Getting Better at Teaching

Guest post by Neal Teague, Director of the Teacher Launch Project

If you asked the 25 year old me at the end of a long day at Charlestown High School during my rookie year how I planned to get better at teaching (and boy did I need to get better), I would have said something like “Well, first I need to figure out which activities are the best.  I am going to try to plan different activities and see which ones keep my students’ attention the most.  Teaching is something you have to learn by doing it, and then you reflect on what worked and what didn’t.  I will make a lot of mistakes and have plenty of bad days but in 3-5 years I think I will get the hang of it.”

That would have echoed a very commonly held belief about teaching: that the job is more art than science, and the only way to learn how to do it is through years of trial and error.  Of course, if you spend a moment thinking about that terrible metaphor, you might remember an art teacher you had at some point showing you how to draw, or paint, or sculpt that clay ashtray you gave to your non-smoking mother for Mothers’ Day.  Of course mom loved what you made, but it wasn’t exactly ready for the Pottery Barn showroom. 

Unfortunately, the stakes are a lot higher for teachers. Too often, novice teachers have little to no impact on student growth during their first year in the classroom. Below is a chart that illustrates the differences in students’ math outcomes that are generated Boston Public School teachers over the course of the first 8 years of their career. 

The good news here is that teachers tend to show rapid growth between their second and fourth years, which seems to reinforce the “learning on the job” narrative. 

But what if we could change that trajectory?  What if we could show that there is a way to get teachers ready to impact student outcomes from day one?  And most importantly, what if we could show that this method of teacher preparation does not only work in high performing charters but in the much broader world of traditional district schools?  Imagine the impact that this new trajectory for rookie teachers would have on closing the achievement gap.

These questions are driving the Teacher Launch Project at the Sposato Graduate School of Education.  Sposato has long been in the business of preparing rookie teachers to teach in the country’s highest performing urban charter schools and has consistently achieved strong outcomes. In aggregate, Sposato-trained teachers significantly outperform their non-Sposato rookie peers, as measured by outside experts and principal evaluations.  

But it’s hard to know why these teachers are getting these results. Is it just that the program is recruiting and selecting the right people (Sposato’s admissions rate is historically <10%, with most participants coming from top-tier colleges and universities)? Or perhaps these teachers and the methods they learn through Sposato can only be successful in charter schools (which only educate 4.2% of the total student population in the U.S.)? 

To affect the broader world of teacher preparation, we need to understand the degree to which the Sposato methodology, separate from the program’s selection and placement practices, is generating unusually effective rookie teachers. Methods can scale a lot faster and wider than teacher prep programs with 10% admissions rates. 

At the heart of this methodology is two big ideas about how novices learn to teach: (1) Rookie teachers need detailed, nuanced, and prescriptive instruction on highly specific teacher skills and moves to guide their decision making with planning, classroom management, and instructional execution. (2) These skills can only be learned through intensive, deliberate practice and immediate feedback from expert coaches—feedback that sounds a lot more like what your basketball coach said when your shooting elbow was in the wrong place rather than the suggestive, “Hmmm, you might try doing X or Y or Z” coaching that happens in a lot of schools. 

So beginning this summer, the Teacher Launch Project will embark on a three year randomized controlled trial of the Sposato methodology in partnership with Dr. Tom Kane and Harvard’s Center for Education Policy Research. Our pilot cohort of 30 teachers—folks who are recent graduates of mainstream education school programs and who are on track to teach in traditional public school districts—will attend an intensive four week summer institute and then will receive 20 weeks of coaching during their rookie year.  The summer institute will carefully replicate the types of teaching simulations and real-time feedback used in Sposato. And the weekly coaching in the fall and winter of their rookie year will look a lot like this session with UP’s very own Kelsey LeBuffe and Jesus Moore at UP Oliver:

The results of the 30 teachers in this “treatment” group will be rigorously evaluated by Dr. Kane and compared to a control group of teachers, who volunteered for the training and coaching but were not selected through the randomized lottery. In the two years that follow, another 200 teachers will be recruited for the Teacher Launch Project—100 to receive the training and coaching, and 100 for the control group. The three years of data will help us learn if the Sposato approach does indeed change the trajectory of rookie teachers who are more representative of the broader workforce in Massachusetts’ public schools. 

We are confident that our model will demonstrate a clearer pathway to ensuring every teacher is effective in their rookie year.  This evidence can then inform decisions that school districts and schools of education make about how they prepare new teachers.  We are pushing for a future where new teachers across the country answer the question about how to get better with a simple two word response: “practice and feedback”.  We like that a lot better than “trial and error.” 

Software Review: Kindle FreeTime

Guest Post by Andrew from Match Next

Part of our nightly homework includes 45 minutes of reading a book-of-choice. Checking whether this got done, though, is tricky. We end up relying on kids self-reporting how much they read and on looking at their Kindles (or paper books) to see if they reached their nightly progress goal. A kid who hasn’t done the reading can pretty easily game the system by flipping ahead in their book and lying.

We may have found a tech solution for this. It’s a feature on the new Kindles called FreeTime that let’s us monitor their reading activity by recording when they turn the pages and how long they spend on the device. Completely eliminates us relying on kid self-reporting.

So what is FreeTime and how do we rate it?

It’s a Kindle feature that lets users track the amount of reading a kid does each day. You can see information like how many minutes a student read, how many pages they got through, or how many words they looked up. 

Overall, I’d give it a 7 out of 10. It seriously eases the problem of relying on a kid having to self-report how much they read the previous night, and it helps our tutors spend less time having to figure out how much a kid actually read. 

It’s not perfect, though. It makes it much harder to load books onto a student’s Kindle by adding an extra 3 steps to the book loading process (this almost means it takes more time) Also, a kid can still flip ahead in their books on the Kindle. If they flip ahead slow enough, while playing a video game for instance, a kid could theoretically trick an adult into thinking she really did her reading (we actually think this is a pretty unrealistic scenario, but it’s still possible for a kid to do this to get out of doing their homework). 

I tested FreeTime on 4 of our consistent reading non-completers, and showed 2 of tutors how to use it and assign goals/books to kids. We had to iron out a few kinks early on (e.g. kids couldn’t access the books they had to read), but eventually we got it doing what we needed it to do. Now, one of those tutors who’s been using FreeTime with a chronic homework non-finisher says it’s “one of the most helpful tools she’s used all year - a total game changer,” because she never has to wonder whether her student actually did the work or not. It worked beautifully with these smaller groups, and we’d like to scale it up for our entire class to use, but can’t just yet - more on this later.

How we normally check homework

Right now, we check homework by looking at their Kindle to see how far they got, and checking a parent signature sheet that says ‘my kid did their homework.’

The parent sheets are tricky. On one hand, we want to make a nightly check-in with parents and kids around homework a routine. On the other hand, parents are understandably unreliable reporters of whether their kid did the reading or not. They face the same challenge we do – relying on the kid to be honest about whether they did the homework. The only way to be completely sure is to sit there and watch a child read for the full 45 minutes, but few parents have the time for this, and even then, you can’t be completely sure the kid is actually reading. 

If a student brings a signed parent sheet and is on her assigned location, then we count the homework as complete. If the student forgets the parent sheet, the tutor does a little digging, like having the student summarize what happened in last night’s reading, predict what’ll happen next in the story, etc. Even then it’s still hard to tell if they really spent the full 45 minutes reading.

How we assign homework using FreeTime

Tutors assign a ‘time’ goal directly on a student’s FreeTime account. Then, FreeTime tracks the student’s page turns while they read. The next morning, the tutor can then go onto a student’s FreeTime dashboard to see how many minutes they read for, and how many pages they read. Here’s what that dashboard looks like: 

  You can track other things too, like total time spent on a book or how much progress a kid has made. Here’s what that screen looks like: 

Problems with it

Two annoying things about FreeTime. 

1. Loading books onto the account is incredibly cumbersome. It takes an extra 3 steps to add a book so that the book can be tracked by FreeTime. This adds at least an extra 2-4 minutes to a process that normally takes no more than 1 minute. Multiply this by 50 kids, which turns into way too much wasted time. 

2. You can only have 4 FreeTime accounts on a single Kindle account. Since we have one Kindle account that holds our entire library, we can’t currently use this with every kid’s device unless we created a bunch of individual accounts. Possible, but another time-suck.. 


Overall, we’re very excited about this software. With a few tweaks it could literally solve the classic ‘did you really do your reading homework’ problem.

if you’d like to talk shop:

Match Beyond Live in The Boston Globe

Guest post from Stig Leschly, CEO of Match Education

The Globe covered our very own Match Beyond this weekend.  It was good story, and an unveiling of sorts.

My favorite quote:

Match Beyond could better serve students, move the needle on college completion rates, and give many more people a route to the middle class.

The Match Beyond crew--including Andrew Balson (who joined us in January to lead Match Beyond), Mike Larsson, and Bob Hill--are rightfully proud and get all the credit.

They just put up a slick full web-site, and they're full speed ahead (hiring, adding students, etc.).

Recall the basics of Match Beyond:

  • Overview: Match Beyond is our hybrid college and jobs model.  It serves mainly graduates of Boston’s high schools who either never went to college or never finished college and who need better jobs.  It also serves some Match HS graduates who didn’t complete college.  The goals of Match Beyond are high degree completion rates (at a low-cost) and great jobs outcomes for students.
  • Part 1 of Match Beyond: The Degree. With our help, Match Beyond students enroll in Southern New Hampshire University’s College for America and, once enrolled there, work towards AA and BA degrees online.  These online degrees are rigorous, accredited, low-cost, eligible for financial aid, and competency-based.   Because the degrees are competency-based, students can work at their own pace.   Over the last two years, we have formed a close partnership with College for America.
  • Part 2 of Match Beyond:  The Coaching and Support.  From our Match Beyond staff, students get intensive personal coaching, academic support and jobs counseling as they work online and plan for better employment.  Our coaches form strong, authentic relationships with Match Beyond students.  Come summer, we’ll open a full “coaching” campus downtown.

Again, read more about all this in the Globe and on our new website

And to close, a quote from one of our Match Beyond students:

I am a real person.  I have bills.  I have to take care of a child.  It’s not easy, but Match Beyond makes it possible.  You get an education, and they will help me with my career.  Nowadays, you’re not going to get any good job without an education.  I don’t see why anybody wouldn’t do Match Beyond. 

-- Sarema, Match Beyond student

New Study. Same as the Old Study.

Guest post by Stig Leschly, CEO of Match Education

CREDO – a center for education research at Stanford – just released (another) study showing that students who enroll in Boston’s charters dramatically outperform their district peers in math and ELA gains.   

Specifically, students in Boston’s charters – when compared to their peers in the district – achieved four times the growth in reading and six times the growth in math.  This study points out that charters are serving roughly comparable numbers of low-income and special education students. 

Overall, Boston has hands down the best charter sector in the country, says the study (again).   

Here and here are some of Mike Goldstein’s prior blogs on CREDO studies of our charter schools.   They include a lot of sports references.

And here is Scot Lehigh’s spot-on Globe editorial this week on the CREDO study.  

To Scot, “this study should open some minds — if, that is, they are not permanently locked shut.”

New study. Same as the old study.

New Kindles

Guest post by Andrew from Match Next

Amazon released new Kindles last October. They updated their basic model and released a few new versions. Here’s the blog I wrote last year on the older models we bought back when our students were 3rd graders.

We got a few of the new basic devices to test out, and now a bunch of our students are using them full time. Here’s what they look like:



They’ve been great so far. They’re sturdier, faster, and have a touchscreen. They cost a little more than the older models, though. $79 each vs $69, but less if you bulk order.  

The touchscreen is the best part. It feels a lot like using an iPhone, so doing things like connecting to WiFi or digging through our library is just a lot easier and more efficient on the touchscreen device. We still love the old ones because they’re simple and reliable, but navigating through the pages could get a little annoying because the buttons made it a bit cumbersome. Here’s what the 2 models look like side by side:


The new touchscreen models do all the same things that we cared about with our old, button-based Kindles. Students can: 

1. highlight text 
2. look up words using the built-in dictionary, and 
3. search for books directly in our library. 
They could do these things on the old devices, but it was just a little harder because it takes  a little more time to use the buttons. 

One Annoying Problem

Sometimes when we charge them using a cord and plug, this screen will pop up and stay there: 


The fix is simple. You just need to hold the power button on the bottom of the device for ~20 seconds, which’ll force the device to restart. Not terrible, just annoying. 

The Bottom Line

I’d give this newer model a 9 out of 10. I gave the old ones an 8.

The touchscreen Kindles have all the features we care about that the older, button-based Kindles have. Although they’re a little more expensive, there’s one extra feature (not including the touchscreen) that makes them better, and completely worth the added cost: Kindle FreeTime. I’ll describe what this is in my next post. 

Next time: Kindle FreeTime - a Kindle-based tool that gives administrators the ability to more closely monitor a student's reading activity. 


if you’d like to talk shop: