SRI is reimagining coaching to support preschool teachers

The research seeks to ensure all children receive a high-quality education.

Across the country, preschool teachers strive to engage young learners and help them develop the physical, emotional, social, and academic skills they need. It’s a hard job, but good coaching can make it easier by helping teachers develop new skills and build on those they already have.

So, over the past year, researchers at SRI’s Education Division have been working with partners at Substantial and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to improve instructional coaching for preschool teachers. Their goal: to ensure that all children receive a high-quality education at this critical point in their lives.

“Coaches use observational tools to assess teacher performance and provide feedback. For these tools to work as intended, they must be able to accurately measure the aspects of teaching that support the growth of all students,” said Todd Grindal, co-director for SRI Education’s Center for Learning & Development and former preschool teacher. “We need to be measuring the right things and doing so in a sufficiently rigorous way to help teachers get from where they are to where we know they need to be to support kids’ development.”

But most existing observational tools fall short of what’s needed, he said. They aren’t yet able to fully capture culturally responsive practices that improve outcomes for minority students or address biases. Assessments can also come across as adversarial instead of collaborative, focusing on what a teacher has done wrong instead of how they can grow and improve in the future. And in many cases, tools are too cumbersome to implement easily with the limited time available to both coaches and teachers, leading to assessments that are too infrequent to be productive.

“Teachers need to be getting more frequent, bite-sized pieces of feedback that feel doable and actionable, instead of a thick report that just feels overwhelming,” said Sarah Gerard, an education researcher at SRI and former pre-K teacher.

With input from early childhood educators, families, and subject matter experts, the SRI team put together a document that outlines criteria for evaluating existing observational tools and designing new ones. It covers the content that a tool should measure, reliability and validity of those measurements, the user experience, the ability to deliver productive feedback, and whether the tool is convenient and affordable to use in a variety of types of classrooms. They shared their work in a recent webinar organized by the Gates Foundation discussing what high quality instructional coaching should look like.

“We really looked at the whole ecosystem, including thinking about the different implicit or explicit ways that discrimination or racism can show up in some of these instructional practices,” said Krystal Thomas, a senior education researcher at SRI.

SRI’s work in this area emphasizes the importance of having instructional tools that can be used equitably and are unbiased across diverse classrooms. Preschool classrooms serve children from a wide variety of racial and ethnic identities, incomes, and geographic areas, and many children speak languages other than English or speak multiple languages. These cultural backgrounds influence how children demonstrate interests, imitate others, and engage in play; coaching should help teachers recognize and support the needs of those students.

Similarly, observational tools and coaching should be designed to support teachers from diverse, multilingual, and multi-racial backgrounds, the researchers said. If a preschool class is taught in a different language, or multiple languages, coaches need to be able to fully understand that context and the tools should be flexible enough to be effective.

“In this important rethinking of what these tools are going to do, equity is the first thing we consider,” Grindal said. “Our hope is that as this work progresses—both our work with the Gates Foundation and our work with other partners—that SRI can be part of this movement to center equity in teaching.”

The researchers are also looking into ways to use various technologies to make coaching more effective and efficient for everyone involved. With support from the Gates Foundation, they are conducting a study to determine if a coach observing a video of a class can get the same information as they would in person.

They are also investigating the possibility of developing specific technologies to assist coaches in analyzing classroom videos. With help from SRI’s Center for Vision Technologies and the Speech Technology and Research Laboratory, they may be able to create tools that can save time by highlighting key elements of classroom practice automatically, allowing coaches to conduct more observations.

“We hope to make instructional coaching easier, cost-effective, and more efficient,” Gerard said. “The real goal here is to have more teachers that are able to get instructional coaching, which then leads to more children being able to have an equitable, high-quality early learning classroom.”

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