Focusing on mastery. A focus on mastery is quite different from a focus on coverage that may be observed in more typical urban schools. In many schools, teachers feel driven to cover the lesson associated with a pacing guide or a scope and sequence chart. Teachers in high-performing schools were passionate about ensuring that students acquired deep levels of mastery of the concepts and skills taught. Teachers meticulously planned lessons to lead each and every student to mastery of the lesson objectives. Teachers worked relentlessly, not simply to present lessons, but to ensure that all students mastered the essential concepts and skills associated with the lessons. Throughout lessons, teachers carefully monitored what students understood related to the lesson objective and sometimes adjusted lesson designs midstream in order to increase the likelihood that every student achieved mastery.
Introducing content logically, clearly, and concisely. Working in teams, teachers deconstructed complicated concepts, algorithms, and processes. They worked together to consider how they could make the complex seem logical and understandable. They planned the introduction of concepts in ways that might help students avoid common misunderstandings. As they planned, they recognized that textbooks often omitted important steps or quickly glossed over critical ideas. In some cases, they found that students were being asked to climb a ladder of understanding on which multiple rungs were missing. Working in teams, teachers deconstructed complicated concepts, algorithms, and processes. They worked together to consider how they could make the complex seem logical and understandable. They planned the introduction of concepts in ways that might help students avoid common misunderstandings. As they planned, they recognized that textbooks often omitted important steps or quickly glossed over critical ideas. In some cases, they found that students were being asked to climb a ladder of understanding on which multiple rungs were missing. And, teachers avoided lengthy lectures, choosing instead to spend a high percentage of lesson time engaging students in meaningful interaction with the lesson content.
Acquiring and responding to evidence of understanding. Frequently, teachers checked to ensure that students understood the content being taught. In more typical classrooms, teachers might ask a question and call upon one or two students to provide the answer. Similarly, some teachers might end a long lecture with the seldom answered, “Any questions?” In contrast, in the high-performing urban schools, teachers used a variety of strategies to determine what each student understood related to the lesson content. Teachers listened attentively to student responses, carefully read student writing, and watched deliberately as students performed assigned tasks. Teachers were eager to understand if students understood key concepts, if students could articulate the relationships between ideas, if students could provide in-depth explanations. As teachers acquired information about student understanding, they used the information to refine lessons (often immediately) in ways that increased student understanding.
Connecting with student interests, backgrounds, cultures, and prior knowledge. As teachers pursued challenging
academic objectives, they planned and delivered lessons that resonated with their students. Students were
more likely to understand and master lesson objectives because they saw connections between the lesson content and their interests, backgrounds, cultures, and prior knowledge. Students were less likely to perceive new concepts as foreign and more likely to believe that they had the capacity to master new objectives.
Building student vocabulary. In high-performing urban schools, teachers generated high levels of student engagement with rigorous academic content. To this end, teachers chose to help students engage with the vocabulary that was central to the content. This does not mean teachers simply identified and taught vocabulary words. More specifically, it means that teachers helped students become comfortable using the vocabulary associated with the lesson content. It means that teachers helped students integrate the lesson vocabulary into their speaking vocabulary. In more typical schools, vocabulary instruction rarely involves students speaking and using the vocabulary. Frequently, students are asked to write the vocabulary words, read them, find definitions, and perhaps, write a sentence about the words. While we found some teachers who used these techniques, teachers were deliberate about making sure that students used the vocabulary multiple times in conversations.
Promoting successful practice. Teachers allowed students to practice skills independently only when they knew that independent practice was likely to be successful. Teachers did not assign independent work if they had little reason to believe that students would be successful performing the work. Instead, lessons were carefully structured so that students experienced a balance of struggle and success that resulted in each student reaching mastery. In more typical urban schools, one might observe teachers providing a few examples (“I’ll do items 1 and 2 on the board.”) and then assigning students to work independently for the remainder of the class period (“Do items 3 through 30 on your own. Any questions?”) Under these more typical circumstances, students struggle far more than they experience success. In contrast, teachers in the high-performing urban schools acquired and attended to evidence of student understanding and adjusted lessons to ensure the proper gradual release of responsibility. By asking questions frequently, engaging students in discussions, asking students to perform small tasks, and correcting misconceptions early, teachers were able to monitor students’ readiness to perform tasks independently.
Making students feel valued and capable. School personnel took great care to ensure that all students felt valued, respected, and appreciated. In every high-performing urban school studied, students reported that the adults at their school cared about them. Students shared that teachers took the time to know about them and their situations. Students indicated that administrators knew them by name. Students and parents reported that adults at the school demonstrated a level of concern and commitment that they had not experienced at other schools. Educators demonstrated that they cared about and valued their students by interacting with them in a manner that demonstrated a high level of personal regard, finding many ways to acknowledge and celebrate student accomplishments, posting exemplary student work, and acting as warm demanders – taking the time to know their students personally, demonstrating unconditional positive regard, and simultaneously insisting that students perform to high standards.
Leading students to love learning. Students in high-performing urban schools achieved more because teachers led them to love learning. Often, students became excited about learning academic content because their teachers helped them understand how the content was relevant to their current or future lives. Teachers overtly explained the importance of lesson objectives to their students or they led students to discover the importance/relevance on their own. As teachers pursued challenging objectives, they frequently used materials that students were more likely to find interesting and relevant. Students often perceived lessons as relevant because teachers engaged them in interesting projects. Teachers also made abundant uses of technology to help inspire engagement and mastery. Teachers provided students scores of interesting applications of technology to support their learning. However, some teachers generated high levels of student interest and engagement with minimal or no technology. In these classes, teachers maximized student engagement and mastery by creating frequent opportunities for students to interact with and learn from each other.