March 16, 2016

Pennsylvania’s Barrow School District Seeks Improved Instruction

Written by Caitlin Rose Dailey, FHI 360

As the largest and most urban district in its immediate region, Barrow School District educates over 10,000 students in more than a dozen schools. In the early 2000s, changing demographics in the surrounding community presented Barrow with an increasingly racially, economically, and linguistically diverse student population: the district serves a student body that is over half Hispanic, almost 20 percent African American, just over 10 percent Caucasian, and nearly 10 percent Asian/other. Nearly three-quarters of its students are eligible for free and reduced price lunch.

Test scores in the 2000s, meanwhile, were stagnating in the high stakes era of No Child Left Behind. Barrow’s scores on statewide high stakes tests have been among the lowest in the state in recent years, with the district facing school improvement or corrective action under Adequate Yearly Progress status going back to 2004. District leadership recognized that meeting the diverse needs of their changing student population—and addressing sinking test scores—would demand an enhanced focus on improving instruction in the classroom. Seeking new avenues to improve instruction, in the early years of the millennium Barrow’s superintendent made the decision to implement instructional coaching throughout the district with dedicated funding and vocal support. Instructional coaches were to provide on-site support to teachers for implementing best practices in the classroom.

Instructional coaching is a professional development strategy in which practiced educators bring the benefit of their own experience, reflection, and evidence-based practices to classroom teachers and other school leaders. After decades of isolation and autonomy in the classroom for many American teachers, the education profession is now adopting instructional coaching as one promising strategy for improving instruction, engaging students in their learning, and ultimately raising student achievement. Many districts in Pennsylvania, Barrow among them, have leaned on a coaching model promoted by the Pennsylvania Institute for Instructional Coaching (PIIC), which encourages one-on-one and small group support for teachers, coaches, and school leaders around evidenced-based literacy strategies and coaching practice.

In Barrow, instructional coaching was instituted in every school in the district with funding from federal Title I funds. Most schools had both a math coach and a literacy coach in the early years of the instructional coaching initiative. Although the superintendent who first instituted and championed instructional coaching is no longer with the district, Barrow continues to support instructional coaching with a dedicated funding stream at the district level. When the program was cut for one year under a new superintendent, outcry from district principals brought it back in the next school year. As school funding has dwindled and the ranks of school staffs shrank in recent years, the two coaching positions were collapsed into a single coaching position in each school who works across content areas.

While PIIC is an instructional coaching model designed for teachers working in grades four and above, because coaching in Barrow was a district-wide initiative coaches also worked with teachers in earlier elementary grades. In this case study we conducted interviews with instructional coaches who were coaching both secondary and elementary teachers. Therefore this report includes data on coaches who worked with elementary teachers as well as those who worked with middle school and high school teachers.

Read full report.