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Fixes: A Team Approach to Get Students Ready for College

   /   Jun 1st, 2013Education, National, New York City

Carlton Williams, 15, works on a math problem.

by David Bornstein, Fixes

When Parker Sheffy, a first-year teacher in the Bronx Leadership Academy II, a high school in the South Bronx, talks shop with friends who are also new teachers, he often hears about the problems they are facing: students not showing up to class on time, not understanding their work, not doing homework. “I’m thinking: I don’t have that problem… I don’t have that problem…” Sheffy recalled. In his ninth grade integrated algebra class, he estimates that 80 to 90 percent are on track to pass the Regents exam, more than double last year’s figure.

“But I have to remind myself that this is not just because of me,” Sheffy said. “I’m one of six people who have created this class.”

Sheffy’s school is one of three New York City public schools working with an organization called Blue Engine, which recruits and places recent college graduates as full-time teaching assistants in high schools, helps teachers shift to a small-group classroom model with a ratio of one instructor for roughly every six students, uses data tracking to generate rapid-fire feedback so problems can be quickly addressed, and provides weekly instruction in “social cognition” classes, where students are introduced to skills and concepts — such as the difference between a “fixed” and a “growth” mind-set — that can help them grasp their untapped potential.

Blue Engine also targets algebra, geometry and English language arts in the ninth and 10th grades because performance in these so-called “gateway” courses is associated with college success.

Despite its modest size and short track record, Blue Engine has already seized the attention of educators and attracted notice fromPresident Obama. Last year, in its schools, as a result of the program, the number of students who met the “college ready” standard — scoring above 80 on their Regents exams in algebra, geometry or English language arts — nearly tripled, from 49 to 140.

Katherine Callaghan, the principal of the Bronx Leadership Academy II, who has worked in the school for more than 10 years, said: “Blue Engine has moved a huge number of our students in a way that nothing else that we’ve ever tried has been able to do.” She added: “Last year we had a 44 percent pass rate on the integrated algebra Regents, with two kids scoring above an 80. This year, we’re on track for 75 or 80 percent passing, with 20 kids hitting the college-ready mark. We’re close to doubling our pass rate and multiplying by a factor of 10 our college-ready rate.”

Gains like this are not often seen in education. So it’s worth taking note. What’s happening?

Blue Engine was born in the wake of a disappointing eight-year educational intervention led by its founder, Nick Ehrmann. And it shows. There is a refreshing humility baked into its model — particularly in the core idea that teachers need lots more support than they are given to do what they are expected to do. Ehrmann got his own start in education as a Teach For America corps member, teaching fourth and fifth grades at Emery Elementary School, in a tough neighborhood in Washington, D.C. He wanted his students in class 312 to make it through college, so working with the “I Have a Dream Foundation,” he raised over $1 million to provide them with tutoring, mentoring and scholarships over several years.

After he left teaching to pursue a doctorate in sociology at Princeton, Ehrmann’s Project 312 became the basis for his thesis. For years, he tracked the students’ progress against a comparison group from the same school. “I fully intended to arrogantly study what our nonprofit was getting right,” he recalled. “After six years, I found that our work had not had a shred of impact on academic achievement.”

Half of the students went on to graduate from high school; almost all of them enrolled in a higher education program; to date, not one has earned a bachelor’s degree; only one has a certificate from a vocational program.

That experience led Ehrmann to redouble his efforts focusing on a question of paramount importance for social equity and the long-term economic health of the nation: How do we help low-income students succeed in college? The current unemployment rate tells a powerful story: it’s 4.5 percent for college graduates, 8.3 percent for high school graduates, and 12.4 percent for those without a diploma. Now consider: only 8 students out of every 100 from the bottom income quartile in the United States earn bachelor’s degrees by their mid-20s (pdf).

There are many causes. But in recent years, researchers have come to agree that a big one is a lack of rigor at the high school level. “The most important pre-collegiate indicator of your success in college is the academic intensity of your high school curriculum,” says Clifford Adelman, a senior associate at the Institute for Higher Education Policy, who has conducted seminal research on the issue (pdf). “One step beyond Algebra 2 in high school will double the odds that you will finish college.”

David Conley, Director of the Center for Educational Policy Research at the University of Oregon, adds that the key is not just mastering material, but taking courses that teach you how to “organize and integrate information, think deeper and take ownership and control of learning.”

How could we make traditional high schools more academically rigorous places for many more kids? Ehrmann researched a number of models, including the Match High School, a charter school in Boston that gets impressive results by providing two hours of tutoring in small groups each day. In 2010, Blue Engine began working to see if a similar approach could be integrated more broadly into public schools — to close the gap between students being college eligible and college ready.

“The biggest open secret in American education is that we are shoveling kids off to higher education without preparing them to succeed,” Ehrmann said. Indeed,three quarters of students attending the City University of New York in 2011 required remedial instruction in reading, writing or math. That translates into a lot of dreams deferred, because students who are assigned remedial coursework in college — for which they earn no credit but pay full tuition — rarely complete their degrees (pdf, p. 63).

Parker Sheffy’s ninth grade algebra class is divided into six groups. The class begins with 10 or 15 minutes of whole group instruction, then Sheffy and five Blue Engine Teaching Assistants (called BETAs) settle into small group work. The day I visited, during a class on probability, what was notable was simply that all the students were hunched over their desks, pencils and calculators in hand, hard at work, for the entire period. I scanned for students staring into space, but found none. For 45 minutes, there was a continuous flow of interactions between the students and BETAs, with scores of quiet questions and clarifications, and students often assisting one another. It was disturbing to realize that most of these questions wouldn’t have been asked or answered in a traditional classroom. It also made me wonder: Why do we hold to the idea that one teacher should be responsible for meeting the learning needs of a whole class of students — particularly when some students arrive at school three or four years behind grade level?

One of the BETAs, Kym Scherbarth, is a recent graduate of the University of California, San Diego. Scherbarth had considered going into teaching out of college, but she didn’t feel ready to lead a class. “I figured this was a good way to learn how to be an effective educator and decide if it was something I wanted to pursue,” she said. Working closely with students in four classrooms every day, she’s seen where and how students often struggle and learned how to give concise and specific feedback. She’s also discovered that she has a gift for motivating students, particularly those who have not previously experienced success in school.

That’s not just her intuition speaking. BETAs keep track of student performance on a daily basis — scoring things like attendance and homework effort and accuracy and mastery of the day’s lesson (as indicated by mini exit tests). They meet with lead teachers twice a week to review the data and devise strategies to address problems. The numbers tell them where to focus, what’s working, and what isn’t. “Doing this regularly from the beginning of the year has been very encouraging,” Scherbarth said. “From where they started, I don’t think the students know how big of a jump they’ve made.”

Scherbarth has signed on for another year with Blue Engine and now plans to become a teacher. This is a pathway that others are following and it’s conceivable that Blue Engine could evolve into an alternative model for teacher preparation, one that provides more ramp-up time than programs like Teach For America. This spring, the organization received 578 applications from 187 universities and colleges for 43 teaching assistant slots; one-fifth came from Ivy League schools; more than two-fifths were from African-Americans and Latinos. And all of them are vying for jobs that have a starting salary of $14,400 per year (plus an AmeriCorps educational award of $5,550).

Blue Engine’s model is still in its early stages. While the overall trend is upward, there remains considerable variation among classes. Some teachers have struggled to work effectively with BETAs (younger teachers have found the transition to team-teaching easier). And big literacy gains have so far proven more difficult to elicit than gains in math, with which the organization has more experience.

The model could not be more timely. In recent years, reformers have focused more on individual teacher accountability than on the potential gains that could come from supporting teachers in better ways. Consider the experience of Sheffy, who is clearly a motivated and caring teacher. In his ninth grade algebra class, he is having great success. More than 80 percent of the students regularly complete their homework. In his two other classes (without BETAs), homework completion is much lower, he said.

There is a team behind the good results, and a price tag, too. Katherine Callaghan, the principal, said it costs about $150,000 to have 10 BETAs in the school, money that comes from her discretionary budget. Time will tell if these expenditures translate into bachelor’s degrees. But Callaghan says the effects have already spread to other classes. “Science pass rates are up, too,” she notes. “With all the BETAs, every single student feels known by someone. And they are all telling students that it’s important to be college ready. That’s building a really strong base in our 9th grade.”

For Ehrmann, the big question is: How fast and how far can a group of young people go in the course of one year under the right circumstances? Most teachers recognize that they could achieve better outcomes if they could provide more personalized instruction, grade more work, answer more questions, and have more time to build relationships with students.

The current classroom model limits all this. “That model will be radically transformed over time,” says Ehrmann. “It’s going to become a combination of strong teachers at the center, new forms of human capital, and the right technologies. I don’t think anyone knows what environments will be best for kids. We’re in the process of inventing it right now.”

 

(photo courtesy of NYTimes/ Byron Smith)

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