Teaching and learning approaches in Renaissance charter schools and Promise Academies are mostly variations on a similar strategy: articulate high expectations for students while using teacher-directed instruction focused on reading and math.
In nearly all these schools, teachers follow a curriculum that is centrally established, either by the District for Promise Academies or by the provider for the Renaissance charters. Teachers also, for the most part, deliver prescribed lesson plans and are expected to closely adhere to a prescribed timeline as well.
Research for Action interviewed and surveyed scores of teachers, principals and other school leaders during the first year of the Renaissance initiative. We set up teacher focus groups, observed classroom teaching and professional development, and sat in on a Promise Academy principals' meeting.
We observed that all Renaissance charters had a clear "scope and sequence" for teaching standards. In all but one of the seven that opened last year, the provider had a set curriculum to be followed.
Many schools adopted the 5-Step Lesson of renowned educator Madeline Hunter, which consists of an opening ("do now"), an introduction to new material by the teacher ("I do"), guided practice with the whole class ("we do"), independent practice ("you do"), and closing (an assessment of what was learned).
In the Promise Academies, there was uniformity across the four K-8 schools and two high schools. The high schools implemented curricula similar to those used in other Empowerment high schools. In the K-8 Promise Academies, however, teachers were expected to manage a longer list of programs and initiatives, adding new planning and scheduling timelines to traditional pacing guides. The volume of prescribed curricula in combination with the required scope, pace and sequence left many teachers feeling overwhelmed.
"It seems like they rolled out a dozen programs at the same time and I feel like I'm being asked to do … something that is completely impossible," said a Promise Academy teacher at the beginning of the last school year.
Teachers at seven charter-managed schools had fewer required programs to implement. While the four charter providers differed in the number and type of curricular materials teachers were expected to use, teachers generally had greater flexibility to modify lessons. As one charter school teacher explained, "The administration was open to us finding other resources to complement the initial curriculum because we found that it wasn't really serving our students."
Significant curricular flexibility could also create challenges, however. In the one school where teachers were expected to design their own curriculum and locate the needed materials, an instructional coach said it was "time consuming and difficult … to do well. Our first-year teachers who don't have experience with curriculum are really struggling."