Master teachers take the lead

A master teacher, an assistant and blended learning produced “great results” at a new charter school with very disadvantaged children, concludes Public Impact‘s Opportunity Culture project. Touchstone Education opened Merit Preparatory Charter School in Newark in 2012 with a class of sixth graders. Most were several years below grade level; 90 percent came from low-income families.

By March 2013, seven months into the school year, students demonstrated two years of growth in reading and 1.25 years of growth in science. In math, where Touchstone leaders were unable to hire a master teacher, students made three-fourths of a year of growth by March.

The model allows master teachers, who lead teams of novice and developing teachers, to earn up to $100,000 a year, within per-pupil funding. Tiffany McAfee, the master teacher in literacy, worked with first-year Teach For America teacher Jonathan Wigfall in the school’s first year.

Laptop-equipped students were grouped by skill level. McAfee lead whole-group instruction and helped students work through their playlists of individualized lessons, while Wigall rotated among students to help them with questions and keep them on track.

For example, one day students worked in groups to study slides on figurative language,then watched a music video while listening on headphones,taking notes on examples of figurative language in the lyrics. Meanwhile, both teachers moved through the room, overseeing their work. Students then came together for a whole class discussion with McAfee, who asked higher-level questions about the purpose of figurative language and the author’s intent.

Helping less-experienced teachers improve their skills is part of the master teacher’s job. McAfee and Wigfall reviewed the week’s data every Friday and planned the following week’s lessons. The master teacher also worked with the school’s reading specialist and the special education teacher to plan the daily, three-hour reading block. (Students are pulled out for an hour of P.E.)

Next year, Merit Prep will hire a master teach in math in hopes of achieving gap-closing progress.

Charlotte, North Carolina is redesigning teachers’ jobs to improve low-performing schools, write Public Impact’s Emily Ayscue Hassel and Bryan C. Hassel in Education Next.  Again, the idea is to give more students access to excellent teachers, while using novices in support roles.

Charlotte, N.C.’s Project L.I.F.T.New Teaching Roles Create Culture of Excellence in High-Need Schools explains the plan. In One Teacher’s View of Becoming a Paid Teacher-Leader, a veteran teacher talks about becoming a multi-classroom leader.

Personalized learning with 48 students

In The Right Mix, Education Sector’s Susan Headden profiles a charter high school in Los Angeles that’s using blended learning to personalize instruction — despite having 48 students in a class. The Alliance Tennenbaum Family Technology High School “combines online and traditional instruction and allows students to learn in three different ways,” she writes.

On this particular fall day, 16 students are getting traditional in-person instruction in Algebra I from teacher Wendy Chaves; roughly the same number are doing math problems online; and still others are gathered in clusters of four tutoring each other. No matter where they are in the rotation, they see the student-to-teacher ratio as what it effectively is—an ideal 16-to-1.

Students work at their own pace, Headden writes. “With the software taking up chores like grading math quizzes and flagging bad grammar, teachers are freed to do what they do best—guide, engage, and inspire.”

Tennenbaum’s BLAST model breaks the day into two-hour blocks with students spending 40 minutes at each station.

Students report to stations based on what regular pre-tests have shown they can do. The low performers go right to direct instruction with the teacher, the high performers start with the collaborative session, and those in the middle start with online work.

Let’s say the English lesson is about effective use of literary devices. Students might start with a teacher-led lesson on metaphor, personification and the like, followed by an online tutorial on the MY Access! writing program. They write a short essay, which the computer immediately scores for mechanics and grammar. If the student has too many mistakes, he takes another tutorial and writes the essay again. He sets himself a deadline (say, all clean by the third draft), and when he has met it, submits the piece to the teacher for feedback on meatier qualities like content and orga­nization. Finally, in the collaborative session, students critique each other’s work, making suggestions for improvement based on what they have learned from the teacher and online.

Students don’t move ahead until they show mastery. Online programs let students review a lesson until they understand it. The software analyzes keystrokes to collect data on each student’s learning.

Tennenbaum has excellent teachers, but mediocre software, says Principal Michelle Tubbs.  “There is no A-plus software out there,” Tubbs says. “Most of it is C-plus or below.”

Technology lets the school hire fewer teachers, but the savings are wiped out by technology costs. However, once the school reaches full enrollment, the technology is expected to pay for itself.

“When computer-assisted learning fails, it is usually because technology has been deployed as an add-on,” writes Headden. “BLAST shows that for technology to make a difference in student learning, it must be integral to instruction, and it must come with humans attached.”

Public Impact’s new Opportunity Culture Charter School Network hopes to use technology to enable excellent teachers to reach more students. Four new schools plan different approaches to creating an “opportunity culture” for teachers: Foundations College Prep (Chicago), Ingenuity Prep (Washington, D.C.), Touchstone Education (Newark) and Venture Academy (Minneapolis).