Home > Uncategorized > ESSA Does Provide an Opportunity to Expand Mastery Learning… Will States Seize the Chance?

ESSA Does Provide an Opportunity to Expand Mastery Learning… Will States Seize the Chance?

25 years ago when I was beginning my second term was Superintendent in MD, my staff members and I decided we would make an earnest effort to introduce the concept of mastery learning to our district. Our plan was to develop an “Essential Curriculum” that would identify the sequence of skills every student needed to master in subject areas and then develop performance assessments to determine if students had mastered the plan. Students would progress through the sequence at their own pace, based on our credo that performance would be constant and time would be variable. Letter grades would be abandoned in favor of periodic progress reports and “grade levels” might ultimately be abandoned in favor of “families” or “pods”. It was an ambitious plan that was ultimately set aside because the State began launching what would ultimately become the Maryland State Performance Program, a precursor to the the kinds of state level tests that NCLB mandated. As the State Department began developing its guidelines for testing, it became evident that time would remain constant and performance wold be variable. That is, all tests would be administered during one time period to grade level cohorts defined by the age of students. While this state initiative did not derail our efforts to develop an Essential Curriculum, it DID undermine the direction we hoped to head in terms of assessing and grouping students. In effect, the decision to administer state-wide standardized tests flew in the face of mastery learning…. and not just in Maryland, but across the nation once NCLB was put in place.

NCLB testing did not extend to high schools, and some states, most notably Vermont and New Hampshire, passed regulations that enabled high schools to award credit for something other than “seat time”, opening the door for mastery learning to be introduced at the high school level. This open door led to partnerships with post secondary institutions, the introduction of on-line non-profit and public school sponsored on-line courses, and opportunities for students to gain credit for experiential learning.

My misgivings about ESSA are well documented in this blog, especially given the GOP dominated statehouses across the nation who might use the state level flexibility to re-impose failed ideas like VAM and using tests as the sole or primary metric for “grading” schools. But, as Kyle Spencer reported in yesterday’s NYTimes, ESSA DOES provide an opportunity for schools and school districts to achieve the concepts our district in MD set out to implement 25 years ago. In “A New Kind of Classroom: No Grades, No Failing, No Hurry”, Mr Spencer describes precisely the kind of program we hoped to implement… and it describes the kinds of resistance we ran into apart from the state standardized test program. The exemplary program Mr. Spencer profiled in NYC’s MS 442 allows students to progress at their own rate, gives them and their parents timely feedback as the progress through the course sequences, and makes performance constant and time the variable.

But programs like the one Mr. Spencer describes, as he notes, does engender resistance from several sources. Parents who want to know the child’s “grade” are befuddled by the system that tracks progress through a sequence of skills. The high schools, who seek a percentage score as an admissions criteria, are flummoxed by the skill reporting as well, forcing the cadre of NYC schools using the mastery approach to develop an algorithm to assign such “grades” to its students. Teachers who find the change of approach mind-boggling have left the schools where mastery learning has been introduced.

Mr. Spencer’s article captures the ways that mastery learning is a radical departure from the dominant “factory” paradigm and how it plays out from the student’s perspective and emphasizes how the emerging grassroots mastery schools movement is necessarily different from school-to-school. He also describes the two factors that are making mastery learning possible now more than ever: ESSA… and technology:

…The rise of online learning has accelerated the shift, and school technology providers have been fierce advocates. It’s no surprise that schools adopting the method are often the same to have invested heavily in education software; computers are often ubiquitous inside their classrooms.

He also describes the reasons that mastery learning might be compromised: by focussing on cost-cutting; by devolving into a checklist mentality for all courses; by assuming that the metrics used to measure “mastery” are perfect;

Mastery-based learning, of course, has its critics. Amy Slaton, a professor at Drexel University in Philadelphia who studies the history of science and engineering in education, worries that the method is frequently adopted to save costs. (When paired with computers, it can lead to larger classrooms and fewer teachers.)

Jane Robbins, a lawyer and senior fellow at the American Principles Project who has written critically about mastery-based education, said she finds the checklist nature of the system anti-intellectual. While it may work to improve math skills, it is unlikely to help students advance in the humanities, she said.

Others question the method’s efficacy. Elliot Soloway, a professor at the University of Michigan School of Education, contends that students learn by slowly building on knowledge and frequently returning to it. He rejects the notion that students have learned something simply because they can pass a series of assessments. He suspects that shortly after passing those tests, students forget the material.

But the advocates for mastery learning, which include your humble blogger, see it as an imperfect but potentially better way to reach all students more effectively. This quote reflects my thinking:

In any event, advocates argue, the current education system is not working. Too many students leave high school ill prepared for college and careers, even though traditional grading systems label many top performers. Last year, only 61 percent of students who took the ACT high school achievement test were deemed college-ready in English. In math, only 41 percent were deemed college-ready.

Mr. Spencer’s article is a balanced presentation on mastery learning and it implicitly emphasizes the complications schools will face in implementing such a program. But the traditional factory paradigm is clearly failing large numbers of children in our country and, Mr. Soleway’s rejoinders notwithstanding, does not afford opportunities for students to “… learn by slowly building on knowledge and frequently returning to it”. Indeed, if time is constant and performance is variable, the relentless march to “cover” the curriculum precludes any chance for “…slowly building on knowledge and frequently returning to it”! 

I am heartened to see the NYTimes reporting on this movement… and hope that as other schools and districts read this they, too, will consider moving in this direction.



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