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Originally published May 19, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified May 19, 2007 at 2:02 AM

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Math coaches help teachers help kids

When a math teacher at Aki Kurose Middle School in South Seattle went on maternity leave in March, a first-year science teacher, Brian Coffey...

Times Snohomish County Bureau

WHEN A MATH TEACHER at Aki Kurose Middle School in South Seattle went on maternity leave in March, a first-year science teacher, Brian Coffey, was drafted to take over two of her classes. It could have had a familiar and discouraging plot line: an inexperienced teacher, frustrated or bored students and little progress in math.

But Coffey had support. Two math coaches, one based at the school and one who travels the district, regularly observe his classes and offer ideas and teaching strategies to better connect the kids with the math.

"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."

With almost half of 10th-graders — and three-fourths of minority students — last spring failing math on the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL), the state is seeking ways to raise students' math skills and encourage more to continue taking math through high school.

Educators say that instructional coaches have the potential to significantly improve classroom instruction by giving teachers real-time, side-by-side feedback and advice.

The Seattle School District hopes to hire additional math coaches this spring who can be trained over the summer and step into classrooms in September, said Rosalind Wise, K-12 math-program manager for Seattle schools. Currently, Seattle has five districtwide and 10 school-based math coaches. As more are added in the coming years, "We should see a huge increase in the quality of math instruction," Wise said.

The state also has seen the promise of instructional coaches.

Gov. Christine Gregoire signed legislation May 9 allocating $5.4 million to train a small cadre of 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 and includes a revision of state math standards and curriculum, pay incentives for math and science teachers who teach in challenging schools and $40 million in teacher training.

Educators say instructional coaching has shown impressive results across racial and economic lines in reading. Such gains haven't been shown for traditional professional development in which teachers are sent to conferences, which may not be relevant to their style of instruction or the demographics of their students.

"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 typically work directly with teachers, taking over at times to present model lessons, observing and giving feedback, and freeing up teachers so they can collaborate on what's working and what's not.

In high-poverty, low-achievement schools where federally funded reading coaches have worked the past four years, the state has seen dramatic improvement in comprehension and test scores, according to the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI).

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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 are a key to changing instruction," Domaradzki said.

Whether the subject is reading or math, she said coaches provide a variety of support to classroom teachers. They analyze student work to help identify gaps in knowledge. They provide another set of eyes in the classroom, noting when students are engaged and when they tune out. And they suggest buildingwide and districtwide training to build teachers' classroom skills.

The state's experience with reading coaches also has turned up a number of ways in which coaches can be misused, Domaradzki said. Principals sometimes call on them to fill in as substitute teachers. They ask coaches to evaluate teachers, which undermines their role as supporters and mentors. Principals sometimes 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.

"It's important that principals understand the coaches' role. They're not there to serve students. They're not there to judge teachers. They shouldn't be asked to do things that aren't their job," Domaradzki said.

At Aki Kurose Middle School on a recent morning, teacher Coffey employed a variety of approaches to keep his sleepy students engaged — a PowerPoint photo of a bridge that features multiple structural triangles, a flexible Poly-Strip that becomes more rigid as he adds cross-pieces, journal writing and small-group discussion. Coffey is able to coax even some of the reluctant students into conversation.

District math coach Art Mabbott nods his head as Coffey draws out the students. "He's asking deeper-level questions. Getting the right answer is important, but the kids have to know why it's right. That's what they have to demonstrate to some WASL reader down in Oklahoma."

Scott Meltzer, a first-year math coach who divides his time between Aki Kurose and the African American Academy K-8, said inner-city schools can be difficult to staff and typically have high teacher turnover. Coaches can make a difference by providing daily support, ideas for new teaching strategies and help finding engaging classroom materials.

And there are some teachers, he said, who don't have strong math backgrounds, who need help with their own understanding and explanations. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, just 55 percent of Washington secondary math teachers held majors in math in 2000, the most recent year for which figures are available.

Meltzer said that coaches with math expertise can help bridge the knowledge gap.

"Our focus is on the students' work and how we as a team can make that better," he said.

Lynn Thompson: 425-745-7807 or lthompson@seattletimes.com

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