School Choice & Charters

Innovative Ed. Model Challenges Teachers to Adjust

By Benjamin Herold — March 11, 2014 11 min read
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Another first-period engineering class has just been derailed by a series of small frustrations: Students strolling in late. Questions met with blank stares. Smartphones used for text messages instead of research.

Karthik Subburam, a five-year veteran in his first year teaching in the “inquiry-driven, project-based, technology-infused” style of Philadelphia’s nationally acclaimed Science Leadership Academy, runs his fingers through his hair. “Sometimes, it’s like pulling teeth,” he says.

Six months into the school year, a controversial gamble by Philadelphia Superintendent William R. Hite to expand innovative school models has yielded progress. Science Leadership Academy has established a second campus that mirrors the quirky, intimate atmosphere of the original. At the new SLA@Beeber, students skateboard through the hallways past a teacher draped in Christmas lights, and no one bats an eye.

But inside classrooms, efforts to re-create SLA’s instructional model have been uneven, highlighting the challenges faced by the growing number of districts seeking to open and replicate nontraditional, technology-oriented schools.

Last spring, Mr. Hite pushed through a five-year, $28 million plan to expand three programs, including SLA, a district-run magnet high school. In February, he won approval to invest millions more in three new outside-the-box high schools slated to open next fall.

Although he says the 131,000-student Philadelphia district needs $440 million just to provide a “bare minimum” level of service to schools next school year, the superintendent sees little choice: The competition from charter and suburban schools for the city’s few remaining middle-class families is intense, he says, and the new Common Core State Standards expect students to think critically, solve problems, and work collaboratively.

About This Series

“The Innovation Gamble” follows a city district resting its hopes on a tech-themed approach. This is the second of three parts.

Part One: Philadelphia Seeks Salvation in Lessons From Model School

Part Three: Phila. Funding Crisis Threatens Spread of Innovation

Video: Watch Christopher Lehmann discuss the motivation for Science Leadership Academy’s switch from Mac laptops to Chromebooks.

Multimedia: Replicating a Model School: The People Behind the Effort

Additional Reading: Phila. Superintendent Plans to Open Unconventional Schools

There is also a broader battle to be won, believes Christopher D. Lehmann, the charismatic founder and principal of SLA’s flagship campus. The growth of new digital classroom technologies has opened a new front in an old debate about teaching and learning, and Mr. Lehmann, an unrepentant progressive, has staked out a clear position.

“Thousands of educators out there are trying to leverage these tools to let kids build, do, and create,” he said. “If the only thing we allow them to be is an evolution of ‘drill and kill,’ then the failure of our imagination would be great.”

But the hopes of both the superintendent and the principal rest on the shoulders of classroom teachers like Mr. Subburam, a former engineer being asked to completely overhaul his classroom practice.

In January, the affable 41-year-old began a new unit in which students were to learn about load-bearing structures by constructing model houses. Intended to last three weeks, the unit dragged deep into February.

“The concept was really cool when we had discussions during the summer time,” Mr. Subburam said, “but implementing it is a different matter.”

Building Skills, Mindsets

Across town is a clearer vision of what’s possible.

Matthew N. VanKouwenberg has been teaching at Science Leadership Academy’s flagship campus since it opened in 2006.

In early February, while the freshman engineering class at the new SLA@Beeber struggled to find its footing, Mr. VanKouwenberg’s advanced engineering students were engaged in a unit on cybersecurity. Their ultimate task was to construct a radio transmitter capable of sending an encrypted message. To get there, Mr. VanKouwenberg guided the class through a series of smaller projects that built on each other, taking detours as needed to teach key concepts or address misunderstandings revealed by students as they worked.

On this day, the teens assembled in teams around the cluttered room, using paper plates and bowls, wires, magnets, tape, and an amplifier to build makeshift speakers. Their teacher eased into the background, eating yogurt and listening.

Seniors Seamus Kirby and Ethan Reese produced a speaker that played surprisingly crisp, clear music.

Mr. VanKouwenberg sidled up.

“What did you guys do that made it sound so much stronger?” he asked.

“We flipped the magnets,” the boys responded.

Karthik Subburam works hard to get the attention of his students during a morning engineering class at Science Leadership Academy at Beeber in Philadelphia.



“No, seriously, what benefit did you get from it?” Mr. VanKouwenberg persisted.

After an extended silence, he gave the students a friendly nudge.

“It looks like you’ve done a good job with your speaker,” Mr. VanKouwenberg said. “Now, I want you to figure out why it works.”

Rather than deliver content, SLA teachers are expected to help students develop the skills and mind-sets necessary to formulate and pursue their own questions and ideas.

Technology helps: Teachers and students are issued their own laptops to use in school and at home, and software applications that facilitate independent research, content creation, and peer collaboration are widely used.

But SLA classrooms can also be decidedly low-tech, with cardboard and duct tape just as prevalent as digital tools. For Mr. Lehmann, educational technologies are a means to an end, rather than an end in themselves.

The school has attracted significant national attention. In January, the computer-manufacturing giant Dell announced a $625,000 grant to both SLA campuses. A portion of the money will be used to form a “Center of Excellence in Learning,” through which Mr. Lehmann’s approach is to be shared with educators around the country.

Daniel L. Schwartz, an education professor at Stanford University, said the growing interest in schools like Science Leadership Academy reflects a rising tension in the world of educational technology.

All decisionmaking at Science Leadership Academy is based on the school's five "core values," which are displayed prominently around the school.

“There are two schools of thought,” Mr. Schwartz said. “One is that [such technology] will increase efficiencies. The other is that it will be utterly transformative.”

Mr. Lehmann has little patience for those in the former camp, especially the army of private vendors now offering adaptive-software programs and classroom apps built on the premise that customized lessons can help students more quickly master basic facts and procedural skills.

“I think how you use these tools in large part reflects what you believe about education,” Mr. Lehmann said. “Making sure students get the mandatory content delivered on demand—that’s not the bar we want to set. We want to unlock the world for kids.”

Tinkering, Reflecting

For some of the educators at SLA@Beeber, embracing that vision has come naturally.

Spanish teacher Max Rosen-Long was a student of Mr. Lehmann’s back when the 43-year old principal taught high school English at the project-oriented Beacon School in New York City. Art and technology teacher Mary Beth Hertz is a founder of EdCamp, a national network of educators who use Twitter and other informal means to share ideas about using educational technology to support participatory learning. And physics teacher Leroy Gray spent all of last year student-teaching at SLA’s flagship campus.

Such experiences show in the classroom: Mr. Gray, for example, recently used the Christmas lights he had earlier worn through the hallways as the basis for a culminating project in which students were expected to create “electric art"—an object of personal significance that incorporated functioning circuits.

As their deadline approached, more than 30 teenagers gathered in the physics room during lunch, eating chips and wiring stuffed animals and sneakers as their teacher danced around to opera music.

Christopher Johnson, the veteran Philadelphia administrator who now heads SLA@Beeber, was thrilled.

“I’m seeing kids tinker. I’m seeing kids be creative. I’m seeing kids able to reflect on who they are,” he said.

Like most teachers, though, Mr. Subburam had no prior history with inquiry-driven or project-based instruction. At Philadelphia’s Germantown High, where he taught previously, the instructional model featured formulaic, seven-step lessons, and technology was used primarily for test preparation.

“We knew he wasn’t going to hit a home run his first year,” Mr. Johnson said.

Art and technology teacher Mary Beth Hertz, standing, helps SLA@Beeber students become familiar with their new Chromebooks, provided to the school as part of a grant from Dell, Inc.

Midway through the unit on load-bearing structures, Mr. Subburam is struggling just to get on base. Nearly half his class has neglected to bring in building supplies for their model houses. His third cup of morning coffee is nearly empty. After delivering instructions for a classroom research activity, Mr. Subburam tries to answer questions from a half-dozen confused students, while the rest of the class grows impatient. The disruptive chatter is unrelenting.

“I don’t want all the information to flow through me,” the exasperated teacher finally tells his students. “But if you don’t listen attentively, this new style doesn’t work, and we’ll just go back to me telling you what to do.”

The Philadelphia district has never been good at bringing to scale the type of instruction found at SLA, said Jolley Bruce Christman, a former district administrator who co-founded an independent education research organization in the city.

For 30 years, Ms. Christman has watched as small bands of city teachers have attempted to incorporate inquiry-based instruction into their schools and classrooms. Almost inevitably, she said, “the tide washes over their efforts, and they get burned out.”

The reasons are many: Colleges and universities don’t prepare new teachers for that type of teaching. Students and parents are often uncomfortable with it. Administrators don’t understand the philosophy. The district’s contract with its teachers’ union has made it hard to assemble sizable teams of like-minded educators. And relevant professional development is virtually nonexistent.

Mr. Lehmann believes the antidote is strong support systems that teachers like Mr. Subburam can easily plug into.

At SLA, such infrastructure begins with five “core values” that underpin all decisionmaking. Classrooms are united across subjects by shared themes and “essential questions.” Every teacher uses a common structure for planning units, a common rubric for grading projects, and common digital tools. Two hours every week are devoted to schoolwide collaborative planning. A student-advisory structure builds avenues for informal conversations and sharing.

Teachers are also given individualized supports. Mr. Subburam’s roster, for example, allows for extensive time to observe Mr. VanKouwenberg’s class at SLA’s flagship campus.

Early struggles for teachers new to the approach are natural and predictable, Mr. Lehmann said. What’s important, he maintained, is an “upward trajectory.”

Students work on designing and building a model home during an engineering class at Science Leadership Academy at Beeber in Philadelphia.

Small-Group Progress

Midway through his unit on load-bearing structures, Mr. Subburam experiences a breakthrough.

His classroom still feels a bit chaotic, but now it’s because students are scattered across the room in small teams, immersed in the construction of their model houses. Rather than seek to re-establish himself as the focal point of the classroom, Mr. Subburam encourages the groups to interact with each other.

The wildly varying house designs—one looks like a giant cardboard birdhouse sitting atop a single beam, another sits on a foundation of empty water bottles, and a third appears to be a geodesic dome constructed out of straws—provoke an enthusiastic round of discussion.

“It was awesome,” Mr. Subburam said later. “We were learning things together.”

For Superintendent Hite, such moments offer rare vindication in an otherwise trying year.

During a January visit to Mr. Subburam’s classroom, Mr. Hite—a former teacher in his native Virginia—delighted in grilling students on the rationale and research behind their design approaches.

“This is exactly what we want our children to experience,” he said. “Instead of 1,000 things that teachers must get through in 180 days, it’s deep learning that occurs over and over again.”

Becoming a Believer

Mr. Hite believes the common core—Pennsylvania is one of 46 states, plus the District of Columbia, to adopt the new standards—is opening the door for such teaching and learning. But Philadelphia has a long way to go, he says.

Money is a big barrier: Even as he lobbies for the hundreds of millions of dollars he will need next year, Mr. Hite is still scrambling to find $14 million to balance this year’s books.

Stalled contract negotiations with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers are also a stumbling block. In addition to huge wage concessions, Mr. Hite is seeking major work-rule changes that he argues would allow more time for collaborative staff planning, freedom to restructure the school day, and room to give incentives to teachers who “help grow and develop other teachers.” All three changes would help make more schools like SLA possible, the superintendent says.

Helping the district’s central office “get out of its own way"—by forgoing top-down, centralized professional development, for example—has also proved difficult, he says.

All are factors that help explain why many observers are skeptical that large urban districts will ever succeed at bringing innovative school models to scale. Even at SLA@Beeber, with its philanthropic support and handpicked student enrollment composed of top performers, such work has been painstakingly difficult.

But as Mr. Subburam’s engineering unit nears its conclusion, such concerns take a back seat to the day-to-day rigors of teaching and learning.

A group of students gathers around a table, eager to see if their classmates’ model house will withstand the “simulated natural disasters” that their teacher has concocted. The teens are loud. Scraps of cardboard litter the floor. One group’s model house tips over when confronted with a gentle breeze.

Then, the teacher places a five-pound bag of pennies on the roof of a student-built house. It’s a test of the structure’s ability to bear a heavy load. The top floors sway slightly under the pressure, but most of the weight is transferred down to the solid foundation. The students high-five, elated that their skyscraper-inspired strategy worked. Mr. Subburam—who over the summer felt he had “hit the lottery” by landing a job at SLA, but now just hopes to make it through his first year in one piece—smiles.

“It’s really hard to teach this way,” he said after the class. “You just have to believe it’s going to pay off in the end.”

Coverage of “deeper learning” that will prepare students with the skills and knowledge needed to succeed in a rapidly changing world is supported in part by a grant from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, at Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the March 12, 2014 edition of Education Week as Making New Models Work Is Instructional Challenge


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