Mastery poised to expand its influence around teacher coaching

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Mastery Charter and its methods for training and supporting teachers may soon exert greater influence in schools all over the city, a development that promises to cement the organization’s influence on educational practice well beyond its own schools.

The Philadelphia Great Schools Compact is asking the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for $2.5 million, some $650,000 of which would pay for Mastery to train teacher coaches to work in District and Catholic schools and other charters.

Some have criticized Mastery for promoting a style of teaching that is suited to test prep but not deeper learning. The compact’s proposal to Gates says that Mastery wants to use part of the grant to align its training with the soon-to-be implemented Common Core standards and help teachers run classrooms that are more student-centered and inquiry-based.

Its current methods, which focus heavily on giving teachers tools and techniques for classroom management and keeping students engaged, have already drawn Gates Foundation support. Gates has given Mastery $1.8 million so the charter management organization could run three teacher coaching institutes over a two-year period.

“We have funded Mastery because we think there are very few organizations that practice what they preach in classrooms,” said Don Shalvey, deputy director of Gates’ U.S. Program, Education. “You would see that it’s building good practice, and there’s a good evidence base for it.”

In June, Shalvey attended a three-day institute run as part of the Gates-funded Mastery Teacher Effectiveness Training Program. The training for teacher coaches attracted 38 representatives from 22 charter organizations and several districts, including New York City.

Mastery’s coaching process starts with laying out the standards for every classroom and each teacher, including a commitment to high expectations. The coach observes the teacher, analyzes her strengths and weaknesses, works out a plan for improvement with measurable goals, and follows up regularly.

“In a world of diminished resources, this effort is the most efficient way to help teachers and get kids what they need as quickly and effectively as we can,” said Mastery CEO Scott Gordon. “It’s a set of tools.”

Mastery’s coaches, who work with a group of nine to 12 teachers over six or seven weeks, give them a series of techniques for running a tight, focused classroom, such as circulating regularly around the room and promoting student participation. The coaches then monitor how well the teachers use the techniques through forms and checklists based on different levels of observation and feedback.

Each lesson has a measurable objective around student outcomes and teacher actions, such as counting how many students are actively on task or have answered verbal questions.

There are different levels of observation and feedback – up to and including real-time, in-person coaching sessions in which the coach gives the teacher instructions through an earpiece. Teachers can also opt for wearing a device called a “motivator” that buzzes them at preset intervals as a reminder to repeat certain activities, such as circulating around the room, until they become habitual.

One of the attendees at the June session was Grace Wu, who taught at Bethune Elementary School in Philadelphia as a member of Teach for America. She then served as a coach for TFA teachers here before joining Uplift Education, which runs 26 charter schools in Texas.

She now works in Uplift’s central office, which provides schools support around curriculum and instruction. She has traveled the country looking for coaching models, attending a variety of trainings run by different organizations.

Uplift is looking to start its own coaching – they have 250 new teachers each year – and “we’ve tried to see what is out there,” she said.

Wu likes Mastery’s approach. Mapping out strengths and weaknesses of teachers and making a plan for improvement is a real breakthrough, she said. In her experience, coaching can be unfocused, she said. The coaches will pay periodic visits to teachers and give them suggestions, but without systematic follow-through.

In addition to being focused, Mastery’s method assumes that teacher behavior can change and effectiveness increase “in a short amount of time, that changes can happen quickly and need to happen quickly,” she said.

Wu said that Mastery also “does the best job of incorporating data into the coaching.” She gave an example that the coach might observe that at 9:05 just 6 students were on task, but at 9:20, 18 were on task. This kind of close observation helps the teacher pinpoint student weaknesses, focus her attention, and develop new strategies.

Mastery’s method has a lot in common with the book “Teach Like a Champion: 49 Techniques that Put Students on the Path to College” by Doug Lemov, which has garnered a lot of attention.

But Lemov’s system has also drawn pushback from some educators, who say there is no real evidence that these techniques work. Others contend that approaches like these are incompatible with a more humanistic, student-centered education that is based on inquiry and projects and would not be tolerated in schools serving high-income students.

Gordon, the Mastery CEO, argues that these criticisms are off base, while also emphasizing that Mastery wants to bring its system to a new level.

The Compact proposal says that Mastery would use some of the Gates money to create “Teacher Effectiveness 2.0,” which would refine its coaching system and set of teacher protocols to help teachers meet the more rigorous Common Core academic standards.

These standards, developed by the states, but meant to set uniform national benchmarks, are designed to promote more classroom rigor and critical thinking skills. Some of these standards and assessments tied to them will be put into effect as soon as the upcoming school year.

“The parties to the Compact wish to develop and broadly share subject-based instructional strategies that look to move classroom teaching in the direction of student-centered or student-led lessons from the currently predominant teacher-led approach,” the proposal states. “These new strategies will … focus on increasing rigor in instructional delivery and content.” It said that Mastery “is itself hungry for these strategies.”

At the same time, the proposal credits its current teacher coaching and induction program with “helping Mastery produce dramatic gains in reading and math proficiency rates, and college-going rates significantly higher than the city’s average.”

Under the Gates proposal, Mastery would also play a large role in developing new principals and school leaders through a “residency” program in which candidates spend a year apprenticing at selected schools.