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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?

Photo: Benjamin Herold

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

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.

What changed?

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."

‘Outcomes-driven instruction’

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.

In June, 93 percent of the first class of graduating seniors from Thomas were accepted into college.

Over that time, Poy rocketed through Mastery’s performance-based promotion and compensation system, rising from "associate teacher" (a position that now starts at $44,750) to "master teacher" (whose salaries can be as much as $74,500).

Like many excellent teachers, Poy loves children and has an incredible appetite for her work – she usually arrives at 6 a.m. and stays until 5 p.m. But what makes Poy a standout Mastery teacher is her expertise in the organization’s preferred instructional techniques and a conviction that everything about her practice can – and should – be measured.

Mastery quantifies everything. For example, explains Gordon, most schools are content to say "students should be engaged." But at Mastery, "it’s 95 percent of kids are on task when we measure every five minutes" during classroom observations and walk-throughs.

The most important data, though, are student test scores.

During a recent "data day" at Mastery-Thomas, teachers participated in a series of group and individual meetings, each with a distinct objective. During "teacher goal meetings," Poy and the other 11th grade math teachers focused on what it would take to meet the school’s federal No Child Left Behind achievement targets.

Principal Matt Troha assigned each teacher a target number of students who will need to score proficient on the PSSA in order to meet schoolwide goals, then asked each if their target was realistic.

Poy had to find 42 students across her two classes. Based on her review of student results on benchmark exams and a PSSA predictive test, she quickly identified 43.

For Poy, the system makes perfect sense.

"Maybe I’ve been drinking the Mastery Kool-Aid for too long," she jokes, "[but] it just blows my mind when people don’t believe in tests. How else do you have reliable data on what you are teaching and assessing?"

While standards-driven instruction is now the norm, not every school uses tests so closely, says New York University education professor Joseph McDonald.

"There is a consensus around planning backwards from standards, but there is not a consensus on planning backwards from specific tests," says McDonald. "The trick is how you can deal with the tests in a way that also [helps students learn] the standards on which the tests are based."

Mastery’s playbook

This is Poy’s challenge in her 11th grade algebra 2/trigonometry classrooms.

The foundation of her classroom practice – and what, even as a master teacher, she is coached and evaluated on at Mastery – is not her content knowledge or her ability to communicate confusing math concepts in a variety of ways for different students. Instead, the focus is on how well she uses a set of specific strategies to keep students engaged.

"I don’t like the idea of saying content is secondary," says Principal Troha, also Poy’s instructional coach. "[But] it doesn’t matter how you’re teaching slope-intercept form if only 10 percent of your kids are engaged."

Mastery’s preferred classroom techniques – which include timers for each activity and pushing students to provide a "specific, complete, and well-presented answer" – largely reflect those outlined by Doug Lemov in his book "Teach Like a Champion."

"Teaching is about technique, and technique is something you practice," says Lemov, the managing director of another "No Excuses" charter network, Uncommon Schools. "That’s a fundamental change [in how we think about effective teaching.] Great schools like Mastery are comfortable with that."

His is not a universal view, especially among those whose primary concern is getting students to think deeply and critically.

"Good teachers know how to connect with their students’ misunderstandings and figure out another route in," says McDonald. "It’s possible for beginning teachers to [use Lemov’s techniques] as one route to understanding what’s below the surface. But people can be very good at those behaviors and still not be good teachers."

Established Mastery turnarounds are moving towards more content-specific professional development, in part to support recently added Advanced Placement courses. But the organization’s instructional foundation remains the same.

In her classrooms, Poy pulls heavily from Mastery’s playbook of techniques – and draws her students into a deeper level of engagement.

During a lesson on solving sets of equations with multiple variables, she uses complicated word problems – dealing with the efficiency of different models of air conditioners – and makes sure the class knows how to distinguish between important and extraneous information.

To keep everyone involved, Poy alternates between asking for volunteers, cold-calling students, and demanding whole-group responses.

As the class solves the problem together, she asks, "Looking at your three equations, what strategy would work best and why?"

A flurry of hands immediately goes up. When Poy calls on a student, he responds that he would use the substitution method. Not satisfied, Poy presses him to explain his answer.

During both of Poy’s classes, every one of her students, almost all low-income and African American, is actively engaged in a high-level math lesson from bell to bell.

Walking through Mastery schools, such scenes of widespread student engagement – often the exception at inner city schools – are the overwhelming norm.

What is happening in Mastery classrooms, says Gordon, shows that school failure doesn’t have to be tolerated.

"We need to act with urgency on what works," he stresses. "We can actually solve this problem at scale. It can be done."

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