From the left, Yodhira Padilla Cervantes, Briana Rodriguez, and Daisy Gonzalez work with instructional coach Valerie Cordle on their fourth-grade math project at White City's Mountain View Elementary School. Bob Pennell / Mail Tribune photo - Bob Pennell

Coaching the Teachers

Former classroom teacher Valerie Cordle crouches next to a trio of fourth-graders to quiz them about how they solved a place-value problem assigned by their teacher at Mountain View Elementary School in White City.

"Tell me the value of that 5," Cordle says, pointing to a 5 in a column labeled "10,000s."

"Fifty thousand," replies fourth-grader Daisy Gonzalez.

"How do you know that?" Cordle asks.

"It's in the 10,000 place, and 5 times 10,000 is 50,000," Daisy says.

Fourth-grade teacher Lorie Barber invited Cordle, one of Eagle Point schools' 10 new instructional coaches, into her classroom to assess how her students are responding to her approach for teaching math.

After classes adjourn, Barber and Cordle will meet to talk about what went well in the lesson, what needs to be improved, how that might be done and any individual students who might need extra help. The idea is that the two will collaborate to improve instruction in the class without Barber having to worry she is being evaluated as she might be by a principal or other supervisor, Cordle said.

The use of instructional coaches in Jackson County has been catching on as schools look for ways to improve instruction while facing cutbacks in state education funding and even teacher layoffs.

Schools are able to hire the coaches with some federal education funds that are reserved for special purposes. Federal money allocated to help schools serve students in poverty can't be used to hire teachers, but it can pay for instructional coaches. Some of the federal stimulus money has the same restriction, local school district officials said.

The Eagle Point School District, which includes Mountain View, has spent about $700,000 to launch an instructional coach program this fall to improve student achievement by enhancing instruction.

"Tiger Woods has a coach," Cordle said. "Other professionals have coaches. Why not teachers?"

Some other districts had already signed on to the concept.

Medford schools began providing an instructional coach last year for each of its 18 campuses after starting in 2003 with reading coaches provided by a federal grant to improve elementary reading at high-poverty schools.

Phoenix-Talent schools hired several instructional coaches two years ago and expanded its instructional coach program this year to all of its campuses.

Research shows that coaches are more effective in changing teachers' classroom instructional practices than the more traditional one-time staff development workshop, according to a recent study by Jim Knight and Jake Cornett of the University of Kansas Center of Research for Learning.

"The traditional way to do staff development is you send teachers to workshops," said Tina Mondale, Eagle Point schools director of school improvement. "The transfer into the classroom is zero. It just doesn't translate into more effective instruction."

Workshops can be helpful for some teachers, said Teresa Sayre, Phoenix-Talent schools instructional services director.

"But sometimes they will have questions afterwards, and the workshop has gone through town (and left) like a carnival," Sayre said.

Instructional coaches provide the follow-up, feedback and reinforcement teachers need to effectively learn or improve their techniques, she said.

Coaches like Cordle will model lessons for teachers, observe them in their classrooms, give feedback, analyze student data and help teachers come up with plans to help struggling students. They also often arrange staff development and try out and train teachers in new curriculum.

"It's going to be terrific for teachers to work with (Cordle)," Barber said.

Barber said instructional coaches help to foster communication between teachers, so that if one teacher is doing something well, she or he can share the method with others. One of the major challenges of teaching is a feeling of working in isolation, and coaching helps end that feeling, she said.

Yet, the impact of instructional coaches on student achievement is more difficult to pin down in research. That made the introduction of instructional coaches last year a point of debate in the Medford district.

An advocacy group called Stand for Children at the time called on the Medford district to put the seasoned, expert teachers who had been hired as instructional coaches back into the classroom, where they could have a more direct impact on children and help ease class sizes.

This year, the Medford district's federal funds that can't be used for teachers have been used to support the instructional coach program.

During a review of the district's program earlier this month, Medford schools Superintendent Phil Long said the district's test scores continue to improve, but sometimes it's difficult to distinguish whether one, several or all of the different measures schools take are responsible for the progress.

"It's complex," Long said. "It's all of the piece together."

Mondale said she expects to see improvement in Eagle Point in reading, an area of focus this year.

"We are hoping to see a significant impact on student achievement through the use of instructional coaches," Mondale said. "That's why we're doing it."

Reach reporter Paris Achen at 776-4459 or e-mail

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