Sense-Makers, Messengers, and Mediators of the New Mathematics Standards: Math Coaches in the Math in Common Community of Practice

by Cathy Carroll; Frances Reade

Jan 1, 2018

Faced with the formidable task of moving new math standards from the page to the classroom, many districts have turned to a class of educators called coaches to serve a crucial role in interpreting and supporting teachers' instructional shifts. However, what these coaches are asked to do, how they are trained, and the theories of action that underlie their work vary greatly from district to district (and sometimes from school to school or coach to coach). To learn more about the wide variety of activities and roles that districts ask coaches to engage in, WestEd interviewed district staff and coaches in the 10 Math in Common (MiC) districts.

The number of coaches per student in American schools increased by 107 percent between 1998 and 2013; California leads the nation in instructional specialist staffing, with three times more coaches than the national average (Domina, Lewis, Agarwal, & Hanselman, 2015). Significant time and energy is being put into coaching even though there is no definitive evidence linking coaching directly to improved student outcomes.

We wondered, then, what do the MiC districts ask their coaches to do and why? How do district systems and choices about resource allocation support or hinder coaches in this work? We found there is wide variation in the work coaches do to improve teaching and learning in individual classrooms and across systems as a whole. To help understand and explain this work, we used Neufeld and Roper's (2003) model as a frame of reference. They divide coaching activities into two categories: change coaching and content coaching. While Neufeld and Roper describe these as expected duties of two separate coach positions, we found that MiC districts often ask coaches to take up elements of both roles. Have the demands of coaching changed since then, or have our common understandings about what works been modified? We wanted to understand this more.

Informed by the interviews we conducted with representatives from each of the Math in Common districts and the examples presented throughout this report, we offer the following recommendations that can help MiC districts, as well as others across the state and country, focus their limited resources on coaching activities that will work best in their context.