Research News

Teaching as a team sport boosts student performance

Teacher and student with laptop
MNPS-Peabody TLUS student Whitney Bradley provides individualized instruction to a Bailey student. (photo provided by MNPS)

Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools has joined with the Vanderbilt Center for Nashville Studies and Peabody College to create a platform to provide detailed, reliable and recurring information about the commitment of major employers to the public school system. This is the latest installment in a series that tells the story of collaborative involvement between members of the Vanderbilt community and local public schools.

Teaching has turned into a “team sport” at Bailey STEM Magnet Middle School, thanks to a partnership with Vanderbilt’s Peabody College of education and human development. The collaboration has resulted in significant gains in student achievement.

“We’re breaking down the one teacher, one classroom habit and we’re building a concept of shared investment around the children we serve,” said Bailey Principal and chief instructional leader Christian Sawyer.

Bailey, a community of primarily African-American and historically underserved students with about 92 percent qualifying for free and reduced lunch, remains on the state’s priority list, according to Sawyer. But teachers are encouraged and buoyed by improvements on the Metro Nashville Public Schools’ Academic Performance Framework scale, which rates schools in categories from “target” to “excelling.”

A two-year turnaround effort has seen Bailey take two performance leaps from the target zone into the satisfactory category. Test score “pops” are especially noticeable in science and math, less so in literacy where gains tend to take longer.

Teachers teach and learn together

A “Learning Through Practice” team teaching concept was cooked up more than two years ago over dinner at the home of Barbara Stengel, director of secondary learning and professor of the practice of teaching and learning at Peabody.

“The idea of teaching as a team-sport concept, rather than an isolated, individual act, really could never have come to such definition without the deep collaboration with Barb,” said Sawyer, who received his master’s in teaching and learning from Peabody as well as his doctorate in leadership, policy and organizations.

This year, eight graduate students seeking licensure from Peabody were engaged in residencies with the teachers and students at Bailey. These licensure candidates were placed with teams of teachers led by graduates of the MNPS-Peabody collaborative master’s program, Teaching and Learning in Urban Schools (TLUS).

Students are known as individuals

Whitney Bradley, a TLUS master’s student, is in her second year as an eighth grade team leader at Bailey. The “Learning Through Practice” approach differs from her previous Metro teaching experiences in that “everyone is responsible for student learning.” Teachers have deep knowledge of each of the children in the grade. “Students know that we know them,” Bradley said.

The team approach also allows teachers to teach to their own strengths. “We hold each other accountable,” she said. “[lquote]We work together to make sure the students understand the content.”[/lquote]

The collaborative atmosphere and reduction in disciplinary incidents has improved the school’s culture tremendously, said Bradley. Two years ago, her first student teacher quit after only a few days. Her current aspiring teacher colleague is fully engaged months into the school year.

The Bailey partnership has accomplished two important goals in its two year existence, according to Stengel:

  • It has transformed the school staffing model into a team teaching model, where aspiring teachers have the chance to learn from colleagues and experienced colleagues take on leadership roles; and
  • It has placed more knowledgeable, loving, caring adults into the building so that the students receive more and better individualized attention.

“Bailey is receiving remarkably good ratings from teachers and students about being a good, safe and supportive place to work,” confirmed Stengel. And teacher performance also is improving. Over 90 percent of teachers received a satisfactory rating in the state teacher evaluation framework this year. Just two years ago, 80 percent were scoring in the unsatisfactory range.

Jill McAfee, a computer systems analyst in the Office of Sponsored Programs at Vanderbilt, has a Bailey eighth grader, Dharma Haller. “The improvement we have seen since her first year is phenomenal,” said McAfee. “The school has so much promise.”

She’s watched Dharma engage in projects around robots, rockets, airplanes, even a fashion show around “wearable tech.”

“My daughter comes home so excited about what they’re learning,” McAfee said.

Improvements help redefine the possible

Among other accolades, Bailey recently was recognized as a state winner in the Samsung “Solve for Tomorrow” contest for research that helped inform the neighboring community about energy savings on utility bills and carbon footprint reductions. The students, under the leadership of teacher Juli Hasfjord, earned a trip to the national competition in Austin, Texas. For many, it was their first airplane travel experience. The recognition led to Bailey receiving more than $20,000 toward technology purchases and an appearance in Fortune magazine.

Those kinds of accolades change the culture of a school, Sawyer said, and “help many of us redefine the possible.”

While academic measures at Bailey still are behind state and district levels, 2014 has seen marked gains in Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program (TCAP proficiency), including increases of 10 percent in science, 9 percent in math and 10 percent in social studies. TCAP literacy proficiency at Bailey remains stagnant and is key area of focus, according to Sawyer.

Discipline incidents and suspensions have decreased 40 percent in two years of turnaround work. As part of this effort, Bailey has partnered with Vanderbilt to build a Positive Behavior and Interventions Support (PBIS) model.

Community involvement makes a difference

Bailey also receives support from:

  • Vanderbilt’s Center for Science Outreach — CSO sends scientists from universities such as Vanderbilt, Fisk and Middle Tennessee State University to teach alongside science teachers at Bailey;
  • Special education teachers from Peabody, who work alongside special needs children at the school;
  •  Emily Pendergrass, a lecturer in teaching and learning at Peabody, who has been leading professional learning workshops for teachers around integrating literacy into all subjects;
  • Kathy Ganske, professor of the practice of literacy and director of the undergraduate and master’s plus licensure elementary education programs, who has provided feedback, observation and contributions to teacher planning;
  • Gokul Krishnan, a learning sciences Ph.D. student at Peabody, who is working to create a makerspace at Bailey, much like the one he helped create for Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt.

Bailey also has partnerships with charter schools in the area, including one with Liberty Collegiate Academy, around integrating computer engineering curriculum. A local private K-12 school, University School of Nashville, provided a workshop on mindfulness.

Time to apply to magnet schools

Teachers at Bailey have been knocking on doors in the neighborhood to tell prospective parents about the mission and work at Bailey. Many families at Bailey are involved in discussions about the future of public schools in East Nashville.

“You feel the investment and belief of our community in every aspect of the school,” said Sawyer. “This is a story about a committed group of people pushing forward around a mission and a deep commitment to the children that we serve.”

For families interested in MNPS magnet schools, such as Bailey, for 2015-16, applications are currently available online. The deadline for submissions is Dec. 5.