Teaching at Mastery
The charter gets teachers on the same page and cooperating to produce results. What does their approach mean for teaching in "turnaround" schools?
by Benjamin Herold
Just a few months ago, Kallie Turner was limping to the end of her first year as a classroom teacher. Exhausted, she feared that she had failed her students.
"I didn't get them where they needed to be," Turner says of the children at the Louisville public school where she taught last year. "The hardest thing was knowing that I didn't have an answer – and that no one was helping me find that answer."
Fast forward to this October. Suddenly, the 24-year old Turner is running a focused, organized 1st grade classroom in a notoriously difficult Philadelphia school. At any given time, nearly all of her students – many low-income, most Black or Latino, and almost all starting off on the wrong side of the achievement gap – are on task and working hard.
"I wake up every day excited to come to work," says Turner.
The Mastery way
The short answer is that Turner now teaches for Mastery Charter Schools, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit that specializes in "turning around" low-performing public schools by converting them to neighborhood charters.
Part of a growing national movement of "No Excuses" schools, Mastery is at the forefront of the current push to redefine effective teaching and produce it at scale in America's toughest schools. Touted by Oprah and President Obama and showered with private donations that supplement what it gets from the state and District, Mastery is the largest provider in Philadelphia's Renaissance Schools initiative.
Mastery starts with identifying what students should know, then "plans backwards" to create a roadmap to ensure student "mastery" of the material. Teachers are flooded with feedback and support, and schools relentlessly analyze student performance data.
These strategies reflect the prevalent thinking about how to run effective schools. But some aspects of the approach – and some parts of Mastery's take on it – have their detractors.
Some educators argue that Mastery draws much too heavily on the state PSSA exam and overemphasizes general teaching techniques meant to be applicable in any classroom. The result, say critics, is a narrowed curriculum and limited opportunities for students to learn through inquiry and discovery.
For Mastery CEO Scott Gordon, though, it's all about "what works" to raise achievement in schools where students are often academically unprepared and "not initially motivated to learn."
Too often, he argues, academic debates about educational theory get in the way of actually helping teachers to teach effectively.
What's most important about Mastery's approach, says Gordon, is not a particular curriculum or educational theory but how it trains and supports staff – what he calls "the commonsense things that all high-performing organizations do."
'Adults working well together'
For Kallie Turner, that means not being left alone to flounder in her 1st grade classroom at Mastery Charter-Smedley Elementary School.
"This year has been almost a complete 180 from my first year," she says. "If something is not going well, someone is going to help me fix it."
Each day, Turner is joined by Jess Corso, who helps teach an extended reading lesson. While Corso works with students who are already digesting whole books, Turner helps a separate group still learning to pronounce letter sounds.
The school's leadership team helped Turner group her students according to their abilities. During a weekly team meeting, she worked with her fellow 1st grade teachers to develop lessons to meet students' varied needs.
Before, "I was keeping track of my students' progress, but I wasn't using [data] to change my teaching strategies," she explained. "Now I know exactly what my kids need, and someone helps me build that information [into my planning.]"
Other schools use similar strategies. The difference is Mastery's ability to get everyone in the school consistently using the same strategy, the same way. Gordon calls this "getting the adults working well together" and says it is fundamental to an effective turnaround.
First, Mastery finds people who can blend seamlessly into its achievement-driven culture – and who don't mind the family-unfriendly hours expected of most teachers. When hiring, the organization downplays candidates' education degrees and certification status, looking instead for certain values, beliefs, and personal qualities such as "grit" and "personal authority."
That results in a high percentage of relatively inexperienced teachers. Thirty-one percent of Mastery's 304 teachers are in their first year, and another 31 percent have between two and four years of experience. Ten percent are Teach for America corps members.
Teaching at Mastery is not for everyone. Unlike many high-performing District schools, which tend to have highly stable staffs, Mastery's teacher turnover rate is more comparable to the districtwide average of about 20 percent.
But for many eager young teachers like Turner, Mastery's approach is a godsend.
"I don't work more than I worked last year," she says. "I just work more effectively."
Turner is still learning Mastery's system of instruction. Mikiko Poy is a virtuoso at it.
The 30-year-old is the math lead teacher at Mastery Charter-Thomas Campus, Mastery's original turnaround school.
In 2004-05, before Mastery and Poy arrived at Thomas, 39 percent of students scored proficient on the math PSSA. In 2009-10, Poy's fifth year, 73 percent scored proficient.