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Schools Teach for Mastery
In these mission-driven charter secondary schools, students are expected to work hard and learn; there is no social promotion. For their part, teachers are expected to do more than just cover the curriculum and engender student's basic understanding. They are expected to help students gain mastery.
At SEED, middle school students who are unable to meet the ninth-grade "gate" skills are offered an additional "growth" year to continue working on building their skills in middle school. At MATCH, ninth-graders must pass proficiency exams in reading, writing, and math, with four opportunities to pass the exam. If after four tries students still do not pass reading at a 9–10 grade level, math at 90 percent proficiency and writing at 70 percent proficiency, they are retained and additional academic support is provided.
Remediation and acceleration. Supporting students to be successful in academically rigorous studies is the core work for these schools. As one administrator of a four-year high school says of his school, the first two years are focused on remediation and acceleration to bring students who are academically below grade level up to proficiency and also focused on training students to develop study skills and fill in academic skill gaps. The second two years are focused then on preparation for college. At SEED, the middle school program is seen as the place for remediation and acceleration, preparing students to start the high school program performing on grade level. While extensive tutoring is available at all these schools, there is also great awareness among all members of the school community that students need to become independent, self-regulated learners if they are to succeed in higher education.
At these schools, if learning requires more time, more time is provided. All have developed longer school days or school years and some have added summer and weekend academics. MATCH, as an example, requires 100 hours of weekend tutoring for all 10th-graders in math, English, and biology (provided by Boston-area undergraduates). The tutors develop "tutoring plans" that build on their knowledge of their students (in part from regular assessment) and are tied to teachers' weekly lesson plans. A sample weekly schedule for a MATCH sophomore (see fig. 5) illustrates a three-pronged approach to supporting students' academic development: more time in classes (in this case, a 10-and-a-half-hour school day), a doubling up of classes in targeted areas (in this case, algebra and geometry), and regular and frequent tutoring.
Some of the schools have a traditional schedule with 50-minute classes; others use a block schedule with 90- or 100-minute classes; and some use a combination of the two. Like all decisions made at these schools, class scheduling depends on the school mission and focus. For example, MATCH has a school day that includes a two-hour block of time for students to work on their major academic subjects with help from their MATCH tutor, with teacher "walk-arounds" built in to ensure a close connection between the teaching curriculum and tutoring sessions. During this two-hour block, 9th- and 10th-graders work on English and math; 11th-graders work on AP U.S. history and SAT math, reading, and writing; and 12th-graders work on AP calculus, biology, or literature, along with the course work from their classes at Boston University.
Data-driven teaching. In these profiled schools, lessons plans are considered dynamic documents that are open to revision as teachers regularly assess students for understanding (formally and informally) and reteach as needed. North Star has developed a multifaceted data-analysis and instructional-planning process to support teachers in using assessments to understand student needs. Students are assessed against learning standards every six to eight weeks, with the results disaggregated by individual standard and by individual student, but also aggregated by standard for the entire class. The results are given to teachers in an easy-to-read spreadsheet (see fig. 6).
Once the test results are available, North Star's principal meets with each teacher and, together, they analyze the data to identify what students or groups of students did not learn the standard and, therefore, need additional instruction, whether through small group work, tutoring, or acceleration. Then, still working together, they plan how the teacher will differentiate instruction and what other forms of support might be helpful in enabling students to achieve to the standard(s).
These schools are relentless in their efforts to advance student learning and do not rely exclusively on differentiated instruction but also consider the larger context if appropriate. At Preuss, when data showed that students were not achieving well in math, the teachers reexamined the curriculum scope and sequence, lowered the class size to 15, and added two tutors. So now in the eighth-grade algebra class, there are two tutors and one teacher for 15 students, which means each adult can sit with five students at each of the three tables to work closely with them on math concepts.