Why Some Instructional Coaching Programs Fall Short: Common Pitfalls

7-minute read

Is your school district investing in instructional coaching but not seeing the desired results? We dug deeper to uncover the common pitfalls and secrets to successfully implementing effective instructional coaching programs.


Instructional coaching is among the most powerful means of helping to develop excellent teachers—and research shows that such teachers are the most important school-based factor for student learning. Leading researchers agree1 that coaching is “an essential feature of professional development training that facilitates teachers’ ability to translate knowledge and skills into actual classroom practice.” Indeed, coaching has been shown to help teachers substantially improve their practice in ways that drive significant gains in academic performance.

In recent decades, school districts have steadily increased the use of coaching as a professional development (PD) tool, doubling the number of coaches per student nationally over the 15 school years from 1997 to 2013 — amounting to roughly two coaches for every 100 teachers across the country.2 Today, 93% of students attend districts where at least one coach or instructional specialist supports teachers to help them improve their practice.3

However, though instructional coaching has the potential to be a powerful development tool and use of coaching has been expanding, most districts have not seen consistent, concrete gains in instruction and academic achievement from coaching.

Why do some instructional coaching programs fall short of their potential to impact teacher practice and student achievement?

While it is becoming increasingly more common in school districts, coaching has thus far not delivered the type of widespread impact on teacher practice and academic performance that many school and district leaders had envisioned given the research on coaching’s potential.

There are four key reasons why instructional coaching programs are falling short of potential: struggling to increase teacher participation, not prioritizing content-specific coaching, not matching coaches’ strengths to teachers’ needs, and using coaching in isolation rather than as a component of a broader professional development program.

  1. Districts often struggle to increase teacher participation in instructional coaching programs
  2. Many districts struggle to increase teacher participation in coaching programs due to a perception that coaching will be used for evaluation rather than for professional development. Plus, only 45% of school districts have coaching programs that are mandatory as opposed to opt-in, compared to 72% of school districts4 that have mandatory traditional PD, typically in the form of group trainings and workshops. In order to have the desired impact, instructional coaching programs need to have broad reach within the school district.

    Districts must, therefore, create a structure that makes teachers feel it is safe to expose their skills gaps in order to learn and develop, without fear of being evaluated. Principals and district leaders must clearly present coaching as a non-evaluative development activity, and communicate that purpose to teachers throughout the district. As one study aptly summarizes, “Trust is ... a critical aspect of instructional coaching. Building a trusting relationship with teachers is a necessary stepping stone for more advanced collaborations around instruction."5

  3. When programs fail to prioritize content-specific coaching, teachers’ needs are not always matched to coaches’ strengths
  4. Coaching programs often are not structured to tightly align the selection of the appropriate coaches, the teachers to be coached, and the approach to coaching used — e.g., data-driven, teacher-practice-driven, or teacher-goal-driven. To be effective, coaches must have knowledge that fits the specific development needs of individual teachers to help them improve practical skills and practices that are directly applicable in the classroom.

    Coaches who specialize in skills related to particular subjects or instructional domains — such as social-emotional learning, special education, or data analysis, among others — are better able to deliver high-quality coaching that is individualized, context-specific, focused, and non-evaluative. Research finds this familiarity is especially critical for coaches of math or literacy instruction and for coaches at the middle or high school levels, who must have a thorough knowledge of the complexities of the content in later grades. When coaches have the specific content knowledge and understand the context, they are able to offer differentiated coaching strategies to meet individual teachers’ development needs.

  5. Coaching is commonly used in isolation rather than as a complement to other professional development efforts
  6. Instructional coaching has the potential to have a much more significant impact on teacher practice and student achievement than more traditional professional development. However, coaching is most effective when included as a core element of a broader professional development program. While participants in traditional, “sit-and-get” PD sessions often lose 50% of the knowledge covered within an hour after the session and 90% after one week, with coaching, 90% of the critical lessons may be retained.6 This is because coaching is uniquely positioned to help teachers retain lessons presented during formal training and to support the implementation of district priorities. It bridges the gap between training and in-classroom practice by providing on-the-job feedback and guided learning to teachers. Coaches help teachers reinforce key technical skills, analytical frameworks, and best practices via classroom observation, out-of-class analysis and planning, and collaboration.

    When paired with other complementary teacher development efforts and instructional resources, coaching helps teachers substantially improve their instructional practice — enough to drive significant improvements in student academic achievement. In fact, teachers who receive coaching as a core element of a broader professional development program see improvements in the quality of their instruction that are “larger than differences in measures of instructional quality between novice and veteran teachers.”7

  7. Many districts have not established the necessary systems and processes for monitoring the progress and impact of coaching
  8. As with any significant program or initiative, it is imperative for school districts to define, measure, and evaluate the success of their coaching programs and to make adjustments as needed, especially as the program grows. A district must build in the capability to monitor the program’s effectiveness from the beginning in order to first be sure that the coaching program is working, and then expand its reach. An effective progress monitoring system analyzes and tracks success criteria including input metrics, output metrics, and outcome metrics. The key to effective progress monitoring is to avoid defining success by inputs, outputs, or outcomes individually. For example, simply relying on inputs could lead a district to believe that its program is going well simply because coaches are holding meetings with teachers and reporting on their activities, despite a lack of movement in output or outcome metrics. Likewise, improvements in student performance that are in fact due to some other factor could be misattributed to the coaching program if districts do not pay attention to the alignment and correlations between all three sets of metrics. Incorporating all three — input, output, and outcome measures — will help districts better pinpoint where the coaching program is succeeding and where it needs to be adjusted or reinforced.

Avoiding common pitfalls requires a strategic approach to designing a coaching program

To maximize the impact of instructional coaching and realize the full potential of this powerful teacher development tool, public school district leaders must take a systematic approach to designing and scaling their coaching programs. Districts must ensure alignment across the structures of their coaching programs: appropriately identifying and assigning coaches, selecting teachers to receive coaching and identifying their specific needs, implementing the right approaches to coaching, and incorporating coaching as a complement to other professional development efforts. Finally, careful monitoring and measuring of inputs, outputs, and outcomes allow districts to pinpoint what is working and what needs to be adjusted as the coaching program scales. If districts are careful to avoid these common pitfalls with careful attention to the structure of their programs, instructional coaching can powerfully advance teacher development and district priorities.


Want to learn a strategic approach to designing an instructional coaching program that will deliver results? Check out these resources:


Bruce Joyce and Beverly Showers (2002), cited in Matthew A. Kraft, David Blazar, and Dylan Hogan, “The Effect of Teacher Coaching on Instruction and Achievement: A Meta-Analysis of the Causal Evidence,” Review of Educational Research, vol. 88, no. 4 (August 2018).

Thurston Domina, Ryan Lewis, Priyanka Agarwal, and Paul Hanselman, “Professional Sense-Makers: Instructional Specialists in Contemporary Schooling,” Educational Researcher, vol. 44, no. 6 (2015): 359–64, available at https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED577949.pdf.

Sarah Galey, “The Evolving Role of Instructional Coaches in U.S. Policy Contexts,” The William & Mary Educational Review, vol. 4, no. 2, article 11 (May 1, 2016), https://scholarworks.wm.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1044&context=wmer.

Annette Konoske-Graf, Lisette Partelow, and Meg Benner, “To Attract Great Teachers, School Districts Must Improve Their Human Capital Systems,” Center for American Progress, December 2016, https://ampr.gs/2U5Irnf; TNTP, “The Mirage: Confronting the Hard Truth About Our Quest for Teacher Development,” 2015, https://tntp.org/assets/documents/TNTP-Mirage_2015.pdf.

Galey, "The Evolving Role of Instructional Coaches."

Shane Lueck, “Hijack Learning Retention Rates by Teaching Learners to Fish,” Learning and Development Blog, Dashe & Thomson, June 27, 2017, https://bit.ly/2WzRWHX.

Matthew A. Kraft, David Blazar, and Dylan Hogan, “The Effect of Teacher Coaching on Instruction and Achievement: A Meta-Analysis of the Causal Evidence,” Review of Educational Research, vol. 88, no. 4 (August 2018).