As a former state director of Reading First, I’ve watched with great interest as state after state has passed legislation focused on improving reading proficiency through the intentional implementation of the science of reading. These state laws vary in their inclusion of some requirements, like mandatory retention of students who aren’t reading proficiently by a specific grade or the identification of and intervention for students who have dyslexia or reading difficulties. However, a commonality among most of them is a requirement for teacher professional development on the science of reading with ongoing support from a reading coach. One might wonder whether this approach will make a difference in teacher instruction or student proficiency. We can learn more about this intervention’s potential from both research and the experiences of two Region 7 states.
First, let’s look at the research. The combined approach of professional development on the science of reading with support from a reading coach that many states are implementing is supported by the research of Bruce Joyce and Beverly Showers (2002). This research identified the following four components of professional development necessary to move teachers from simply having the knowledge or skill to transferring or applying it in the classroom: presentation of theory, demonstration/modeling, practice with feedback, and coaching. In fact, Joyce and Showers found an effect size of 1.42 (equivalent to an improvement of 42 percentile points) when all four of these components were included in a professional development program. To put this in more concrete terms, they estimated that including coaching in a professional development program would result in 95 of 100 teachers being able to apply their learning in their classrooms compared to only 5 of 100 teachers being able to do so with only the first three components included. This alone speaks volumes to the importance of including both professional learning sessions or training and coaching in any professional development program intended to change teacher practice in classrooms so that student achievement can be impacted, but let’s look further.
One of the largest implementations of intensive professional development on the science of reading, then referred to as scientifically based reading research, combined with support from reading coaches was under the federal Reading First grant program in the early 2000s. Evaluations of the implementation of reading coaches during this time found two variables that mattered in producing student gains in reading (L’Allier et al., 2010). First, students of teachers who were supported by reading coaches with a reading teacher endorsement (24 credit hours of coursework in reading) or reading specialist certificate (32 credit hours of coursework in reading) had the highest average student reading gains, while students of teachers supported by a reading coach who had neither an advanced degree in reading nor a reading endorsement or certificate had the lowest average student reading gains. Secondly, the amount of time reading coaches spent engaging directly with teachers was important in producing student reading gains, with the highest average gains occurring in classrooms and schools where coaches spent more time working directly with teachers. Furthermore, four specific activities of reading coaches predicted student reading achievement: conferencing with the teacher, administering and discussing assessments, modeling lessons for the teacher, and observing in the classroom (Elish-Piper & L’Allier, 2007).
A more recent systematic review of 60 studies of teacher coaching programs in the U.S. and other developed countries that both used a causal research design and examined effects on instruction or achievement found large positive effects of coaching on teachers’ instructional practice with content-specific coaching programs, like reading coaching, producing higher effects than coaching programs that focused on general pedagogical practices (Kraft et al., 2018). Additionally, this review found that the effects of teacher coaching on student achievement were higher than the effects of almost all other school-based interventions, including student incentives, teacher pre-service training, merit-based pay, general professional development, data-driven instruction, and extended learning time and were comparable to the effects of comprehensive school reform, oversubscribed charter schools, large reductions in class size, high-dosage tutoring, and changes in curriculum. As with the effects on teacher instruction, smaller effects on student achievement were found for coaching programs that focused on general pedagogical practices versus content-specific programs. Considering the earlier findings regarding spending time administering and discussing assessments, this makes sense, as content-specific programs are more focused on helping teachers improve students’ test scores in the specific content area. Finally, this review found that pairing coaching with group trainings is associated with even larger effect sizes on both instruction and achievement.
While the research supports the effect of reading coaching on both teacher instruction and student achievement, the stories of both Alabama and Mississippi bring the potential of this intervention even closer to home. Alabama was one of the first states to implement reading coaches as part of an Alabama Reading Initiative pilot in 16 schools in 1998 (Sawchuk, 2015; AL.com, 2017). By 2001, when Reading First was authorized and funded as part of the No Child Left Behind Act, the Alabama Reading Initiative was held up as an exemplar to other states, and by 2006, the initiative was serving all Alabama schools. Alabama even made a 9-point gain in the state’s average scale score on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in fourth-grade reading, moving from 207 in 2003 to 216 in 2007. In that same year, Alabama had an 8-point average scale score gain for Black students and a 13-point gain for students receiving special education services on this assessment (A+ Education Partnership, 2011), beginning to close the achievement gaps that existed for these students. In 2009, only three states had greater gains than Alabama on the NAEP in eighth-grade reading, and the state scored higher than nine other states on the fourth-grade assessment (A+ Education Partnership, 2011). That same year, the Alabama legislature provided $64 million for the program (Crain, 2016)—an investment that paid off when Alabama hit the national average scale score for fourth-grade reading of 220 in 2011 (AL.com, 2017).
With the success of the program in the elementary grades, 2012 saw the work of Alabama’s reading coaches expand to include secondary grades (Sawchuk, 2015; AL.com, 2017) while the program began to see funding reductions and declines in the state’s average fourth-grade scale score on the NAEP in reading. As Alabama widened the focus of the Alabama Reading Initiative, their neighboring state, Mississippi, which ranked 49th in the country on fourth-grade reading performance on the NAEP in 2013 (Kaufman, 2022), launched the Literacy-based Promotion Act that same year, which established literacy coaches to support K–3 teachers and began to require teacher professional development on the science of reading. By 2019, Mississippi attained an average scale score of 219 on the fourth-grade NAEP in reading, an achievement that was deemed the “Mississippi Miracle,” rising to 29th in the nation (Kaufman, 2022). According to the Urban Institute, Mississippi was in the top five states for low-income, Black, and Hispanic students, with each group showing more than a year’s additional progress since 2013 when adjusting for other variables such as race and overall English-language proficiency (Collins, 2023). Meanwhile, Alabama’s funding for the Alabama Reading Initiative hit a low of $40.8 million in 2017 (Crain, 2016; AL.com, 2017), which was followed in 2019 by the state’s lowest average scale score since 2005 on fourth-grade NAEP reading (212). That same year, the Alabama legislature passed the Alabama Literacy Act and provided $51.3 million in funding for the Alabama Reading Initiative, including a return to the focus on K–3 reading, intensive reading professional development for K–3 teachers, and reading coach support. With the interruption of the COVID-19 pandemic, the full impacts of this renewed focus have likely not yet been seen. However, while many other states and the nation as a whole saw substantial drops in fourth-grade reading performance on the 2022 NAEP, Alabama saw a 1-point gain in average scale score. Hopefully, this gain is a glimpse of the promise that the future holds for Alabama’s children.
Author: Robin Jarvis, PhD, Region 7 Comprehensive Center
A+ Education Partnership. (2011). Why Support the Alabama Reading Initiative? It’s Smart Money Well Spent-A Proven Program with a Big Return.
Collins, T. (Feb. 24, 2023). The Mississippi reading model continues to shine. The Fordham Institute. https://fordhaminstitute.org/national/commentary/mississippi-reading-model-continues-shine#:~:text=Mississippi’s%20model%20for%20improving%20early,fourth%20grade%20NAEP%20reading%20test.
Crain, T. P. (May 19, 2016). The Alabama Reading Initiative Survives (Mostly) Intact. Alabama School Connection. http://alabamaschoolconnection.org/2016/05/19/the-alabama-reading-initiative-survives-mostly-intact/#:~:text=State%20lawmakers%20slashed%20%247.4%20million,some%20schools%20harder%20than%20others.
Elish-Piper, L., & L’Allier, S. K. (2007). Does literacy coaching make a difference? The effects of literacy coaching on reading achievement in grades K-3 in a Reading First district [Paper presentation]. 57th annual meeting of the National Reading Conference, Austin, TX.
Joyce, B. R., & Showers, B. (2002). Student achievement through staff development (3rd ed.). Association for Supervision & Curriculum Development (ASCD).
Kaufman, D. (Oct. 6, 2022). In Mississippi, a Broad Effort to Improve Literacy is Yielding Results. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/10/06/education/learning/mississippi-schools-literacy.html.
Kraft, M. A., Blazar, D., & Hogan, D. (2018). The effect of teaching coaching on instruction and achievement: A meta-analysis of the causal evidence. Review of Educational Research, 88(4), 547–588.
L’Allier, S., Elish-Piper, L., & Bean, R. M. (2010). What Matters for Elementary Literacy Coaching? Guiding Principles for Instructional Improvement and Student Achievement. The Reading Teacher, 63(7), 544–554. https://doi.org/10.1598/RT.63.7.2
Sawchuk, S. (2015). Ala. Reading Intervention Stands Test of Time. Education Week. https://www.edweek.org/teaching-learning/ala-reading-intervention-stands-test-of-time/2015/05.