It’s that time of year. School districts are examining their budgets for the upcoming school year. Due to the troubled economy, many of them are finding that they are not going to have the money that they need to move forward with all of the currently existing programs. Some school districts may also need to fund newly mandated programs such as required interventions. This, of course, forces them to make cuts, and everyone who is not directly connected to a classroom full of children is fair game. Literacy coaches are usually expensive. Most coaches have years of experience and hold advanced degrees – putting them at the top of the salary range.
Cutting the literacy coach is a simplistic solution – penny wise and pound foolish. On paper, it might look like the district saves $60,000-$80,000. But what will it cost a school to take over all of the tasks that the coach does? What will it cost a school if no one takes responsibility for those tasks?
1. Professional Development
Professional development is the heart of literacy coaches’ work. They conduct whole-school sessions, study groups, book clubs, and coaching cycles. School-based coaches customize programs of professional development activities based on the instructional needs of the school’s students (as informed by data) and the capacity of the teachers.
The whole-school sessions provide general information to the entire staff. These sessions are followed up with small group and individual support. Small group sessions take the form of study groups and professional book clubs to provide differentiated support for teachers. Then coaches provide one-on-one support to teachers through coaching cycles. Some coaches are also responsible for organizing classroom visitations. While many coaches do demonstration lessons, teachers also benefit from watching each other.
Literacy coaches provide job-embedded, focused, long-term professional development that can result in increased teacher capacity. In the absence of a literacy coach, the school is likely to revert back to the clichÃ©d whole-school, one-size-fits-all offerings. The least expensive professional developer costs $1,000 for a single day of work. It would cost a school district at least as much as a coach’s salary to attempt to replicate this kind of program with an off-site professional development consultant.
2. Data Management
Today’s teachers are elbow-deep in assessment data. In addition to running records and fluency snapshots, there are screening, diagnostic, progress monitoring, benchmark, and state assessments — to name a few. The results are reported in grade equivalencies, stanines, percentiles, reading level, etc. Feeling overwhelmed and sometimes confused, teachers seek out a simple, general score. Then they file the data in a bottom drawer of a file cabinet.
Literacy coaches take the lead in organizing, managing, and explaining the mountains of data. They meet with teachers in small groups and support them in mining pertinent information from assessment data. This information helps them make good decisions about instruction. The assessment data is also used to plan professional development, order materials, and evaluate the instructional program. Assessments make up a significant portion of schools’ budgets. It costs $6.00 per student for one of the required assessments in Chicago. Without the leadership of a literacy coach, schools will not get their money’s worth.
3. Supporting New Teachers
The retention rate for new teachers is not very encouraging. Many research studies have documented how 50% of all new teachers leave the profession within the first five years. School districts spend a considerable amount of time and money advertising positions, conducting interviews, and orienting new teachers. Then they find that they have to repeat the process every few years when the new hires become discouraged and resign.
Many literacy coaches make new teachers a priority. Having a designated go-to person to help negotiate the pitfalls of those first few years can make a big difference in a new teacher’s professional life. The outcome can be a faster induction and a higher retention of new teachers. The school saves dollars, and students benefit from more confident early career teachers.
4. Supporting Teachers in Transition
Most teachers will work in several positions during their careers. Sometimes, a teacher decides that s/he’d like to try something new. Sometimes a position is cut for a variety of reasons, and a former kindergarten teacher finds him or herself facing a classroom full of fifth graders. Even the most experienced and successful teachers are in need of support during the initial year in a new position.
The literacy coach can recommend professional books and videos, arrange for visitations to other classrooms at the same grade level, and/or work with the teacher in a coaching cycle. A literacy coach can smooth the transition, and help to maintain the quality of instruction.
5. Grade Level Meetings
Many schools arrange time for teachers at a common grade level to meet. These arrangements are made by hiring substitutes, paying teachers to come in early or stay late, or have the children supervised by auxiliary teachers. The goal of the meeting is to discuss grade level issues, plan, collaborate, problem solve, and share teaching tips.
Literacy coaches raise the level of productivity in grade level meetings. Under the guidance of a literacy coach, grade level teams have read professional books, studied lessons, and examined student work. A literacy coach can also serve as a liaison across grade levels. Grade level teams without the support of a literacy coach might be dominated by housekeeping chores (planning field trips, etc.) or deteriorate into off-task talk.
Many schools have invested thousands of dollars in their school bookrooms. Publishers charge over $10,000 for a startup bookroom for three grade levels. Bookrooms require time and maintenance. Some schools have their collection on a database. New titles need to be purchased. Books need to be culled, repaired, inventoried, and sometimes hunted down. While volunteers and paraprofessionals can be trained to do some of these tasks, the literacy coach oversees all of them. Without a coach’s supervision, a bookroom can quickly disintegrate into disorder. The literacy coach protects the school’s investment.
7. Professional Library
Like the bookroom, the professional library is usually maintained by the coach. The coach orders materials and subscriptions, oversees lending procedures, and weeds the collection as needed. As a knowledgeable professional, s/he knows what books, journals, and videos would best meet the needs of the faculty. Although a professional library costs only a fraction of the cost of a bookroom, it is still a significant investment.
8. Training and Managing Volunteers
Senior citizens, at-home moms, high school students earning service hours, and members of the business community show up at local schools wanting to help. Schools welcome the interest of the larger community, and would love for volunteers to have positive experiences in their buildings. However, teachers are unnerved by a volunteer’s sudden and unexpected appearance at the classroom door. They may resort to assigning menial tasks such as photocopying and filing.
Some literacy coaches have accepted the responsibility of overseeing volunteers. They keep track of tasks that need to be done (like bookroom maintenance), create volunteer handbooks, and have even trained regular volunteers to work with small groups of students. Most school administrators will agree that a positive community image is priceless.
9. Overseeing Successful Program Implementation
When a school selects a new reading or language arts program, there is a lot of frontloading. Teachers, coaches, and administrators attend resource fairs. Materials are piloted. Publishers provide the initial professional development sessions. However, when it comes to the hands-on, day-in-and-day-out use of new instructional materials, many teachers find that they are on their own. Some school districts recognize the flaw in this plan. For the past three years, the Chicago Public Schools administration has provided a coach for the first year of a school’s implementation of a new reading program. This is a step in the right direction, but it takes teachers three years to become completely acclimated to a new program. A literacy coach can ensure the successful implementation of new instructional materials.
It costs $137.92 per student for the first grade student textbooks and $351.41 for the teacher’s edition of a recent reading program we considered adopting. That doesn’t include the workbooks, the leveled books, the CDs, the assessments, the intervention materials, etc. These prices are not at all atypical; instructional materials are major investments. A literacy coach can protect those investments.
10. Improved Student Achievement
This is the bottom line. I am happy to report that the research on literacy coaching is positive. For example, Diane Stephens’ and her colleagues’ research revealed that struggling readers in classrooms supported by coaches achieved 5.14 years of growth in three years. There are many more positive results.
Of course, school districts are much more interested in their own students’ outcomes. Literacy coaches can do themselves a favor by collecting and reporting how student achievement has improved with the support of coaching. As matter of fact, coaches can make a point of frequently spotlighting the work that they do. Don’t wait for the spring budget meeting to show school districts that a literacy coach is worth his or her weight in gold.