.Coaching.Knowledge.Fall2011.pdf