“Mr. Arcos,” whispered Anthony Baez, 9, across a room of more than 50 students staring at math problems on the school’s iPads and laptops. A small chime sounded when students got an answer right.
Silvestre Arcos, 35, Anthony’s teacher, came over as soon as he finished helping another student. Anthony had completed one set of problems and wanted Arcos to see how well he’d done before moving to the next set.
Arcos and Anthony are part of an experiment at KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) Washington Heights Middle School, an open enrollment public charter school where students have taken math classes twice a week with 50, 70 and even 100 students. The students, 94 percent of whom are African American or Hispanic, use personal electronic devices to learn at their own pace and supplement the traditional instruction they receive with a teacher in front of the room the other three days of the week.
The large classes allow the school to redeploy other teachers to a subject that is better taught in smaller groups: reading.
Arcos and Principal Danny Swersky, 30, are pleased with the test data they have seen so far.
Last year 31 percent of fifth graders at KIPP Washington Heights passed their state math tests compared with 17 percent in the surrounding district. Swersky said that students showed nearly three years of improvement in their MAP (Measures of Academic Promise) tests.
“We saw growth in every quartile, not just the middle kids or the high kids,” said Arcos.
Arcos was one of 10 teachers who were recognized at Gracie Mansion by Mayor Michael Bloomberg for the quality of their teaching in June 2013.
Although Arcos has degrees from both Cornell and Columbia in New York he grew up on the border between Texas and Mexico and said he still draws on that early experience to reach his students, many of who are English language learners. His first teaching job was in a 4th grade bilingual classroom in Texas.
“Instead of subtracting your first language to build up your English, let’s build up your first language and value both,” Arcos said he used to tell his students.
Arcos said the large, self-directed class teaches independence and perseverance to the largely low-income, minority students that the school serves.
“There are a lot of times when the kids ask for help and I tell them you have to figure it out,” said Arcos. “So when they encounter something difficult in college, they won’t say I’m just going to go back home.”
Sometimes students are even allowed to fail. At the end of one lesson, Anthony stood up and said, “I couldn’t do it but I never gave up.”
According to Swersky, many of the academic studies measuring the impact of technology have been mixed.
“It is a tool, it’s not an end in itself,” said Swersky.
Because so many students are in math class at the same time, his school has been able to offer guided reading with fewer than 10 students to a group. Just over 27 percent of students in the school passed the state English exam last year compared to 14 percent in the district.
Some research has shown that it is more difficult for schools to help students advance in reading than in math because they hear fewer words at home and are read to less frequently. Most math instruction happens at school, regardless of a student’s background.
The large classes at this school are unusual in the U.S., but not everywhere. Some international studies show that in countries such as South Korea, class sizes are large and do not hurt student achievement.
Professor Douglas Ready at Columbia University’s Teachers College said that academic research on class size isn’t applicable to what is happening at KIPP Washington Heights, where students work on computers without teacher instruction.
“None of the class size studies includes kids who are getting individualized instruction because for those kids the class size is one,” said Ready.
Without a body of research to guide him, Swersky has tried to focus the whole school culture around motivating and tracking student performance, so they can see their individual progress. The school’s walls are covered with charts showing how many skills students have mastered.
Students get shout-outs at the end of every class.
“Demetrius mastered understanding multiplication,” said Steve Viola, 26, the 6th grade math teacher, at the end of a lesson. “Let’s give him one clap.”
“I need nine more skills to get my Sally Ride badge,” said Tariq Lumley, 11. Clap.
The school is set to double in size over the next two years. Swersky said it will be challenging to develop more teachers to use the school’s technology effectively, as well as maximize classroom space. On their midyear MAP tests, fifth graders improved more than the previous year’s fifth graders, but the sixth graders had slower gains.
Arcos said when he and Swersky dream big they imagine a school without grade levels.
“Why does the kid have to be in fifth grade if they have all of the skills to move on to sixth grade?” said Arcos.
Educators from around the country have heard about the math program and want to learn how it could work in their schools. But Arcos said he doesn’t have time to respond to every request.
He does have a solution, though: technology.
“I would like to create a video to send out when people have questions about how to best implement the program because it’s kind of the same answer every time,” said Arcos.
“To me the main motivation is to get them to become people who love learning and are not just doing this for a grade or a party,” said Arcos. “I think having choice and having technology here in the room has helped.”
Oliver Morrison is a student at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. You can follow him on Twitter. He worked from 2007 to 2012 as a teacher and activities coordinator for a KIPP school in Arkansas.