Could Mastery Teaching Be the Answer?

So now that we know that our current education system operates on a series of false assumptions- that the role of teachers is to sort and rank kids, that talent is fixed and it is not our job to actively develop it, and that the average is the claw from which a student cannot be freed- what do we do about it? We have to act upon what we know to be true, as bourne out by the research but also by student after student after student in our classrooms.

Think of someone who was not at the top of your class, and who is now successful in their career of choice. Oh, you can think of several? Think of someone who was in the top of your class, and perhaps hasn’t chosen a career, or hasn’t thrived. You can think of one of those, too? How did that happen? The sorting didn’t work? Huh?

Mastery Learning is an educational approach that means guiding students through a progression of skills and competencies at whatever challenging pace and at as high a cognitive level as you can usher them without hitting their frustration levels. The result is eschewing the traditional approach of delivering the same lesson to all kids. Uniform instruction produces, perhaps unsurprisingly, uniform results, as illustrated below. The high stay remain high and the low remain low. (Some members of our society benefit from this systematic reinforcement of privilege and are threatened by a change to this paradigm, but that will be the subject of another post.)

Uniform instruction produces, perhaps unsurprisingly, uniform results

For now, let’s look at how Mastery learning, on the other hand, moves many more kids much higher. The top 1% may very well still be four standard deviations above the traditional ‘average,’ as indicated by the graph below, but now they are joined in achievement by the vast majority of learners, who have now moved far above the average, skewing the distribution toward a much higher level of achievement, as seen below:

The top 1% are now joined in achievement by the vast majority of learners.

For those of you who aren’t self-proclaimed math lovers like me and my team, consider the following: If you were to fill the space under the curves above with a layer of mustard seeds that each represent a student, consider the number of students that are now higher than the ‘average’ aptitude! Everyone learns!

While the results bear out in classrooms around the country, the required shift in teaching practice, parent buy-in, and administrative support is staggering. This is hard work. We are talking about revolutionizing teacher prep programs around the country. But as students are empowered by authentic learning experiences and a community feeling of success and meaning, they will begin to demand it. They will demand clear and actionable feedback (a tenet of mastery learning) in college and the workplace. They will be the college professors of tomorrow. The old system that sorts kids into the “haves” and the “have nots” will collapse under the demand for equitable, meaningful educational opportunities.

After spending the past two days with 200 of the country’s movers and shakers when it comes to mastery learning, I’m feeling renewed inspiration to fight the fight. I’ve been using a mastery-based approach to teaching for 11 years, even before I knew it was called that. Teach for America handed me my first rudimentary spreadsheet with a single cell for each student per skill and tracked their mastery of skills and celebrated when they mastered my course. But that wasn’t enough. I needed parents to see it. I needed kids to be able to access it at home to practice their own mastery topics at will. Access drives agency, and agency drives equity.

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