doug mccurry

names to note

achieving change

New York

Sweating the big and small stuff at Achievement First's P.D. day

When principals and coaches at Achievement First charter schools conducted observations this fall, they found that many teachers fell short when using a classroom technique called "checks for understanding." The technique, in which teachers ask questions to determine in real time whether students are absorbing lessons, “was the most important thing for improving our students' achievement,” said Dacia Toll, Achievement First’s founder and co-CEO. Plus, she said, "We're not asking good questions in the first place." So as the charter network's annual professional development day approached, Toll took it upon herself to lead the checks for understanding session. That session, along with 48 other training workshops, took place Jan. 6 at a Marriott Hotel in Stamford, Conn. Throughout her 90-minute session, Toll drilled the standing-room-only audience of teachers on how to ask targeted questions to ensure students understand the key points of lessons, and how to apply them. The group went over the basic techniques to ask questions — flash cards, choral responses, hand signals, pepper questions, cold calls, class sweeps, and more — and then debated which ones were better in certain situations. For example, Toll said cold-calling students would not be effective if the goal is to grasp whether an entire class understood a lesson. In that case, she said, “You’re only getting data from one student." Teachers said the content of Toll's session wasn't earth-shattering – many reported learning some version of Checks for Understanding during their regular certification process — but provided an important refresher.