Improving Professional Development In Early Childhood Education Using A Coaching Model

Improving Professional Development In Early Childhood Education Using A Coaching Model

“You have to coach them up!” In the sports world, this phrase is usually used when talking about an athlete who has the requisite physical or athletic characteristics to succeed (for example: being seven feet tall helps with basketball) but who does not have all the specific skills and knowledge one needs to succeed in that sport. Thus, it is the coach’s job to “coach them up” and maximize their natural abilities by teaching them those skills and giving them that knowledge that they will need to succeed. .

            One does not need to be seven feet tall to work with young children; (in fact it might be a hindrance!) However, one could easily argue that that there are certain temperaments, dispositions, and personality types that are requisite characteristics in order to successfully work with young children. For example, a person with a short temper, who lacks patience, or who is adverse to noise most likely should not be working in a room full of screaming energetic toddlers. Thus, there is a reasonable chance that those who pursue a career in early childhood education and stay on the job most likely are a self-selected group with the personality characteristics to work with young children. On the other hand, not all the people who have the personality to work with young children have the skills and knowledge needed in order to maximize their potential as teachers; moreover, in a field as constantly changing as early education even those with skills and knowledge need to constantly work on improving in order to keep up with the rapidly changing research and science of early childhood development. Or to put it another way, just like basketball players with the size and talent to succeed that need to be “coached up” to reach their potential, early childhood educators with the personalities to work with children need “coaching” in order to make sure they fulfill their teaching potential. This type of “coaching” in the ECE field often comes in the form of professional development.

            What is professional development in the world of early childhood education? What are requirements currently for professional development in the state of Massachusetts? What are the current initiatives to expend and or improve upon the professional development systems of the state? Is professional development effective? In the following paragraphs I will attempt to answer those questions. Then I will describe my own plan to improve professional development for early childhood educators in the state of Massachusetts.

The Current State of Professional Development: Policy, Research, and Practice

            Since professional development can be interpreted in many ways it would pay at this time to have a basic definition of what it refers to. The National Professional Development Center on Inclusion recently came up with a working definition which serves as good guide post about what we mean when we talk about professional development:

“Professional development is facilitated teaching

and learning experiences that are transactional and

designed to support the acquisition of professional

knowledge, skills, and dispositions as well as the

application of this knowledge in practice. The key

components of professional development include

(a) the characteristics and contexts of the learners

(i.e., the who of professional development, including

the characteristics and contexts of the learners

and the children and families they serve), (b) content

(i.e., the what of professional development:

what professionals should know and be able to do,

generally defined by professional competencies,

standards, and credentials), and (c) the organization

and facilitation of learning experiences (i.e., the

how of professional development: the approaches,

models, or methods used to support self-directed,

experientially oriented learning that is highly relevant to practice” ("Building integrated professional," 2010)


Currently in the state of Massachusetts, in order for a teacher to maintain their licensed teacher status, a teacher must complete a certain number of professional development (or PD) hours each year; the number of hours of professional development needed is based on a sliding scale based on the type of care they provide and the number of hours they work.  For instance, a full time employee working 35 hours a week at an early education center would need 20 hours of PD a year (EEC Licensing Policy 2012).  At least 7 hours of the PD must relate to working with “diverse learners” and all the PD should have fit into one of the states eight core competencies: 1. Understanding the Growth and Development of Children and Youth 2. Guiding and Interacting with Children and Youth 3. Partnering with Families and Communities 4. Health, Safety, and Nutrition 5. Learning Environments and Implementing Curriculum 6. Observation, assessment, and documentation 7. Program planning and development 8. Professionalism and leadership (EEC Licensing Policy 2012). The PD can be achieved via a wide array of formats such as college courses, self-study which must be supported by documentation, online webinars, trainings from qualified instructors, or trainings given by the Department of Public Health, and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Ed (2012). All of these PD hours must be documented by teachers in the new Professional Qualifications Registry. ("Professional qualification registry," 2010)

            In addition to these 20 hours of yearly professionally development, the new QRIS system of the State of Massachusetts has other requirements. Each educator and administrator must complete an individual education plan yearly. The plans need to include professional goals, personal goals, how those goals align with the needs of the school or distract, and a list of this all the various types of professional development the person completed. ("Sample individual professional," 2011)

            To go along with this idea of continued PD throughout ones career, the state has devised a career ladder. The genesis of the career ladder started with the Department of Early Education and Care’s Workforce Development Task Force in 2008. The goal of the ladder was to create different steps for educators to advance to and describe the job functions that went along with those steps and the skills, responsibilities, and knowledge one would need to perform those functions.("The path to a career," 2011) The ladder was designed with the goals of being able to used by the wide array of types of care providers from family providers to center based care, to focus on individual professional growth vs. QRIS which focuses more on center wide growth and measurement, and that there are opportunities  for professional growth even outside the confines of a college degree.  (2011)

            The career ladder recognizes 5 different levels of designation: 1. Beginning or Entry Level 2. Novice Level 3. Independent Level  4. Supervisory Level and 5. Leadership Level.  Each designation has its own set of qualifications and responsibilities that go along with it ("Eec career ladder," 2011). While the ladder was development with the recommendations of the Workforce Development Task Force The Department of EEC Commissioned, it is currently only a framework. The Career Ladder is not required to be used by anyone in the state but merely is recommended to be used as a guidepost for centers to help staff with professional growth and when it comes to deciding the proper compensation level for the staff.  Additionally, the career ladder is not currently aligned with the QRIS even though there is a possibility of this type of alignment occurring in the future and for the career ladder to be officially policy of the QRIS that centers must go by ("Eec career ladder," 2011).

            While the career ladder does not require a college degree, the state does encourage PD via obtaining college degrees in Early Childhood Education or a closely related field. To expedite the process of finding what type of college degree and program would best meet the needs of an individual educator, the state partnered up with the Bessie Tartt Wilson Initiative for Children (or BTWIC) to create an “Early Educators Roadmap To A College Degree” ("An early educator's," 2013). Along with the “Roadmap” the state legislature has created a pilot scholarship program which is being tested as a way to provide assistance to educators working with young children pursing a college degree ("Early childhood educators," 2012 . )

            In order to determine whether or not these various initiatives to improve professional development have been effective, the Department of EEC commissioned UMass Boston to do a study of the state’s professional development system. The first annual report was published in 2011 and had a myriad of findings that were both positive regarding PD in the state but also concerning regarding various potential roadblocks to improving PD. Overall, it was found that the various stakeholders such as educators and directors had an interest in improving PD and wanted to see the new QRIS system succeed. On the other hand, many people in the field reported of scarcity of resources regarding PD especially in the areas not in and around Boston; additionally, the demand of more PD but without adequate concurring compensation increases made many question whether or not they want to or could stay in the field, and there has been a large time commitment by various stakeholders to try to implement all the changes in “real time” (Douglass, Heimer & Hagan, 2011). These are some of the concerns this paper will address later when the new initiatives to improve PD in Massachusetts are described.

            One of these new initiatives is The Aspire Institute which is based out of Wheelock College; the Institute which works with the state was founded in 2008 and is funded both by Wheelock and Race To The Top grants. The institute has undertaken various initiatives relating to the field of education with a particular focus on providing free on relatively cheap PD for early educators via online modules. These modules are designed to be accessible to early educators who are English Language learners. ("Aspire institute current," 2013) The institute is also currently developing a support system in order to help early educators attain college degrees but that initiative is not launched yet.

            There are two other State initiatives of note which have been discussed; the Early Education Advisory Council made recent recommendation to the state. One was to create a ‘Digital Hub” which would create an online resource that would be designed to provide PD that boosts the capacity of teachers. The other initiative would be to create a system of peer assisting and coaching where teachers would work with one another to improve practice.

("Eec advisory council," 2013 ) While both of these proposals were made by the counsel, neither has been launched. In fact, the state is currently in the process of designing and eventually piloting these initiatives so they can be brought to scale and become integrated into the state’s EEC system.

            So far we have focused on the State of Massachusetts requirements and current initiatives for PD; however before the founding of the QRIS, The National Association For The Education Of Young Children or NAEYC was the major driver of Early Education policies and procedures throughout the country (and it many ways it stay may be); furthermore, NAEYC accreditation was and is considered by most in the field as the number one mark of a quality program. Hence, if we are going to discuss the past and current state of PD, it is important we get NAEYC’s perspective.


            NAEYC recognizing the difficulty in creating a PD system for Early Childhood Education since the systems of ECE delivery vary widely. However, they do have an overall framework regarding their beliefs related to PD. They believe PD is an ongoing process, that PD must be rooted in sound theory, that it is most effective when it is responsive to a person’s background and the current context of their life, that PD is done in way that affirms and respects ECE professionals, and that there must be clear links between linkage between theory and practice  ("A conceptual framework," 1993).  NAEYC itself also offers various opportunities for PD; there is the yearly NAEYC conference where early educators across the country go to network and various experts in the field of ECE give trainings, workshops, and give speeches ("Naeyc annual conference," 2013). This year, NAEYC has also added a second conference exclusively focused on both providing PD and learning about what works in PD with a focus on developmentally appropriate practice aka DAP ("The national institute," 2013). Along with these face to face opportunities for PD, NAEYC provides online PD opportunities for individuals and entire early education centers at various price points depending on whether or not one is a member of NAEYC ("Naeyc online learning," 2013).

            Now that we know, what rules, regulations, and initiatives from governmental and the biggest NGO relating to ECE are, let’s focus on the efficacy of the various types of PD.  Many of the types of works shops or training offered by NAEYC or that constitute PD to meet the 20 required hours for licensure in the state of MA often fall under the category of “one shot” PD. This type of PD  which often done as “in service training” on site at early education centers is characterized by the early educator going to a training for an hour or two with little or no follow up to see if the educator understood the concepts being discussed, if the PD effected educators practice, and if any change of practice was beneficial for the children in the class. Unfortunately, “ there is ample evidence that one shot workshops are generally ineffective” (Kagan & Kristie , 2012). This type of one off professional development alone does not seem to have make major impact on teacher’s practice, but there are studies that show that in service style PD that includes coaching can have larger positive effects.

                One such study was examined the effectiveness of PD relating to language and literacy instruction in both center based and family based early education programs. In the study teachers were put into 3 different groups a control group, a group that took a 3 credit college course, and a group that took a course and received coaching afterwards (Neuman & Cunningham, 2009). Both teachers knowledge and teaching practices where looked into after the treatments to determine their efficacy; surprisingly when it came to knowledge about language and literacy development, no statistically significant differences were found in any of the three different groups (2009). The same was true regarding practice when the control was measured versus the group that only took the three credit course in language and literacy; but, the group that took the course and received coaching saw significant positive changes in their practice on a number of different measure (2009). The coaches who provided on sight mentoring, descriptive feedback, established a rapport with the staff being coached, and that tied their coaching back to research were able to have a positive impact on practice.

A similar but more extensive study was conducted that examined coaching of Head Start teachers from 2002 to 2005; the coaching was part of the U.S. Department of Education’s Early Childhood Educator Professional Development Program and again focused on whether or not long term coaching could have positive impacts on teacher’s practice in the classroom (Powell, Steed & Diamond , 2009 ) In this case some measures of literacy practice specifically phonological awareness instruction did have significant improvements but other teaching practice related to reading and writing instruction did not (2009).

In both cases of the last two studies mentioned an outsider came into the an early education center and attempted some sort of PD intervention that was already preconceived by the person giving the PD; there was no input from teachers as to what the nature of the PD would be.  Some argue that PD does not have to rely on this top down approach with the “expert” coming and determining the nature of the PD. In an article published in the Early Childhood Education Journal, Valeri R. Helterbran and Beatrice S. Fennimorel argue that the first step of effective PD should for the actually classroom teachers to determine what are the problems and challenges they face in the classroom. This should be followed by PD designed to meet those problems and long term goal setting and analysis to determine if those goals have been met. (Helterbran & Fennimore, 2004)

The other main current form of PD training is through early educators attempting to obtain college degrees; There have been many studies that have looked into whether or not obtaining a bachelor’s degree actually improves ones practice and children’s outcomes; unfortunately, the results of these studies have been all over the map. An analysis of 7 different studies on the effect of Bachelor’s degrees on teacher’s practice and benefits for students found positive benefits in two of the students and negligible effects in the other five studies. (Zigler , Gilliam & Barnett , 2011)

The other issue with attaining college degrees for educators to improve their PD is the fact that colleges cost a significant amount of money; the tuition and other fees for college in the state of Massachusetts average to more than 36,000 thousand dollars a year (Syre, 2012). The cost of college even if one receives some grants and scholarships usually is largely put on the shoulders of the actual student who will most often have to accrue large amounts of student loans. PD via the attainment of college degree is thus not very affordable for many in the field especially when one considers the overall low salaries associated with working in early childhood education (about 30 thousand dollars a year is a typical average salary in the field) (

Problem Statement

            As we can see the current system of professional development can best be described as confusing, not responsive to teacher’s needs, and costly. In addition, there is not a general consensus as to what might actually be the most effective form of PD; this might be due to the inherent differences in people and their styles of learning. For example, some people might be able to benefit for an online program while others might now. 

Policy Solution

            We must create a system of PD which is easy for educators to access, is not overly costly, and will pertain to their actual specific needs in the classroom; the last point is critical as often times depending on the makeup of the class and various other factors, the type of support and PD that an educator needs might vary greatly from year to year or even on a day to day basis. New situations and issues always arise which a teacher may not know how to handle to which PD that is responsive to teachers needs can effectively meet; furthermore, the field and research related to early childhood education is perpetually changing. While knowledge of new research might not always correlate to better practice, it is safe to say that it would behoove the early childhood profession is educators were as up to date as possible on the latest research. In addition, research has pointed to a combination of course work and consistent coaching as the best way to improve teacher practice (Neuman, S. B., & Cunningham, L. (2009). Hence this policy solution will have three main goals.

1.      To provide PD via coaching that is based on what the teacher believes they need help in support with and what coaches see as areas for improvement.

2.      To provide PD that keeps teachers up to date on the  latest research

3.      To provide both of these types of PD at no cost to the teacher since low salaries mean that most teachers cannot handle extra financial burdens.

If these goals sound familiar, it is because they are. The goals are partially based on the aforementioned recommendations of the EEC advisory counsel. The counsel’s ideas to create a “Digital Hub” and a system of peer support are not fully fleshed out; thus, the policy proposals we will discuss in the rest of this paper are designed to create detailed programs that will go along with the counsel’s goals.  The plan to achieve these goals will contain 2 main components.

1.      A new “Coaching License” designation will be created for the state’s early educators. Coaches will work to provide specific support for their colleagues at various centers. They will also be partnered via online networks with educators across the state in a way that allows them to answer questions and specific feedback and advice to meet educators’ needs.

2.      Free massive online open courses will be created to allow every early educator to become up to date on the latest research related to early educator, early childhood development, and early childhood policy.





Details of Coaching License Component:

                Currently there is no formal designation after “Lead Teacher” in the state of Massachusetts ("EEC professional certification," 2013).  (the aforementioned career ladder has other designations, but that is only a guide that few in the field actually use). This leads to an odd situation where a teacher who only has a few years’ experience as a Lead Teacher and the minimal amount of training has the same designation a teacher who has 20 years’ experience and a Master’s Degree in Early Childhood Education.  In order to remedy this we will create a “Coaching License.” Here are the steps one would need to take to receive a “Coaching License”

1.      In order to obtain a “Coaching License” one would have to have been working as a Lead Teacher for at least five years. A teacher working for more than five would have demonstrated both a commitment to the field and most likely through experienced learned practical knowledge that they could bestow to other teachers.

2.      In order to obtain a “Coaching License” one must have at least a Bachelor’s Degree in Early Childhood Education; again this would limit the pool of potential coaches to those who have made the commitment to earn a bachelors in early education and thus will be more committed to stay in the field.  Having earned a degree in Early Education would most likely mean that the person has understand of the theoretical knowledge regarding early childhood development and effective pedagogy which they can impart on others. Furthermore, completing a college degree again could be a sign of other skills such as persistence and commitment which would be helpful for a Coach to have.

3.      The final component of getting a coach certification would be to take a college course in coaching; working with adults is different than working with young children; thus, a coach would need to know the pedagogical techniques needed in order to help adults improve their practice.

4.      Coaches will be subject to evaluations by those they coach and will be required in order to make sure they are meeting the needs of those they coach in order to maintain their certifications

5.      Coaches will also be paid a yearly stipend by the state (as of yet to be determined). This should provide incentives for people to pursue their degree and hopefully help offset some of the costs of getting a degree.

Obviously, current budgets are tight; however, both Governor Patrick and President Obama have announced initiatives to improve Early Childhood Education in their recent State of The State and State of The Union addresses respectively; the hope would be the stipends from the coaches would come from money that the state and federal government uses for the initiatives to improve the quality of early childhood education.

While the number of coaches would obviously be small at first, the eventually goal would be to team up every early educator in the state with a coach who will help them with their practice. Ideally, the coaches would be onsite, but if that was not feasible an online system could be created where educators could communicate with their coach on a daily basis if need be and ask for advice; the coaches could help with everything from planning activities to meet various curricular goals to dealing with challenging behaviors in the classroom. The online component could be part of the “Digital Hub” which is currently in the process of being created. This leads up to our second component.

Component 2: Free Online Professional Development

            The “Digital Hub” is being created in conjunction with the television station WGBG

("Eec advisory council," 2013 ). This partnership will no doubt reap benefits, but why stop there? There is another resources that can be used to create online courses and systems that can benefit early educators that is unique to Massachusetts. Massachusetts is home to literally hundreds of colleges and universities and has some of the most prestigious universities in the world such as Harvard and MIT; in addition, we have much college such as Lesley and Wheelock which specialize in Early Education. Currently, there is a movement to open up the possibility of online education to the masses. Harvard and MIT have recently joined forces to create Massive Open Online Courses and currently are making plans to convene a summit on these type of programs (Rutter 2013).

            As part of its “digital hub” this paper recommends that The Department of Early Education and Care reach out to Harvard, MIT, Wheelock, and Lesley to create anMassive Open Online Courses network for early education that early educators can access at no cost which would allow them to stay up to date on the latest early childhood education research. In addition, to these open courses, they should work with Harvard and MIT to develop as system which pairs newly certified coaches wit h Early Childhood Educators. While Harvard and MIT would be current targets to help with the creation of these systems because of their current initiatives related to Massive Open Online Courses, the goal would be to get other colleges in the area to help create the programs and share the costs; while obviously, creating these programs will be costly and most likely require some tax payer funds, the idea would be to have the colleges shoulder some of the costs as well which Harvard and MIT with their massive endowments seem to be willing to do since they are already undertaken their initiatives. In addition, both universities have shown willingness to partner up with the government in these efforts. For example, Mayor of Boston Tom Menino recently announced that the city was working with both colleges on a program called EdX to bring free college courses to Boston’s Community centers (Ryan 2013). Completion of these courses won’t result in college credit (as the current Massive Open Online Courses do not), but those who complete them will receive certificates of completion and the number of corresponding PD hours earned which can be applied to licensure.


Assessment of Politics

            Both the coaching certification and the “Digital Hub” are designed to be state based programs; thus, it will be state government officials who are most likely to need to be targeted in order to get the programs creation. The Governor judging by his recent State of The State address seems to already be on board with increasing funding towards early childhood education. Similarly, the aforementioned advisory council has already recommended to the Department of ECE to create the “Digital Hub” and some sort of peer coaching network; thus, but of these initiatives already align with the stated goals of many of the upper level and mid-level policy holders.

            There is one major caveat to all this and that is cost; as stated previously, the hope would that state would be able to convince some of the universities to assist with some of the costs of the Digital Hub that would include the classes and the ability for coaches to connect with teachers. The harder equation will be to convince the legislature to pass Governor’s Patrick’s tax reforms which would generate the revenue to fund the Coaching License initiative. The best way to do this would be via a combination of grassroots organizing, using social media, and building off of current organizations efforts to lobby those working at the State House. Early Educators and other stake holders can use social media and other traditional media to help get the word out about why these type of initiatives are worth funding. Organizations like Strategies For Children also already have campaigns in place which teachers can join such “Rising Stars of Massachusetts” which are designed to lobby for more funds for early education (Rising Stars 2013)



            There are currently initiatives and proposals which can be built upon to provide free and effective professional development for the early educator in Massachusetts. Unfortunately, the research has not found a 100 percent consensus as to what works best relating to PD; however, the research points to PD that includes both coaching along with classes and training about the latest research to be most effective. Our proposal is to create 2 new systems that will improve PD and practice for the State of Massachusetts. First, will be a new “Coaching License” that will allow current professionals to give targeted training and support to early educators. Second, will be the creation of Massive Online Open Courses which educators can access for free and further their knowledge of early development and education.







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The Wonder Of Learning Exhibit Shows Examples of True High Quality Early Childhood Education

The Wonder Of Learning Exhibit Shows Examples of True High Quality Early Childhood Education