Building better classrooms through networks of educators working to improve

In a fifth-grade classroom at Detroit Edison Public School Academy in 2013, a teacher felt confident that her kids knew one particular concept well — how to find volume. Then they bombed that section of a quarterly assessment.

The teacher was flummoxed. Her class was high-achieving, and they’d been right with her during the lessons. But the data didn’t lie; somewhere, they’d gotten lost.

With the guidance of coaches from the Achievement Network (A-Net), the teacher dug deeper and broke apart the standards regarding volume. What she discovered was that the standard wasn’t just about determining volume; it was also about determining volume when there is missing information. A-Net then did a professional development with all the teachers on unpacking the state standards.

Kim Bland
Kim Bland reviews an A-Net group training exercise in the hallway at DEPSA.

“The teacher went back and retaught the information, and 85 percent of kids in that class did much better,” said Kim Bland, the New Paradigm chief academic officer. Bland is in charge of federal programs and curriculum for New Paradigm, which has five schools, including the three DEPSA schools, in Detroit. “The next year, because the teachers knew that was an issue, they wanted to spend more time on it. But the principal said, ‘No, we don’t need to spend more time on it, because now we know how to teach it the right way.'”

That’s the power of using data to inform instruction, one of the three targeted pillars of improvement for the Foundation’s education work.

It’s also the power of networked capacity building. Educators have much they can learn from one another, and creating networks where those learnings
can happen is critical in Detroit, where the landscape is chaotic with 91 different districts. The Foundation has facilitated a range of these learning opportunities.

A-Net is one example of that kind of work. It received a $300,000 grant from the Foundation in 2014 to launch a Detroit operation of a national organization and is working in 20 schools, including DEPSA.

Total grants in 2012-2013 Education:


Total grant dollars paid in 2012-2013 Education:

$9.9 million

Bland was a founding principal at DEPSA in 1998 and started her career teaching in Highland Park and Detroit Public Schools. She also spent time working for Edison Schools in New York, a job that gave her national networks for educators to tap into and learn from. But in Detroit, while she could pick up the phone to call and chat with old friends, she didn’t have that formalized relationship of sharing what works with other educators.

“A-Net brought that back to the table for me,” Bland said. “That national feel and best practices and things that you can take and massage and make it your own. I think a lot of schools that they work with may not have exactly the same population, but similar populations of kids, and that has been really great.”

A-Net is in its partner schools’ buildings weekly, supporting and meeting principals. Its coaches know what goals the principals have set for the year, and they help them work on those goals. Coaches provide assessments, conduct observations, and help crunch data,
all in the name of improving student learning.

Bland said she was working on principals one-on-one and asked A-Net to observe her and give her feedback. They did so, and helped her think about looking at data differently. Bland had been looking at data across the four core areas – science, math, English, and social studies.

Benjamin Curran and Ronald Newton
A-Net Director of School Support Benjamin Curran and New Paradigm Loving Academy Principal Ronald Newton review and discuss their action plans

“Ruth, my coach, asked if I was looking at too many areas,” Bland said. “I was like, ‘We need to look at all these areas because they’re all important.’ But she said, ‘How are you digging deep if you are looking at so many?'” It was a wake-up moment for Bland. A-Net also helped her develop what she calls “non-negotiables.”

So when she and a principal look at data, “you can’t use vocabulary as a barrier, you can’t say because the kids are absent, you can’t say they came in low anyway.”

“It’s made my job easier because sometimes you just can’t get to all of those things,” Bland said. “It gives me more time to focus with principals more strategically. And then they can be the Monday morning quarterback and work simultaneously together on the same goals. “It’s huge.”