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Using Data to Alter Instructional Practice: The Mediating Role of Coaches and Professional Learning Communities


by Julie A. Marsh, Melanie Bertrand & Alice Huguet — 2015

Background: Despite increased access to student learning data, scholars have demonstrated that teachers do not always know how to use these data in ways that lead to deep changes in instruction and often lack skills and knowledge to interpret results and develop solutions. In response, administrators have invested in instructional coaches, data coaches, and professional learning communities (PLCs) to support teachers in this process. Despite their popularity, there is limited research on the ways in which coaches and PLCs mediate teachers’ use of data and the various types of expertise brought to bear on this process.

Purpose: This exploratory study examined how working with a coach or PLC shaped teachers’ responses to data in six middle schools and the factors that influenced the activities and effects of coaches and PLCs. Our intent was to deeply examine processes and identify key constructs and relationships to guide future research and practice.

Research Design: Our research involved a year-long comparative case study of six low-performing middle schools in four districts that supported teacher data use via literacy coaches, data coaches, or PLCs. We draw on cultural historical activity theory and data from 92 interviews, 6 focus groups, 20 observations of meetings, and monthly surveys of case study teachers (15), coaches (4), and PLC lead teachers (2).

Findings: We found that coaches and PLCs played important roles in mediating teachers’ responses to data and were often associated with instances in which teachers used data to alter their instructional delivery (as opposed to surface-level changes in materials and topics). Further, the dynamic relationship between vertical expertise (an individual’s knowledge and skills) and horizontal expertise (knowledge that is co-created through interactions and movement across contexts) may help explain the ways in which PLCs and coaches facilitated deeper level changes in pedagogy. Finally, dialogue was a central mediating practice, and school leadership and the district-level context shaped the possibility for change.

Conclusions: Our research adds conceptual clarity to what types of expertise may be needed to ensure that teachers respond productively to data. The study suggests that administrators should consider multiple facets of expertise when designing interventions, recruiting coaches, assembling PLCs, and developing professional development for coaches and teacher leaders. The centrality of dialogue also suggests the need for policies and structures allowing for uninterrupted time for educators to collectively reflect on data.



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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 117 Number 4, 2015, p. 1-40
http://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17849, Date Accessed: 4/25/2017 10:34:03 AM

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About the Author
  • Julie Marsh
    University of Southern California
    E-mail Author
    JULIE A. MARSH is an associate professor at the Rossier School of Education at the University of Southern California. She specializes in research on K-12 policy implementation, educational reform, and accountability. Her research blends perspectives in education, sociology, and political science. Recent publications on data use include: “Trickle down accountability? How middle school teachers engage students in data use,” Educational Policy, 2014, 1–28 (online first), and “Interventions promoting educators’ use of data: Research insights and gaps,” Teachers College Record, 2012, 114(11), 1–48.
  • Melanie Bertrand
    Arizona State University
    E-mail Author
    MELANIE BERTRAND is an assistant professor at Arizona State University in Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College. Her research employs micro- and macro-level lenses to expand conceptions of leadership and explore the role of student voice in challenging systemic racism in education. She recently published an article in Educational Administration Quarterly about possibilities for reciprocal dialogue between students of color and educational decision makers.
  • Alice Huguet
    University of Southern California
    E-mail Author
    ALICE HUGUET is a Dean’s Ph.D. fellow at the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education. Her research interests include data use policies for school improvement in urban contexts, interorganizational relationships between schools of varying governance models, and implementation of parent engagement policies. Recent publications include: “Democratic engagement in district reform: The evolving role of parents in the Los Angeles Public School Choice Initiative,” Education Policy, 2014, 1–34 (online first), and “Building teachers’ data-use capacity: Insights from strong and struggling coaches,” in Education Policy Analysis Archives, 2014, 22(52), 1–26.
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