Teacher-Led School Innovates With Student Regrouping

By Stephen Sawchuk — January 18, 2011 7 min read
Heather McCowan, center right, a 7th grade English teacher a Palmer Park Preparatory Academy in Detroit, hands a "pom," or token, to Monique Whittaker, while Micah Whittaker, left, and Dezhane Norton work on a grammar lesson last week. Students are rewarded with poms when they answer questions correctly and participate in class.
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Detroit’s troubled school system remains in emergency management, its enrollment dwindling and its labor-management relations contentious. Yet in spite of those challenges, a school there is making a bid to innovate with many of the formal structures that have long guided not just teachers’ roles, but also how students are organized in classes.

At Palmer Park Preparatory Academy, teachers are gradually assuming administrative duties to become the city’s first teacher-led school. An extended day, part of the district’s reform policy, gives the staff time every afternoon to compare teaching strategies. And finally, a new, pilot schedule for 7th and 8th graders lets teachers regroup the middle school students in different English/language arts and math classes frequently, based on the students’ performance and how quickly they are learning new material.

The changes are the K-8 school’s attempt to get concrete about the much-touted but often vague concept of “differentiated instruction” for students, especially for those who have struggled to grasp key concepts and risk falling further behind.

They are also the product of a partnership among teachers, the local teachers’ union, the central administration, and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, the educational publisher hired in fall 2009 to revamp Detroit’s curriculum.

In a sense, the 650-student school is also an incubator of several ideas that in recent months have caught renewed attention from education reformers around the country, including: the notion of the teacher-led school; extended school hours, a concept favored by the Obama administration; and on-the-job professional development based on data analysis. While still in its infancy, the school is being praised by district leaders as an example of organic reform.

“I think the teacher-led concept was so new it gave us the opportunity to think out of the box” on classroom scheduling, said Barbara Byrd-Bennett, the chief academic and accountability auditor for the Detroit district. “We worked all summer to have this school up and running, and if we had not spent that kind of energy, had not pushed and challenged ourselves, this new idea would not have generated itself.”

Organic Reform

The genesis of the changes occurred last summer, after a group of teachers at Palmer Park approached the district with the proposal to convert to a teacher-led arrangement, in which the school’s teachers take on the budgeting and management duties generally carried out by an administrator.

Though not a new concept, teacher-led schools have gained fresh attention in the past year, with new examples under way in California, Colorado, Minnesota, and New York, among other places, and a spate of recent articles in a number of publications, including The New York Times.

Ms. Byrd-Bennett and the Detroit Federation of Teachers agreed to the arrangement with some conditions. Based on prior experiences with similar schools while she was the chief executive officer of the Cleveland schools, Ms. Byrd-Bennett insisted on formal training for teachers and a graduation transition. An executive administrator, Bessie K. Harris, is training the school’s four lead teachers on the governance process, such as how to run budget meetings.

Discussions among those teachers homed in on how to boost attendance, keep students more engaged in their work, and minimize their frustration when they were struggling with lessons, said Ann K. Crowley, one of the lead teachers who will assume most administrative duties in the school.

In consultation with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt officials, the teachers arrived at the idea of personalized schedules for all the students, varying on whether they need more-intensive instruction on basic concepts or are ready for more in-depth instruction. Using a data-analysis tool, the publishing group culled information from state, local, and classroom tests. Then the school placed students in one of three classrooms each in math and English/language arts with peers at the same level of performance.

Crucially, teachers are expected to target the same standards, but their lessons explore them in different levels of breadth and depth depending on the performance level. The extended learning time—a change that’s being tried across the district—helped usher in the final piece of the plan: professional development to help monitor students’ progress.

Teachers have common planning at the end of every school day, in addition to their regular prep periods. At those meetings, they’re able to discuss the results from their lessons and go over data generated from quarterly “benchmark” assessments. Then, they can decide whether a student needs to be moved to one of the other classes—something that can occur on a weekly or, potentially, even daily basis as necessary.

“It’s so much easier to move the kids and challenge them and address them when they need more attention,” Ms. Crowley said.

Heather McCowan conducts a grammar lesson at Detroit's Palmer Park Prep. The teacher-led school is experimenting with grouping to aid student achievement.

The seemingly simple idea of differentiated scheduling is one that, historically, has been difficult to execute. For one thing, such schedules essentially require teachers to take charge of far more students than is usual in lock-step class schedules.

“Scheduling is not something that, quite frankly, gets a lot of attention,” said John J. Winkler, the vice president of enterprise solutions at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. “What we’re doing is scheduling based on student issues, not adult issues.”

It has taken a commitment by teachers to stick with the schedule, but teachers seem to feel that they have more ownership over student success, Ms. Crowley added.

“That kind of scheduling can drive adults crazy,” she said, “but kids can really adapt to it.”

Concerns Raised

The concept appears to be relatively new to education as a whole. Only a handful of other schools, all in New York, have used data to create personalized student schedules, and none of them is currently teacher-led, Houghton Mifflin Harcort officials said.

The idea, however, raises the specter of prior methods intended to gear instruction to different student needs, like “ability grouping” and “tracking,” that have had many detractors. Much research and academic debate occurred in the 1980s and 1990s, when such practices were said to benefit high achievers but widen educational disparities between them and their low-achieving peers, especially when the criteria used to assign students to groups were not related to instructional goals.

Even today, there is little agreement among scholars about the best way to make differentiated groupings work well for all students, according to Adam Gamoran, a professor of sociology and education policy studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who has studied both practices.

He said that figuring out the logistics of constant reviews of data, monitoring student progress, and regrouping students as needed pose constant challenges.

“If you’re going to make a move like this, to use some form of differential placement and differentiated instruction, you need to do it in a way that keeps high-quality instruction for low-achieving students,” Mr. Gamoran said.

But teachers in Detroit note that the placements aren’t static, and students aren’t stuck indefinitely at a particular level of instruction. A student who succeeds in algebraic concepts but struggles with geometric ones could be regrouped for those specific lessons, while others whose performance rises steadily could move ahead.

“It is more about needing to know your objectives; it’s almost like mastery of skills—have you mastered them, have you demonstrated them,” Ms. Crowley said.

“It’s like an [individualized education plan] for each child.”

Monitoring Progress

Some obstacles have cropped up, teachers and administrators acknowledge.

The flexible scheduling, in fact, was nearly scrapped after the school had trouble attracting middle school teachers who were on board with the changes in the school.

Although the city’s collective bargaining pact allows certain schools’ staff, including Palmer Park Preparatory Academy, to select the teaching force, a mass retirement of many middle-grades teachers the previous year had reduced the number of eligible candidates. And other teachers were initially concerned about the changes, said Ms. Harris, the school’s executive administrator.

But the school’s lead teachers have held firm to the concept, believing that it was crucial to better outcomes. Students appear to be more engaged and focused on the task at hand; some have asked of their own volition to move to a different class, Ms. Crowley said.

The changes, especially the school’s new schedule, are still so new that there’s little hard evidence to suggest they’re working, but the district will be monitoring its progress closely. To gauge the school’s success, it will rely on the data from a variety of indicators the district collects, which include several that go beyond standardized-test scores. If they show progress, the district is considering expanding the concept.

“Is attendance up? Are expulsions/suspensions down?” Ms. Byrd-Bennett said. “If at the end of the year, our data and numbers moved in the right direction, then there’s no reason why we would not think of this for our scheduling the next year.”

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 www.hewlett.org.
A version of this article appeared in the January 19, 2011 edition of Education Week as School Restructures Student Grouping


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