At SXSWedu, ‘Mastery-Based’ Lessons Touted as Option for Equity

Managing Editor

Austin, Texas

Many tech evangelists at this conference probably find the idea of schools moving toward “mastery-based” education appealing.

On Wednesday, a pair of New York City schools officials touted the idea’s merits, too, but not for the reasons one might expect at an ed-tech summit.

Two representatives of the Mastery Collaborative, a program within New York City’s department of education, argued that mastery-based approaches can be paired with culturally relevant lessons to promote equity in schools and lift students’ engagement and motivation.

During their presentation, Jeremy Kraushar and Joy Nolan, both with the department, made the case that mastery-based approaches can engage students by giving them a sense of the academic progress they’re making, as an alternative to simply reminding them why they’ve failed and why they’re struggling.

Creating Transparent Learning Environments

States and districts have been experimenting for years with mastery-based education—basically, judging individual students’ academic progress based on their mastery of concepts—as measured through projects, demonstrations, or tests. (It’s also sometimes called competency-based education.) That approach contrasts with the norm, which is expecting students to follow fixed academic schedules, based on credits picked up over semesters and academic years—what critics sometimes call the laws of “seat time.”

The collaborative has been working with more than 40 schools in New York City to try to merge mastery-based learning with culturally relevant lessons tied to their race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation. Kraushar and Nolan pointed to huge gaps between white and minority students in high school graduation rates and college-readiness.

The belief of the collaborative is that mastery-based education creates more “transparent and effective” learning environments for students by making them more engaged and motivated learners. That’s partly because the process reminds students that they can succeed by allowing them to see that they can master one concept, then another, in a progression—when they’ve previously been measured only through a cumulative test score, or grade.

“We’re not talking about lowering the standards for student learning,” Nolan told the audience. It’s about having “multiple ways to get there.”

Ed Tech Not the Emphasis

Ed tech was notably absent from the presentation by Kraushar and Nolan. But throughout the week at SXSWedu, the challenge of creating new learning opportunities for disadvantaged and minority students, both through tech and non-tech means, was a dominant theme. (See my colleague Michele Molnar’s account of one keynote speaker’s challenge to companies to make products with those populations in mind.)

Now in its second year, the Mastery Collaborative has been gathering ideas from the New York schools it works with on how to bring mastery-based strategies into instructional policy.

In the area of curriculum, the ideas include designing lessons that contain “meaningful interactions” and roles for students, and draw examples from students’ backgrounds.

In grading, schools have recommended focusing on academic skills and growth; focusing less on comparisons between different students’ academic progress; and creating a culture of “revision and reassessment.”

How much take-up those ideas will have outside of New York City’s schools is unclear. But the presentation resonated among some teachers who sat in on the session, including Taylor Laub, who teaches multiple subjects at a charter school in Salt Lake City.

More than 90 percent of the students at Laub’s school, Wallace Stegner Academy, are impoverished and roughly the same portion are Hispanic. Through afterschool activities and other programs, her school tries to provide them with cultural and recreational opportunities that wouldn’t come their way otherwise.

Preventing Frustration With a Mastery-Based System

Many of her students have grown used to getting poor grades and feel discouraged by it, Laub explained after the session.  Adopting a mastery-based system would give them a stronger sense of their own progress—and it might make it easier for teachers to know whether they’re on track to meeting academic standards, rather than waiting for test results to tell them.

The constant focus on grades can also frustrate new teachers, said Laub, who mentors novice educators at her school. “It would help a lot [with] stress relief on new teachers” rather than having them “always focus on what students can’t do.”

Right now, traditional grades don’t tell Laub enough about a student’s level of knowledge, she said.

Moving away from that model “would be more rewarding for them, in knowing where they stood,” she said. “Students would know, ‘Oh, I’m almost there on fractions,’ or ‘I’m almost there on cell division.’’’

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