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What’s the best way to improve teaching quality?

New research pitted intensive training against regular coaching – and the results speak for themselves

improve teaching quality

Which is the most cost-effective way to improve teaching through in-service professional development? Intensive coaching? Or light-touch regular training?

In a new paper for the Journal of Human Resources – which is featured in this month’s CfEE Monthly Research Digest – researchers Jacobus Cilliers, Brahm Fleisch, Cas Prinsloo, and Stephen Taylor offer a head-to-head comparison of the two approaches, as explored through a randomised trial among primary government-school teachers in South Africa.


Quick read: ‘The best form of CPD? Give teachers time to talk’

Quick listen: How to train a teacher

Want to know more? Supported induction: is the fast-track into teaching working?


In both the coaching and training interventions, teachers received the same materials, including detailed daily lesson plans, student reading booklets, flashcards and posters.

The experiment ran in 180 government primary schools, with the two treatment conditions assigned to 50 schools each. In these schools, all teachers received either short, intensive training carried out at a central venue or visits by reading coaches on a monthly basis, who observed their teaching practices and provided feedback.

intense training

In the remaining 80 schools, teachers went about their business as usual. In total, almost 3,000 pupils were followed for two years after the intervention began, with the aim of improving early-grade reading (a crucial task in South Africa where just 22 per cent of pupils can read properly after four years of schooling).

In practice

In the centralised training intervention, teachers received a session at the beginning of the academic year and one in the middle of the year, each lasting two days (for a total of 34 hours). The ratio of teachers to facilitators during the training was roughly seven to one.

In the coaching intervention, specialist reading coaches instead visited teachers on a monthly basis over the academic year. The average teacher received 10 visits, each lasting around 90 minutes, with an hour devoted to teacher observations, followed by 30 minutes of feedback provision and demonstrations of correct teaching techniques.

Information sessions were also held at the start of each term, along with afternoon workshops each year. In total, teachers received around 37 hours of support. Three coaches, all of whom held at least an undergraduate degree and past experiences as teachers and coaches, served 16 or 17 schools each.

Results and analysis

The results show that both interventions had positive effects on pupil performance. After two years, teachers who received coaching improved their pupils’ reading comprehension by the equivalent of around one-and-a-half years of learning more than teachers in the control group, while teachers who received the shorter, centralised training improved their pupils’ performance by around nine months.

Researchers analysed what teachers did differently in the classroom as a result of the interventions. It turned out that coached teachers were more likely to split pupils into smaller reading groups, enabling individualised attention and more opportunities to practise reading.

This “group-guided reading” technique could account for as much as 68 per cent of the overall effect on learning, they found.

But the effects varied by class size and baseline pupil proficiency. There were essentially no effects among pupils in the largest 10 per cent of classrooms or for the weakest fifth of pupils, suggesting that the approach is not a universal solution.

But what about cost? The coaching intervention cost roughly $43 per pupil annually, compared to $31 for the centralised training, but as the effects of the coaching were so much larger, the authors found it to be more cost-effective overall.

Future prospects

So should governments switch to frequent coaching sessions? Possibly, but the next step should first be to try this type of intervention at scale.

Finding three highly skilled coaches is one thing, but you might need hundreds or thousands of them if you were to run a similar programme across an entire country.

One potential route to scale is through new uses of technology. A study in Brazil found positive impacts of a virtual-coaching programme run via Skype, for example.

But perhaps the most straightforward type of technology to go for is scripts, which this paper suggests have positive effects on learning both when presented through centralised training and intensive coaching.

Scripted lesson plans are often criticised for reducing teacher autonomy or de-professionalising teachers, but supporters contend they can be an effective and easily scalable way to raise low teaching quality to acceptable standards.

While the evidence base of the effectiveness of scripted lessons in low-to-middle income countries remains thin, Cilliers and co-authors offer robust and persuasive evidence of learning gains when teachers are given adequate in-service training.

Lee Crawfurd is a fellow of the CfEE and deputy editor of its Monthly Research Digest. This blog is based on his selection for the March issue of the digest. You can view a flipbook version, download a PDF copy and subscribe to receive copies of the digest free of charge here.

The CfEE is an independent thinktank working to improve policy and practice in education through impartial economic research

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