Eager to help more students pass the state's standardized math test, some school districts are turning to instructional coaches to give teachers real-time advice as they try to sharpen students' skills.
It seems to be working for Brian Coffey, a first-year science teacher at Seattle's Aki Kurose Middle School who was assigned to fill in for a math teacher who recently went on maternity leave.
Two math coaches, one based at the school and another who travels the district, regularly sit in on his classes and offer tips on how to connect better with students.
"It's been a wonderful experience," said Coffey, who took calculus in college but no math-education courses. "It's always good to get feedback about teaching, but math-specific feedback is really helpful."
Seattle has five district-wide and 10 school-based math coaches and hopes to hire more this spring, Rosalind Wise, the district's K-12 math-program manager, told The Seattle Times.
Gov. Christine Gregoire signed legislation this month earmarking $5.4 million to train 50 math coaches in the 2007-09 biennium and 25 science coaches in 2008-09.
The pilot project is part of a $69 million state initiative to boost math and science achievement. It includes a revision of state math standards and curriculum, pay incentives for math and science teachers who work in challenging schools and $40 million in teacher training.
Nearly half of high school sophomores failed the math section of Washington Assessment of Student Learning last spring. Three-quarters of them were minority students.
Educators say they've seen instructional coaching work well across racial and economic lines in reading. "We've seen very powerful results, particularly when coaches are embedded in the daily lives of teachers," said Stephen Fink, executive director of the University of Washington Center for Educational Leadership.
Coaches usually work directly with teachers. Sometimes they take over to present model lessons.
They observe, give feedback and free up teachers so they can figure out what's working and what's not.
The state has seen dramatic improvement in reading comprehension and test scores in high-poverty schools with low test scores where federally funded reading coaches have worked the past four years, according to the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.
In 51 schools with fourth-grade reading coaches, low-income students gained an average of 26 points in fourth-grade WASL scores from 2003 to 2006, compared with a 10-point gain for all low-income students in the state, said Lexie Domaradzki, Reading First administrator for OSPI.
Among minority students, she said, those in schools with Reading First coaches significantly narrowed the achievement gap with White students.
Coaches review student work to help identify gaps in knowledge. They watch students, noting when they're engaged and when they tune out. And they suggest training for the school and entire district to build teachers' classroom skills.
At times, the state has found that coaches can be misused, Domaradzki said.
Principals have called on them to fill in as substitute teachers, and asked them to evaluate teachers, undermining their role as supporters and mentors. Sometimes principals ask coaches to work one-on-one with struggling or disruptive students, and they don't always insist that teachers who need improvement work with a coach.
Scott Meltzer, a first-year math coach who splits his time between Aki Kurose and the African American Academy K-8, said high teacher turnover is a problem at many inner-city schools. Coaches can make a difference, he said, by suggesting ideas for new teaching methods and help finding engaging classroom materials.
Some teachers lack strong math backgrounds. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 55 percent of Washington secondary math teachers held majors in math in 2000, the most recent year for which figures are available.
Meltzer said coaches with math expertise could help bridge that knowledge gap.
"Our focus is on the students' work," he said. "And how we as a team can make that better."
—The Associated Press