There are many models of effective teaching. Contrary to what the media and popular culture would have us believe, great teaching is not dependent on the charisma of an individual who entertains students at the front of the room. While we certainly did see excellent teachers who were charismatic in the classic sense, we also saw exemplary teachers who were a clear departure from that stereotype – proof that there is far more nuance to teaching than is typically acknowledged and far more variety in how effective teaching manifests.

For example, we met Alicia, originally trained in special education, whose calm manner and gentle voice set a relaxed and focused tone for her elementary school math students. We saw Jodie, an energetic redhead, guide her middle school science classroom as it became a busy laboratory for electrical experiments. We watched as Tawonia, a no-nonsense third-grade teacher, held her students in thrall with multi-operational math problems. We witnessed as Jay, a high school English teacher, led his “at-risk” students in a highly sophisticated discussion of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.

Notably, virtually all of the classes we saw were “hands-on” in some way: the teachers were rarely the “sages on the stage,” lecturing at the front of the classroom, except perhaps for short periods of direct instruction. Instead, the teachers we saw were mostly “guides-on-the-side,” facilitating interactive learning experiences. As professional development experts tell us, it’s the students, not the teachers, who should be carrying the “cognitive load.”

No Single Way

By the time the teachers who have been selected for the Acceleration Academies enter the classroom on the first day, they have been through an intensive vetting process. The district trusts the teacher to do the right thing by students. Central office provides the standards and the teachers determine how they want to teach those standards. In other words, there is no single way that a teacher is expected to structure a lesson, and no pacing guide for covering a certain amount of content by the end of the week. The district does provides Academies teachers with online resources for those who wish to draw on them, and it does offer some information and guidance about the Massachusetts state standards and tests, but the district’s goal is to be as hands-off as possible.

“People are a little bit surprised that we don’t actually tell people how to teach. We just tell people the skills we would like them to teach. You’re a great math teacher. Have at it. We don’t care how you do it. But make sure that they learn.”
— Superintendent Jeff Riley

Teacher Autonomy

Knowing they are trusted gives teachers a strong sense of agency. Research demonstrates that motivation leads to engagement; this is true for students and teachers. In surveys and interviews, teachers told us that having the autonomy and flexibility to create their own curriculum and lessons was highly empowering, though many said they also found it challenging. Teachers also told us that that the freedom to custom-design their units enabled them to try new things without judgment, to engage in longer-term and more experiential projects, and it allowed them to shift gears in the face of student need, adapting their curriculum and the pace of the work to match what was going on right in front of them.

A Focus on Standards

While the road to mastery is a teacher’s choice, all of the teachers in the Academies are expected to work with the Massachusetts State Standards. Most of them use the data they’ve been given about their students to identify and focus on the two or three standards that will be the performance targets for the week. As one teacher told us: “I’ll go back and look through the standards and then based on the data about my students, I’ll cross check and figure out where there are holes or gaps in their learning. I’ll base the week around those areas.” Many teachers told us how liberating it was to revolve their week around teaching a modest number of standards so that every student could experience success. Some teachers came in prepared to teach a handful of standards, but quickly learned that less was more in the Academies format. 

One Subject

In surveys, interviews, and focus groups, teachers were crystal clear that the emphasis on one subject – English Language Arts or math or science – enabled them to concentrate more fully, rather than having to switch mental gears several times throughout the day. Likewise, the amount of time – an additional 30 hours during each Acceleration Academy – and organized into longer uninterrupted blocks allow teachers to go deeper into content, and let students’ level of understanding and mastery guide the pace of instruction.

As one teacher told us: “When you’re teaching in the classroom, you have your lesson plan, you know exactly where you need to go and when you need to get there and sometimes that can hold you back or you don’t have the time or the luxury to really dive deeply into a topic. I feel that the Academy really emphasizes teaching depth versus breadth, so you can really dive into different activities that you might not have a chance to try in the regular classroom just because you don’t have the time.”

According to district administrators, the amount of instructional time in one subject area during the Acceleration Academies is equivalent to a month’s worth of instruction in that subject during the regular school year. But district and school administrators are quick to note that the additional time alone likely does not generate meaningful results for student performance. Rather, the critical lever is how an extraordinary teacher uses that time. LPS closely follows the maxim, “task predicts performance,” that is, that performance is based on what the students are actually doing. Moreover, students must know what they are expected to do, but also how they are expected to do it, and what knowledge and skills they need to learn how to do it well. It is also vital to have students know why they should want to do the work. It should have intrinsic value and meaning to the student. 

“I don’t think anyone will argue that high-quality teaching and high-quality tasks provide students with a high-quality academic experience. If we can find a way to give the neediest students that leg up, we would be that much better off for it.”
— Chantele Olmstead

Classroom Observations

While the words “testing” and “evaluation” are rarely uttered during the Academies, the central office staff does observe as many classrooms as possible with an eye toward what works. During the April 2016 Acceleration Academies, central office staff visited 13 ELA, Math, and Literacy classrooms. Visits were 15-30 minutes in duration.  

Classroom observation is both science and art, and it’s important for observers to have a lens through which to analyze what is happening.  The Lawrence staff used an observation tool adapted from Charlotte Danielson’s Professional Frameworks for Teaching. Three out of four domains of teaching were considered: Planning and Preparation, Classroom Environment, and Instruction. The fourth domain, Professional Responsibilities, was not included because of the temporary nature of the Academies. Eight questions were used as guidelines, all falling under one of the three domains.

Planning and Preparation:  The focus in this domain is on the classroom teacher demonstrating knowledge of individual students and their learning needs. This was the most challenging area to find evidence for, noted within just five out of the 13 classrooms observed. The main evidence of this domain was found in arranged grouping and seating of students, although it is unclear how deliberate the pairing/grouping was and by what means they were grouped, i.e. ability, heterogeneous, homogenous, etc. One student walked around the room during the entire observation, but he was still participating. The teacher engaged this learner by asking him to walk over to her and talk about the lesson.

Classroom Environment: This domain offered many opportunities for evidence gathering, specifically in the area of creating an environment of respect and rapport. There was a multitude of positive teacher-student interactions, student-student interactions, evidence of cultural competency, and positive management of student behaviors. Additionally, the culture for learning was noticeably positive, with evidence of the importance of content, high expectations for learning and achievement, and students taking pride in their work, which was displayed in every classroom. Organization of time and space was seen with pacing, transitions, flexibility, distribution of instructional materials, and furniture arrangement. 

Fourth grade math students shared their reasoning with other students using white boards and step-by-step explanations. Fourth grade ELA students followed discussion protocol and did not use negative language if they did not agree with a classmate. Instead, they would say, “I respectfully disagree.” The teacher clearly had modeled this behavior and established an environment of respect. In an eighth grade ELA classroom, students were analyzing literature and writing essays. The teacher was monitoring the lesson, but not giving any information as students shared their ideas; she kept referring them to their texts, attempting to build in students a sense of ownership of their work.

Instruction: According to staff, there was much evidence of student engagement, instructional techniques/strategies, communication and discourse, and formative assessment. Specifically, students in a fifth grade ELA classroom were, "engaging with their classmates using advanced language, ‘I agree with this because…’ and ‘I see this differently because…’ Also in this classroom the teacher played music during an activity to encourage deeper analysis, and she actively participated in the activity, indicating respect and rapport, while simultaneously evaluating the learning and stretching the students’ thinking with her responses.

A fourth grade teacher invited students to “pause for a minute and look at this paragraph,” thus encouraging students to participate in advanced academic discussion. A third grade ELA teacher asked her students to make text-to-self connections and text-to-text connections, methods that often allow content to “stick” with the learner. This teacher utilizes multi-sensory techniques, for example, by passing around a magnifying glass for students to use while they answer questions in a whole group. She later asks students to use the magnifying glass to find clues in the text. 

Overall, the central office staff and school administrators who conducted in-class observations determined that 72% of teachers scored the highest rating of exemplary, and another 25% were deemed very effective overall. They also found 72% of teachers to be exemplary, and 24% to be very effective with student engagement. The staff and school administrators recommended that 99% of the teachers whose classrooms they observed be invited back to the Academies.

In ELA classes, staff observed the following:

  • Explicit vocabulary instruction was present in 76% of classes; in 17% of the observed classrooms, there was no basis for evaluation; 7% of classes had no explicit vocabulary instruction.
  • Students interacted with multiple complex texts in 93% of classes; in 5% of classes there was no basis for evaluation; in 2% of the classrooms, there was no interaction with multiple complex texts.
  • Students produced written analysis based on close reading of complex texts in 83% of classes; in 14% of classes there was no basis for evaluation; in 3% of observed classrooms, there was no written analysis. 
  • Students engaged in academic discussions in 94% of classes; 4% of classes had no basis for evaluation; in 2% of observed classrooms, there were no academic discussions.

In Math classes, staff observed the following:

  • Staff observed an in-depth focus on Common Core major math clusters in 96% of classes; 2% of classes had no basis for evaluation; in 2% of classrooms observed, there was no in- depth focus on major math clusters observed.
  • Attention to math fluency was observed in 91% of classes; 8% of classes had no basis for evaluation; 1% of classrooms observed did not focus on math fluency.