WBUR Learning Lab: ‘Small-Group Learning’ Aids School Success

‘Small-Group Learning’ Aids School Success

SOURCE: WBUR Learning Lab
By Peter Balonon-Rosen

Closing the gap between the achievements of low-income students and their peers is such a formidable challenge that some experts say it cannot be done without eliminating poverty itself.

By the time children enter kindergarten, there is already a significant skills gap across socioeconomic lines that manifests in an income achievement gap that has widened dramatically over the past 25 years.In Revere, a high-poverty school district, school officials have turned internally to raise outcomes for kids in poverty. Their notion is that school success can begin with a successful teaching model.

A Model In Action

“What is this?” kindergartner Thea Scata asks. She taps the picture of a rabbit with a wooden pointer and looks to the three other girls seated at her table.

The group of four kindergartners at Revere’s A.C. Whelan Elementary School is learning about the letter “R” — writing its shape and reviewing words that begin with the letter.

“Bunny!” replies Bryanna Mccarthy.

“No, what’s the first sound? ‘R’ — rabbit,” Scata says to the group.

The students in the classroom are divided up into four groups by learning ability, independently working on different exercises that teacher Lisa Piccadaci has tailored to those specific students.

Piccadaci stays put at the designated Teacher Table, focusing on only one group, four to five students, at a time — in a much closer capacity to her students than if she was teaching in front of the entire classroom.

“Working one on five you can really get a better sense than working one on 20,” said Noel Patch, a fellow kindergarten teacher at Whelan. “You know when they’re able to move up, when they’re really getting something, and when they’re ready to move on.”

This teaching model — small-group, independent learning — is a model that teachers say allows them to work closely with one set of students at a time, while simultaneously encouraging students to take ownership of their own learning.

Whelan is one of 43 public elementary schools in the state that Bay State Reading Institute (BSRI), a Holliston-based education nonprofit organization, partners with to implement this teaching model into Massachusetts schools.

Filling In The Cracks

Massachusetts ranks top in the nation for public education according to the 2014 Kids Count Data Book, yet students slip through the cracks.

Classrooms house students with a range of abilities, often leaving many teachers at the front of a class to aim for the middle — an approach that may be too slow for advanced learners and too fast for slower learners, inevitably leaving some students left behind.

Revere, the only urban district in the state with elementary schools that all rank proficient or higher on student assessments, has a 76.7 percent graduation rate. BSRI hopes that its teaching model can reach many of the students that would otherwise receive less-than-sufficient attention.

Originally intended as a way to introduce targeted literacy exercises to students of varying abilities, teachers across grades and subjects now embrace the model.

“We’ve really upped our rigor in our differentiated centers,” said Kimberlee Clark, a first grade teacher at Whelan. “I’m really able to target those that need to be challenged and go above and beyond and I’m able to work with those students that need the extra support to get onto grade level.”

English Language Arts (ELA) assessments in spring 2010 rated 38 percent of fourth graders and 54 percent of fifth graders in Revere as proficient or higher. That fall, Revere Public Schools began a partnership with Bay State Reading Institute.

By spring 2011, the end of the first year of Revere’s partnership with BSRI, a dramatic increase was apparent — 51 percent of fourth graders and 61 percent of fifth graders rated as proficient or higher in ELA.

Now entering the fifth year of the partnership, Revere’s numbers are still higher than before the partnership began, but have varied their course a bit: 39 percent of fourth graders and 67 percent of fifth graders rate proficient or higher in ELA as of spring 2014.

BSRI places literacy and principal coaches in their partner schools to work with staff, provide professional development, and show teachers how to administer quick data assessments to track student progress.

Owning Their Learning

Core to BSRI’s approach is independent student learning. As teachers work closely with small groups of students, the other students are expected to work by themselves on separate tasks.
“Students then own a piece of the learning,” said Ed Moscovitch, chairman and co-founder of BSRI. “They learn how to learn from an independent perspective.”

“When they’re working together it’s not so much that students are teaching students, but they’re discovering and coming to the knowledge together,” said Lenore Diliegro, a fifth grade teacher at Whelan.

Small-group learning is now a standard teaching practice at Whelan from kindergarten through fifth grade in subjects from ELA to math, yet challenges remain.

“The most difficult thing about the centers is holding [students] accountable, making sure they’re staying on task and completing something,” said Clark. “More often than not I do have to excuse myself from the teacher table and go in and check in with another group and then go back.”

Clark stands by the model. Teaching to students in the full group instead of in small groups, Clark says, “I think that I would lose them.”

“After working with this model for the past few years, I think this is definitely the way to go,” Clark continued. “I think I reach more students and I find them to be more attentive, more successful, more on task.”