Across the many high-performing urban schools awarded and studied, classroom instruction was designed and implemented in a way that resulted in students achieving high rates of mastery.

As teachers endeavored to create effective lessons, we saw them establishing stimulating learning environments that engaged students through discussions, debates, expeditions, experiments, movement, music, mobile technology, and dramatizations. We found minimal reliance on textbooks and even fewer uses of worksheets. Instead, teachers designed excursions, projects, data hunts, and other engaging learning opportunities that were likely to result in students’ mastery of the desired content. We heard students’ voices more often than teachers’ voices. Teachers were constantly checking to determine what students understood or misunderstood. Teachers were continually challenging themselves to design lessons that students were likely to perceive as interesting, engaging, and exciting.

Providing effective, engaging instruction for diverse populations of students is not the tradition of public schools and is especially not the tradition of urban public schools. In contrast, traditional instruction in the United States could be characterized as teachers presenting information and students listening quietly. Many school leaders tend to perceive adults who present academic content accurately as effective teachers; however, if we measure effectiveness by the extent to which students engage in and master the content taught, some accurate presenters of academic content may not be effective, at all.

Traditionally, when teachers have provided accurate presentations of information and their students have not
demonstrated mastery, we have blamed the students for not listening, not studying, or not caring. We have blamed parents for not reinforcing the importance of learning, or for not helping their child (or making their child) learn. We have blamed poverty, society, and government. We have blamed teachers who taught earlier grades or different academic subjects. These heaps of blame have failed to generate improved learning results for diverse populations of students. In contrast, in the high-performing urban schools studied, we saw educators who faced all of the challenges associated with educating low-income, diverse populations of students. Instead of responding with blame, they faced these challenges with a set of instructional practices designed to engage students and lead them to master challenging academic content.

In the high-achieving schools we have studied, effective instruction, while varied and driven by context, included eight common teaching practices. While each of these teaching practices contributed to engaging, effective instruction, we noted that the focus on mastery was central to teaching efforts. Similarly, we found that all of the practices were grounded in efforts to lead all students to feel valued and capable.

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