Instruction during the Academies is personalized and engaging. Teachers use data about their students to identify the primary areas of need, and plan their lessons accordingly. They also are highly intentional about building trusting relationships with their students and building a strong sense of community in the classroom. Creating this type of learning environment is important because it empowers students to take risks and challenge themselves. Teachers also use their early interactions with students to gather additional information about the concepts and skills each student needs to work on, and they employ various instructional strategies to accommodate the different ways that students learn. 

“My hope is that students will get more out of it than just learning how to write an essay or answer a test question, but more ‘how can I apply this to everything that I do in my life?’”
— Alyssa Zabrierek, Teacher

The district is selective about who receives the Sontag Prize for Urban Education; teachers who are not accepted on the first try may apply again and often see it as an incentive to continue honing their craft. Those who are accepted have a demonstrated track record for boosting student achievement; therefore, they are entrusted with developing their own curricula and lesson plans. The district’s role is to support the work in classrooms and allow teachers to focus on their students. Central office staff provide guidance, resources, and support – but are not prescriptive – regarding curricula. They make available the data teachers use to devise lesson plans and select instructional strategies, and provide the materials that teachers wish to use to deliver their lessons.

In addition, central office staff conduct developmentally-focused observations which are not tied to formal evaluation. The purpose of these observations is to get a sense of what is happening in and across classrooms, and to provide support to teachers as needed. 

License to Experiment

At the classroom level, teachers approach the standards in whatever ways they see as most advantageous to their students. Interview and survey respondents enjoyed the freedom to develop their own curricula, and while planning for the Academy weeks is a lot of work, these teachers take advantage of the opportunity to be creative and bring content to students in new or different ways. Many opt to conduct project-based or thematic lessons, as hands-on activities help to keep students engaged and also can bring to life and highlight the relevance of abstract concepts. 

Hands-on lessons are possible during the Academies because teachers have the necessary time, flexibility, and materials. Fun and play also are incorporated into the day. 

Teachers also create opportunities for individualized attention. For example, students might be divided into teams, both to build students’ cooperation and other relevant skills, and also to allow teachers to work with students one-on-one or in very small groups of two to three students. Students appreciate this personalized instruction because they are getting exactly what they need to gain a better understanding of the concepts and skills they struggle with.  Because teachers are able to work so closely with students and be responsive to their individual learning needs and styles, fewer accommodations are needed during the Academy weeks. 

Teacher as Learner

While the Academy week itself serves as a professional development opportunity for teachers, the Sontag Prize’s professional development weekend goes beyond the typical topics related to pedagogy to cover broader topics such as leadership, team-building, brain development, and non-cognitive factors related – directly or indirectly – to student performance.  Several teachers noted that they left the professional development weekend with new skills and strategies that they were eager to try in the classroom; many modified their plans for the Academy based on what they had learned.

Interactions Are Central

From a cognitive perspective, teaching has been defined as the creation of learning environments in which students maximize the possibility of executing the cognitive activities necessary for building knowledge and reasoning capacity (Seidel & Shavelson, 2007, p. 458).

While there are many factors that predict student achievement, there is a great deal of evidence supporting the notion that the interaction between teachers and students in the classroom is a major driver of student performance. However, the types of interactions and the characteristics of effective teachers continue to be studied in order to build a better understanding of how to prepare and develop excellent educators. Because the research base on instruction is immense and spans a broad range of topics, we chose to focus on domains most relevant to the Lawrence Acceleration Academy model. These domains are: teacher quality; student-teacher relationships; personalization and student-centered learning; and professional development.

Teacher Quality

There is general consensus across the literature that teachers have the largest impact on student achievement among school-related factors. The quality of teachers, then, is of vital importance. Eric Hanushek argues that the plethora of education reform initiatives enacted over the past number of years pale in comparison to the effects “good teachers” can have on student achievement (Hanushek, 2011). Across the literature, “good” or “effective” teachers are generally defined as those who consistently produce gains that are larger than would be expected for similar students. For example, an effective teacher might increase students’ reading or math performance by 1.5 grade levels during a single school year, rather than the one grade level expected of average teachers (Hanushek, 2014). 

According to Hanushek, racial- and income-related achievement gaps could be eliminated in five years if students were taught by effective, rather than average, teachers during that time.

Attempts to discern the characteristics and practices of effective teachers occupy a large portion of the research literature on teacher quality and effectiveness. While it remains an open question, there is general agreement that teacher effectiveness is driven by some combination of what a teacher knows, does, and believes (Goe & Strickler, 2008; Stronge, Ward, & Grant, 2011). Stronge, et at. outline four dimensions of teacher effectiveness: instructional delivery, student assessment, learning environment, and personal qualities (Stronge, Ward, & Grant, 2011).

Instructional attributes that are associated with student outcomes include differentiation, clarity, complexity, and expectations for student learning, among others (Goe & Stickler, 2008; Stronge, Ward & Grant, 2011). Studies also have shown that hands-on or active learning opportunities tend to be linked with higher student achievement (Wenglinsky, 2000; Goe & Stickler, 2008).

Effective teachers tend to use a variety of assessments to gauge student understanding and learning. They also create learning environments that reflect positive classroom culture and climate, in which students feel safe and treated fairly.

In terms of personal qualities, teachers who set high expectations and support students’ academic, social and emotional development are more likely to have a positive effect on student achievement.

Much More than "Nice"  

Positive student-teacher relationships – characterized by “sensitivity, attunement, consistency, trustworthiness, cognitive stimulation, and scaffolded learning” – can “help students better achieve, become engaged, regulate their emotions, build social competence, and be willing to take on academic challenges” (American Institutes of Research, 2017). These characteristics and associated outcomes contribute to a classroom culture that promotes effort within a socially, emotionally, and academically safe learning environment. Indeed, the outsized positive effects of relationships on student achievement as compared to other interventions prompted one researcher to conclude that they should be advocated for and practiced by the full range of stakeholders involved in schooling (Cornelius-White, 2007). 

Building strong, positive relationships with students is about more than just being nice; teachers must demonstrate that they have high expectations, and will support students on their journey to meet them (Toshalis, 2012). This is important because evidence shows that relationships between teachers and students influence students’ cognitive, social, and intellectual development from the time they enter school through adolescence (Davis, 2003).  While high teacher expectations have been shown to have a positive effect on students’ goals and interests, negative teacher feedback predicts lower levels of academic performance and social behavior among students (Wentzel, 2002).    

Students who believe that their teachers care about and support them tend to be more engaged and motivated in their learning (Wentzel, 1997; Goodenow, 1993). Increased engagement in school that is linked to positive student-teacher relationships is then associated with higher attendance and test scores – both of which are predictors of future academic performance and persistence (Klem & Connell, 2004). 


Recognizing the diversity of students’ learning needs and styles, experiences, and interests – even within a single school or classroom – and tailoring instruction accordingly makes intuitive sense.  However, the evidence base regarding the effects of personalized learning is fairly limited (Pane, et al., 2015; Yonezawa, McClure & Jones, 2012). Personalized learning refers both to getting to know students personally and building trusting, reciprocal relationships, as well as to delivering instruction in ways that address individual students’ academic and non-academic needs; learning styles; and interests (Yonezawa, McClure & Jones, 2012).

The power of personalization is the ability for teachers to meet individual students where they are and employ multiple strategies to help them get to where they need to go.

Personalized instruction also can increase the relevance of academic material by connecting concepts with real-life scenarios or students’ own experiences, which in turn promotes increased student engagement (Lampert, 2015).

“As a teacher, I quickly build a relationship with these students, and am able to have a huge impact in a short time. With a small group I can target lessons that I know are critical and focus on things that their teacher might not have time for on an average day.”
— Academy Teacher

Elements of personalized learning include: using data to plan and deliver instruction, and in some cases to group students for particular lessons or activities; project-based activities that provide opportunities for students to access content in multiple formats; individual academic support; and meaningful out-of-school learning opportunities (Pane, et al., 2015).

Personalization happens in the planning process – in terms of how to teach certain concepts and develop lesson plans – as well as during delivery, when teachers must continuously gauge student understanding and pacing lessons accordingly (Lampert, 2015). A study conducted by RAND and funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation found positive effects on student Math and ELA achievement among schools that employed personalized learning practices.

The study also found that performance gains were substantial among the lowest-performing students (Pane et al., 2015). While this study contains many self-proclaimed limitations, it does indicate that personalized learning strategies show promise as a component of improvement efforts. In addition, a 2001 study found “some support for the effectiveness of individualizing instruction to take into account the differing knowledge and skills which different students bring into the classroom” (Wenglingsky, 2000, p. 29).

Responsive, Job-Embedded PD

In a review of the literature on professional development, Linda Darling-Hammond and Nikole Richardson concluded that “sustained, job-embedded, collaborative teacher learning strategies” are most effective (Darling-Hammond & Richardson, 2009). According to the research literature, effective professional development: increases teachers’ content knowledge and addresses how to teach it to students; broadens teachers’ understanding of how students learn the content they intend to teach; utilizes active, hands-on learning experiences; is a component of school improvement efforts; and is collaborative and collegial (Darling-Hammond & Richardson, 2009). 

Teaching is about more than content knowledge and pedagogy. Effective teachers know their audience, so to speak, and are able to break down barriers to learning by using this knowledge to select their instructional approaches.

Connecting with and engaging students “requires an understanding of the differences that may arise from culture, family experiences, developed intelligences, and approaches to learning” (Darling-Hammond, 2008, p.92). Professional development needs to build teachers’ ability to take a more holistic approach to delivering content to diverse learners.

For example, to ensure that teachers are equipped to effectively educate their students and nurture their growth among multiple domains, they need a working understanding of child and adolescent development (Darling-Hammond, 2008). Harold Wenglinsky found that “professional development in cultural diversity, teaching students with limited English proficiency, and teaching students with special needs were all linked to higher test scores in mathematics” (Wenglinsky, 2000, p. 29). 

Because evidence suggests that effective teachers work with students to develop higher-order thinking skills; incorporate hands-on learning activities into lessons; and use student assessments to monitor learning, teachers should have access to high quality, on-going professional development that focuses on and promotes the use of these practices (Wenglinsky, 2000). Professional development also should be responsive to what teachers feel they need in order to implement effective instructional strategies. For example, teachers who participated in the RAND study of personalized learning reported that while they had access to multiple sources of data, they needed additional support to effectively use those data to inform their instructional practice (Pane, et al., 2015). 

Attending to Fundamentals

Data allow educators to continually gauge student understanding and progress, and provide invaluable information to teachers. Districts and schools can support teachers in using data by making data easily available, and by encouraging and providing opportunities for teachers to analyze and discuss this information.

Teachers need autonomy and flexibility to create engaging lessons, including project-based or blended learning opportunities, and support – in the form of professional development as well as resources and materials – to carry them out.   

Professional development and peer mentoring may be necessary to help teachers build skills in using data and utilizing new instructional strategies. In addition, professional development should empower teachers and better equip them to effectively reach their students across multiple domains. 

Opportunities for teachers to collaborate and share resources and ideas is fundamental to both teacher growth and student learning