K–3 literacy coaching in Alabama is a differentiated, job-embedded professional learning process composed of side-by-side, focused support to impact student learning outcomes. The goal of Student-Centered Coaching is to ensure all students are reading at or above grade level by the end of third grade. Coaching is intentionally based on student data so that growth is measurable and evident. Building on collaborative work between the teacher and the local reading specialist, evidence-based literacy instructional practices are implemented. Alabama believes literacy coaching provides all teachers with a thought partner designed to build educator capacity. Let’s take a deeper dive into Student-Centered Coaching and why we believe it is positively affecting student achievement in Alabama.
What is Student-Centered Coaching, and Why Do We Do It?
The Student-Centered Coaching model is an evidence-based instructional coaching framework that shifts the focus from fixing teachers to collaborating with them to design instruction that targets student outcomes (Sweeney, n.d.). Developed by Diane Sweeney and Leanna Harris, Student-Centered Coaching takes a data-driven approach to increase the learning and efficacy of teachers, local reading specialists (LRSs), and, most importantly, our students. The Alabama Reading Initiative (ARI) uses principles of Sweeney’s model and the Alabama Coaching Framework (ACF) as the foundational approach to improving and sustaining literacy instruction across the state. Student-Centered Coaching keeps student learning at the center of the work, and the ACF draws on pillars of effective coaching so that the work can happen. The pillars include leading through examples and influence, building relationships, understanding and respecting the uniqueness of adult learning, maximizing effective communication, and utilizing data analyses to make decisions (Alabama State Department of Education, 2020). These two process-oriented structures pair well together as they crystallize the importance of identifying the focus of the work (students) and how to achieve optimal success in the work (coaching adults).
It is important to note that coaching from this perspective—that students are at the center of what we do—is dependent upon continual professional growth. Every stage of the coaching cycle includes the teacher and LRS, which is a reminder that this is a collaborative process and partnership intended to build teacher capacity. Coaching is not something done TO teachers but WITH teachers. LRSs become thinking partners as they co-plan and co-teach with teachers based on standards-based goals and learning targets created together. This collaboration highlights the effectiveness of the ACF beautifully!
But why coaching at all? Pioneering work by Joyce and Showers in the 1980s helped build the concept of teacher coaching. This research was some of the first empirical evidence of its promise. They conceptualized coaching as an essential feature of professional development training that facilitates teachers’ ability to translate knowledge and skills into actual classroom practice (Kraft et al., 2018). Based on intentional work by Joyce and Showers, they determined five factors “that contribute to learning for educators: (1) presentation of theory, (2) demonstration of practice, (3) practice in a simulated setting, (4) structured and open feedback, and (5) coaching” (Green, 2020). However, of these five, coaching had the greatest and longest-lasting impact on practice.
The graphic clearly illustrates that when coaching is added to theory and discussion, demonstration, and practice and feedback, sustained transfer of practice is more likely to occur. That result fuels the work of student-centered coaching.
What Does Student-Centered Look Like?
Effective Student-Centered Coaching is a well-defined process that keeps student learning as the focus. The leadership team reviews schoolwide student data to determine instructional support needs. Through coaching cycles, teachers deepen their instructional practice. Working with the LRS, teachers participate in coaching cycles that range from 4–6 weeks in length. Coaching cycles begin by establishing a standards-based goal and learning targets, followed by collecting pre-assessment data. Lessons are co-planned and co-taught together weekly using research-based science of reading instructional practices. Students are formatively assessed throughout the coaching cycle to determine how they are progressing in relation to the goal. During weekly co-planning sessions, necessary adjustments in instruction are made according to the formative assessment data that is continuously captured. At the end of the coaching cycle, post-assessment data is collected to determine student growth and next steps. The ultimate goal is to see an increase in student data, but a secondary benefit is that teachers and LRSs deepen their professional knowledge through their continuous collaboration.
Coaching must impact student achievement, and we must be able to measure its effectiveness. LRSs use the Results-Based Coaching Tool (RBCT) as evidence to document the effectiveness of coaching cycles. Additionally, the RBCT captures personal reflections by the LRS and teacher(s) regarding the process, results, and next steps for classroom instruction. This provides an objective way to measure the impact of coaching cycles.
How Do We Move to a Culture of Student-Centered Coaching?
While we know Student-Centered Coaching increases student learning outcomes and teacher practices, it is not always easy to create a culture of coaching within the building. Instructional leaders need to be clear about their beliefs surrounding coaching and be willing to establish conditions to support the process. This includes explaining the coaching model and its focus on student learning, sharing the LRS job description, and emphasizing to the staff that coaching is for everyone.
Alabama recognizes the critical importance of having well-informed instructional leaders. Therefore, Regional Literacy Leadership Specialists (RLLS) provide support by helping administrators create necessary structures for literacy within their buildings/districts. Structures such as functional master schedules, data meeting protocols, and progress monitoring expectations are all needed for optimal student achievement. RLLSs work onsite alongside building and district leaders to examine the effectiveness of processes in place and assist with implementing new ones, if needed. Additionally, RLLSs are often part of instructional rounds within the building to celebrate literacy successes and determine focus areas for growth. The intended purpose is always to create and maintain the conditions that support Student-Centered Coaching.
In addition to onsite support, RLLSs provide professional learning opportunities through the Strong Leader, Strong Reader (SL-SR) series. Each RLLS facilitates four (one per quarter) SL-SR sessions during the school year. These sessions highlight information shared with LRSs through coaching communities and other pertinent information about the Alabama Literacy Act. School and district leaders also receive monthly leadership newsletters that include tips for developing and deepening the coaching culture in the building.
How Do We Sustain Coaching in Schools?
LRSs receive support throughout the school year in a variety of ways. Each LRS has a Regional Literacy Specialist (RLS) who supports them in their coaching and job-embedded professional development. The level of support and number of visits throughout the school year depends on each school’s reading subtest results on the statewide assessment, ACAP. These visits are either weekly, monthly, or quarterly.
All new LRSs attend a two-day orientation. Part of the orientation includes a detailed explanation of the Student-Centered Coaching model. All LRSs receive a copy of Student-Centered Coaching: The Moves by Sweeney and Harris. This is a “how-to” book that includes tools, strategies, and videos of coaching in action.
Regardless of a school’s level of support, each LRS attends four coaching communities throughout the school year. Each coaching community focuses on building capacity in coaching practices and in research-based science of reading instructional strategies that the LRS will implement in their school. The RLS provides additional support in implementing these practices and strategies through planned follow-up visits.
Because the work of Student-Centered Coaching does not stop at the end of a school year, summer support is built into the fabric of coaching sustainability. During the summer months, ARI provides professional learning opportunities that help LRSs deepen their knowledge of coaching and the coaching process. These opportunities include a variety of structured sessions offered through the regional in-service centers facilitated by ARI staff. In addition, onsite school-level/district-level training is provided on request.
As LRSs have grown in their knowledge of the science of reading and the coaching process over the last three years, ARI realized that the coaching community structure needed to grow as well. Beginning this fall, ARI will provide job-embedded support in the form of coaching labs. The coaching labs will help LRSs dive deeper into effective coaching practices. This evolution is built on the premise that we are all learners, and together, we can expand our thinking through peer learning. These coaching labs will be held at host schools with up to 10 additional LRSs along with the RLSs who support them. This will be a “fishbowl” approach to see the authentic work of coaching in action. Each LRS will participate in four coaching lab sessions throughout the school year. We believe this will move our LRSs from good to GREAT!
Another layer of support that ARI is introducing this school year is the Alabama Structured Student-Centered Coaching Practice Profile. The Practice Profile is the product of the collaborative work between ARI and the Region 7 Comprehensive Center to build sustainability of Student-Centered Coaching. This document uses eight core components, including analyzing data, facilitating data conversations, goal setting, using learning targets, side-by-side coaching, reflecting on practice, strength-based feedback, and measuring the impact of coaching. ARI will use the practice profile to develop coaching community content around Structured Student-Centered Coaching. RLSs can follow up on the content during their visits to support coaching. The Structured Student-Centered Coaching Practice Profile is not designed to be evaluative but to support and improve coaching practices across the state.
If Not Now, When?
Clearly, Alabama feels strongly about the importance of coaching, so much so that our legislators have allocated close to 60 million dollars for salaries. Any school in Alabama with a K–3 configuration earns an LRS paid for by ARI. This equates to 766 schools with LRSs and 87 regional staff supporting these schools. This structure is unique to the state of Alabama. As you can imagine, with this kind of investment, our state leaders and the taxpayers of Alabama expect to see a return on their investment in the form of improved, sustained reading achievement.
Coaching is working in Alabama. Alabama is one of the few states that saw an increase in its National Assessment of Educational Progress reading scores in 2022 despite the pandemic. Alabama’s rank rose from 49th to 39th, with the average score up by nearly 2 points. While we are moving in the right direction, there is still more work to be done to increase the reading proficiency of all K–3 students. Our focus will remain on ensuring that all students are able to read at or above grade level by the end of third grade. We are green and growing, and coaching is the name of our game in Alabama.
Authors: Bonnie Short (Director), Stacey Turner (Regional Literacy Specialist), Allison Kelley (Regional Literacy Specialist), and Melanie Glover (Regional Literacy Leadership Specialist); Alabama Reading Initiative, Alabama State Department of Education
Alabama State Department of Education (2020). The Alabama Coaching Framework. RMC Research Corporation.
Green, K. (2020). Why Coaching Works Best to Grow Educators. https://engage2learn.org/blog/2020/01/16/why-coaching-works
Kraft M. A., Blazar D., Hogan D. (2018). The Effect of Teacher Coaching on Instruction and Achievement: A Meta-Analysis of the Causal Evidence. Review of Educational Research, 88(4), 547-588. https://scholar.harvard.edu/mkraft/publications/effect-teacher-coaching-instruction-and-achievement-meta-analysis-causal
Sweeney, D. (n.d.). Student-Centered Coaching. https://www.dianesweeney.com/