Over half term, I spent two days being ignored.  Visiting classrooms in New York City, my presence was disregarded consistently across three Uncommon Schools.  I went seemingly unnoticed by teachers and students alike, from Kindergarten to Tenth Grade.

According to Dylan Wiliam, what astonished one group of Japanese teachers visiting American schools was the number of interruptions to lessons.  Likewise, in my experience, British classrooms.  Uncommon Schools are different: teachers and students did not skip a beat or turn a head at my entry or exit from lessons.  They were neither disinterested nor rude; at appropriate times they were amiable and interested interlocutors.  They were, however, robustly focused on the business of learning, to the exclusion of distractions.  This principled, effective commitment to learning seems an appropriate synecdoche for me to begin attempting to pinpoint what makes Uncommon classrooms worthy of their name.

Uncommon Schools are probably best known from Teach Like a Champion, Driven by Data, Practice Perfect and Leverage Leadership.  These books distil the philosophy and practices their thirty-eight schools are using to ‘change history’ by ‘closing the achievement gap and preparing low-income students to graduate from college.’  Founding North Star Academy in 1997, the organisation has grown to teach ten thousand students across five regions of East Coast USA.  Visiting three schools in Brooklyn, I hoped to see how what I’d read about worked in reality; this posts highlights the most striking aspects of Uncommon classrooms.  Two future posts will consider the leadership and training which makes those classrooms possible.

Morning Motivation at Leadership Prep Ocean Hill Elementary

In every classroom I visited, teachers were demonstrating the highest expectations of their students; naturally, students were responding in kind.  The expression ‘high expectations’ can become devalued by overuse; Uncommon teachers however, were living a belief in excellence: of behaviour, of effort, of thought.  At Ocean Hill, elementary teachers ensured every student was active, focused and learning every minute of every lesson; transitions couldn’t have been snappier and I saw no student off-task for more than a few seconds.  Within a structured environment, students were working with determination and maturity; in studying Pandora’s Box for example, their understanding of details of the story, concepts and structures of myths and legends and the learning process itself were all checked continually.  Students were stretched academically, from Kindergarten (recapping how their current read-aloud fitted the elements of a story) to Tenth Grade at Uncommon Collegiate Charter High School (examining nuances of rhetoric in a speech of JFK, in preparation for new Common Core exams which the school is introducing early because they relished the additional challenge they bring).

High expectations at KCCS
High expectations: poster at Kings Collegiate Charter School

The last paragraph began ‘In every classroom I visited:’ the high degree of consistency, within schools and between them, was equally conspicuous.  At Ocean Hill Elementary, all teachers used centrally-planned lessons (which they’d adapted) and a coherent repertoire of techniques to teach them, such as call-and-response to check students understood tasks, cold-calling to check they understood the learning and the range offered by ‘minimally invasive discipline’ to keep students focused.  There was more variation within and between middle and high schools, particularly as the range of tasks and degree of student independence both increased.  Nonetheless, there was a recognisable continuity of experience through three schools and eleven grades: a similarity of purpose, language and practice.  Were a blind ‘taste test’ of schools possible, I suspect most visitors could identify an ‘Uncommon-ness’ about them.

Consistency at Leadership Prep
Consistency (Ocean Hill Elementary)

Accepting Professor Robert Coe’s definition, “Learning happens when people have to think hard,” the third point is a corollary of the first two: these classrooms were highly effective.  Routinely excellent behaviour means students think a lot; formidable academic expectations (coupled with meticulous planning and execution) ensure this is directed towards challenging, achievable tasks.  Regular checks for understanding helped demonstrate this (or led to immediate revision).  At Kings Collegiate Charter School, students were preparing to write research papers by sifting scholarly articles independently (a task far beyond what’s expected in 8th grade).  UCCS 9th Grade students were challenged with broad sweep knowledge required for Advanced Placement world history.

Hinge questions & feedback - it works
Hinge questions with immediate feedback at KCCS

Uncommon’s ability to ‘close the achievement gap’ is unambiguously dramatic and their test data may help contextualise this impressionistic account.  Uncommon schools are scrupulously biased to serve those most in need: established in under-served districts, they enrol their students using lotteries: 80% of NYC Uncommon students receive Free or Reduced Price lunches; 98% are African-American or Hispanic.  Students who begin school behind their more-advantaged peers catch or outperform them on a range of tests: to give just one example, at UCCS, 100% of students pass the Regents exam in US History, compared to a 68% average in NYC.  Every student from the first two classes to leave Uncommon NYC high schools has entered a four-year college; ‘college completion’ officers have been employed to help ensure they graduate.

UCCS – I particularly like that the walk-around for history is more important than the school logo

Teachers and leaders were deliberating on how they ensure a smooth path to increased independence and college.  Fourth Graders at Ocean Hill were being prepared for the self-discipline required as they go up to Middle Academy; both KCCS and UCCS were examining their structures, trying to establish what can be reduced or removed to ready students for adulthood.  Conversely however, in a few less tightly-managed classrooms, I saw examples of off-task behaviour, which the more-structured environment of Ocean Hill precluded.  How we balance the freedom we want for students with the need to ensure they work hard towards it remains a knotty problem.

Fourth Grade classroom, (Leadership Prep Elementary)
Fourth Grade classroom, Ocean Hill Elementary

The picture above illustrates this progress towards independence; it also encapsulates the role of extrinsic motivation: most learning was directed explicitly towards passing tests.  At Ocean Hill, the challenge had been personified: I heard the mantra “beat that test-maker” a number of times.  While it’s humanising, I’m not convinced Kindergarteners need to be motivated “so that we beat this test-maker.”  Principal Nikki Bridges offered a strong defence of tests: “they tell us how we’re doing,” she noted, provide benchmarks, and offer a challenge and an opportunity for growth which students embrace.  Likewise, Scott Schuster, principal at KCCS, responded to my question about the ‘paycheck’ system (credits for good work, debits for poor behaviour, rewards and sanctions) by arguing that it exists for a minority, “those who do need it” and that there were a range of other, less extrinsic motivators in play.  I can’t hold this against Uncommon; they are similar to almost every school I’ve ever visited (albeit more efficient and effective in putting these principles into practice).  But in my, perhaps naive, idealism, I am concerned about the effect of predominantly extrinsic drivers upon intrinsic motivation, and I believe (and have tried to persuade my students) that education is about far more than tests, and that schools should reflect this.

This photo doesn't illustrate my point, I just love it.
This photo doesn’t illustrate any particular point, I just love it (KCCS).

None of which detracts from the awe I felt at having visited three wonderful schools.  I have barely scraped the surface of the variety of impressive techniques and lessons I saw or all I learned.  High expectations and consistency work: they also provide an environment in which students can succeed.  At Ocean Hill, there was fun, joy and enjoyment in singing, chanting, responses so swift that transitions seemed almost like a game (and, of course, hard work).  And students appreciated and felt proud of what they were doing: at Ocean Hill, a girl received a subtle high five from her friend for answering a question well in front of the entire school.  At UCCS, I asked tired teenagers what they thought of their education: “A lot of rules, but the education is good” one told me; “It’s hard work, but it’s worth it,” said another.

I’ve tried to explain why I found these classrooms impressive.  In my second post, I attempt to explain how the leadership and systems make them possible.  In my third, I’ll examine the role of professional development.

I’m very grateful to Doug Lemov for the chance to visit these schools and to Jen Kim who organised everything brilliantly.  The principals and directors of operations were incredibly welcoming and open: Nikki Bridges and Sara Griffin at Ocean Hill, Scott Schuster and Christie Chow at KCCS and Jesse Corburn and Liv Angiolillo at UCCS.  I also appreciate all the teachers and students who ignored me while teaching and learning and then took time to talk to me about it where they could.