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Coaching at Scale: A Strategy for Strengthening the Early Learning Workforce

Two teachers engaging with elementary students in a classroom.

Evidence shows that children’s early years are a crucial time for their development. Well-designed early childhood education (ECE) experiences can foster meaningful gains in school readiness, as well as long-term benefits such as lower rates of special education placement and higher graduation rates. The quality of early education is highly dependent on sufficient preparation and support for early educators to meet the needs of diverse young learners.

Research has identified high-quality coaching as an effective professional learning practice for supporting educators in the implementation of evidence-based practices. According to the research, effective coaching relies on a strong partnership between coaches and educators; reflection and individualized feedback; focused observations; intentional coaching plans to guide sessions; and job-embedded learning opportunities for active learning. Well-qualified coaches with knowledge of specific coaching models and practices, general coaching and consultation skills (e.g., an understanding of adult learning principles and how to build rapport), and knowledge of early childhood development and teaching are critical as well. Research suggests that coaching can be effective both in person and virtually. Although research has not found a specific dosage requirement necessary for effective coaching, the findings indicate that outcomes are highly sensitive to coaching quality and that more comprehensive coaching is more effective when it is continuous for a sustained period.

This report examines five early childhood coaching systems—two state systems (Alabama and Washington) and three California county systems (El Dorado, Fresno, and San Diego)—that have developed systemic coaching approaches. We studied these coaching systems to understand the different ways that comprehensive coaching systems can be implemented at scale, the types of coaching approaches used, and the supports offered. Although there is no singular strategy to scale effective coaching, this research provides insights for policymakers and program administrators seeking to incorporate coaching into their efforts to improve the quality of early childhood education. In the following sections, we summarize the key findings from the report.

Approaches to Providing Early Learning Coaching

States and counties are faced with a variety of questions to answer and decisions to be made when developing early learning coaching systems. The systems we studied have answered these questions as follows:

Who will receive coaching? For nearly all the systems, the primary coaching recipients were early education lead or assistant teachers and home-based early educators. San Diego prioritized site leaders as the primary recipients to maximize the reach of coaching with limited funding. The average ratio of coaches to sites was similar across the five systems, regardless of primary recipient, at approximately 1 coach for every 22 sites.

How is coaching dosage determined? There was no standardized model for the frequency and duration of coaching. Frequency was based on the perceived level of need and varied from multiple sessions per week to two sessions per year.

How is coaching delivered? Coaching was primarily delivered through face-to-face, in-person sessions. Virtual modes of coaching were also leveraged to supplement the frequency of contact and offer additional peer learning supports.

What guides the content of coaching? The content of coaching was tightly aligned with quality standards (e.g., Quality Rating and Improvement Systems [QRIS], state PreK standards) and linked to other professional development efforts, which research finds is important in order for coaching to achieve greater impacts on practice. Across all the coaching systems studied, coaches emphasized how to use classroom assessment tools and standards to inform practice, engage in continuous quality improvement, and meet the individual needs of early educators. Other common drivers of content included supporting students’ social-emotional development, the use of trauma-informed practices, meeting the needs of dual- and multilingual learners, and promoting racial equity.

How is coaching effectiveness promoted? The coaching systems promoted the effectiveness of scaled coaching through three main strategies: (1) creating structures to support a qualified coaching workforce and relationship development; (2) using reflective practice to drive instruction and improvement; and (3) using individualized, strengths-based practice to engage educators in quality improvement.

How are coaches employed and funded? To provide wide access to coaching, all the coaching systems intentionally employ coaches regionally at agencies that serve multiple settings. In Alabama and Washington, coaching is funded primarily through state general funds. The three California counties rely on local First 5 funding as their primary funding source for coaching.

What qualifications do coaches have? El Dorado, Fresno, and San Diego counties in California and the state of Alabama required coaches to have at least a bachelor’s degree. Washington prefers a bachelor’s degree but has allowed regions to recruit local coaches who speak early educators’ home languages and offers regions a pathway for supporting these coaches to obtain their degrees while working. All systems also required coaches to have practical ECE experience, effective and developmentally appropriate pedagogy skills, and strong interpersonal skills.

How are coaches provided professional development and support? Coaching systems build coaches’ technical and content expertise through onboarding and ongoing professional development. They also provide one-on-one and peer supports such as reflective supervision, peer mentors for less experienced coaches, and learning communities to support continuous learning and well-being.

Perceived Benefits of Coaching

Participants in the coaching systems studied described multiple benefits, including educator satisfaction, improved educator practice, and improved program quality. Across systems, educators consistently highlighted their positive experiences with coaching and the personal and professional support they received from their coaches. These relationships were critical in driving improvements in educators’ practice and creating feelings of being more connected and less isolated.

Study participants across all the coaching systems described a perceived improvement in educator practice and, in turn, children’s learning. Educators and site supervisors shared examples of improved instructional practices, such as the gathering of observational assessment evidence into learning activities (rather than as a disconnected activity) and interacting with children more effectively to support their cognitive and social-emotional development. Program administrators also connected improvements in educator practice with higher educator ratings on observational tools used to assess the quality of teacher–child interactions (e.g., Classroom Assessment Scoring System) and the quality of the environment (e.g., Environment Rating Scales), and they attributed the high number of programs that received high ratings on those tools to coaching.

Enablers and Challenges of Implementation

Common enablers helped establish early childhood coaching systems that were scaled to the state and county levels. Political support helped ignite and sustain action around implementing coaching systems and partnerships between governmental and nongovernmental entities that then contributed to increased capacity and stronger coaching across the mixed delivery system. However, there were also multiple challenges to creating and sustaining coaching systems. Substantive partnerships require structures for sustained coordination, and the systems in this study held regular interagency meetings to facilitate this coordination. Other common challenges included insufficient funding for coaching, lack of time for early educators to participate in coaching, and restrictive policies that limited the intensity or focus of coaching. For example, policies have created challenges by mandating requirements for reaching rating targets and maintaining funding or limiting coaching sessions for sites with higher ratings. Some coaching systems also faced challenges when they were attempting to recruit qualified coaches or negotiating partnerships with other community organizations.

Recommendations for Policy and Practice

Strategies used in the systems we studied suggest specific actions that state and county—and, in some cases, school district and local—policymakers can initiate to support the implementation of coaching systems for the early learning workforce. These recommendations are as follows.

  1. Provide dedicated funding for site-based coaching, with the goal of making instructional coaching accessible to all programs for quality enhancement, as well as to educators in need of more support. Funding needs to be sufficient to allow coaches to reach all programs and have reasonable caseloads that give them time to meet with educators. For example, Alabama reserves approximately 8% of state preschool funding for coaching and instructional supports. Alabama has also incorporated paid planning and reflection time into program schedules to allow educators to participate in coaching.
  2. Provide specialized coaching for site leaders in addition to early educators. Coaching for site leaders—including site directors, program directors, and school principals—is a potentially high-leverage investment for ensuring greater equity in quality across sites because it can provide site leaders with common knowledge and skills in early education. Furthermore, site leaders set the professional development agenda at their sites, and site leaders can sometimes provide instructional coaching themselves. States that already have leadership academies or learning networks for principals can consider adding content about early childhood instruction.
  3. Create coherence between coaching and quality rating and improvement systems. States can ensure greater coherence by using quality rating criteria, standards, and assessment tools to inform the content of coaching and by ensuring that traditional forms of professional learning (e.g., training and workshops) are paired with coaching. States can also keep coaching, monitoring, and rating roles separate within quality improvement systems to help maintain focus on coaching to improve the quality of practice. Depending on governance structures, creating coherence may require partnerships across agencies. To facilitate coordination and collaboration, the systems in this study held regular interagency meetings.
  4. Set standards for the expertise and experience of coaches and provide ongoing coach support. To perform the job well, coaches need specific skills and competencies (e.g., expertise in child development, developmentally appropriate instruction, and experience working with adult learners) and ongoing support. In Alabama and Washington, coaching qualification standards are set at the state level and include educational attainment of at least a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education or a related field, several years of experience working with children from birth through age 5, and strong interpersonal skills.
  5. Identify regional strategies to recruit a diverse coaching workforce. Coaches need to have expertise in the settings in which they coach and familiarity with the culture of the children, families, and early learning staff. El Dorado, Fresno, and San Diego counties and Washington have all partnered strategically with organizations to employ coaches who represent, and are trusted by, participants across ECE settings, including resource and referral agencies and local library systems that engage with home-based and family, friend, and neighbor educators. To ensure that coaches are linguistically diverse and speak early educators’ home languages, some regions in Washington have created pathways to support bilingual coaches in obtaining their bachelor’s degree in early childhood education while working.
  6. Develop a state clearinghouse of coaching resources to enable high-quality, consistent coaching. States play an important role in building the capacity of the coaching workforce and bringing consistency to the overall approach to coaching across the state. States can support coherence by building a clearinghouse of resources, including coaching protocols, frameworks, and rubrics that distribute consistent, evidence-based practices statewide. These resources can be developed among partners and compiled by a state department or a nonprofit organization. States and counties might also provide access to platforms that support virtual and hybrid coaching (along with investments in broadband and technology access), especially in rural areas.
  7. Fund and support a regional system of professional development for coaches. States can provide funding and technical assistance to create regional systems or other networks of professional development—including communities of practice—that build from a set of statewide resources but are tailored to local contexts. Coaching systems can also prepare lead coaches who are experts in certain areas, such as inclusion or dual-language learning, to work with coaches and site leaders.
  8. Collect and analyze data to scale what works. Quality data systems that collect and connect data associated with coaching effectiveness in the research (e.g., coach expertise, focused observations, reflection, feedback, coaching plans, and perceptions of the coach–educator relationship) for ongoing analysis can support informed policymaking. In Alabama, coaching logs are entered into a database that also captures assessment, monitoring, budgetary, and other programmatic information about state preschool sites to allow for an efficient review of site-level data.

Each state and community has its own needs and complexities when providing access to coaching, delivering quality coaching services, and funding and sustaining their coaching systems. However, by implementing these policies and practices, policymakers can support the creation of coaching systems that offer coaching to a variety of early childhood providers across their communities, encourage participation in quality improvement efforts, and provide early educators with structures to support their professional development and practice.

Coaching at Scale: A Strategy for Strengthening the Early Learning Workforce by Abby Schachner, Cathy Yun, Hanna Melnick, and Jessica Barajas is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

This research was supported by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation and the Heising-Simons Foundation. Additional core operating support for LPI is provided by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, Raikes Foundation, Sandler Foundation, Skyline Foundation, and MacKenzie Scott. We are grateful to them for their generous support. The ideas voiced here are those of the authors and not those of our funders.