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See Inside Scientific American Volume 307, Issue 2

Building a Better Science Teacher

Experience and degrees don't matter in the classroom nearly so much as mastery of science and math--and some plain old smarts



Benjamin Simon

In a renovated warehouse in a weary-looking section of troy, n.y., 25-year-old katie bellucci has the rapt attention of 27 fifth graders. They are singing, stamping, clapping and waving their hands in the air—far more excitement than you would expect for ratios and fractions. The class is working together on a word problem involving a fictional basketball team with a win-to-loss ratio of 9:3. What is the ratio of losses to total games played? Bellucci gets everyone involved in breaking down the process (“What do we need to do first?”). Once the class arrives at a fraction—wins plus losses, divided by losses, or (9 + 3)/3—she encourages them to reduce it. “Okay, who's got the GCF?” she says, referring to the greatest common factor. She zips up and down the aisles, cajoling one student and then another for one more piece of the solution. The students track her every move, knowing she may call on them even if their hands are down. “I'm seeing so many lightbulbs and so much diligence,” she says. If an answer comes easily, she will push ahead with that student and ask for the how and why behind it. The bell rings, and as the kids file out for lunch, each one hands Bellucci an “Exit Ticket”—the solution to two problems that exemplify the core lesson of the day, which Bellucci will scrutinize to determine if the class mastered the day's objective.

Troy Prep, where Bellucci teaches, is one of the higher-performing public schools in New York State even though the vast majority of its students come from low-income families. In 2011, the second year the school was open, 74 percent of its fifth graders scored at the “proficient” level on the New York State math exam, as compared with only 66 percent of fifth graders across the state. Even more impressive, after two years in the school, 100 percent of Troy Prep's sixth graders scored in the proficient range. What accounts for the school's success? Doug Lemov, a leader of the Uncommon Schools Charter Network, of which Troy Prep is a part, does not hesitate: outstanding, well-trained teachers like Bellucci.

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