I had a synchronicity event this weekend.
We moved house a year ago, and most of my books are still in boxes.
In case you’re wondering, my books are still in boxes because, basically, nobody buys books any more, so nobody wants to see a lot of books when they’re looking at a house. We found this out when we hired a professional stager to pretty-up our house for the market. (That’s our old living room, post-gussying.)
Having gotten hooked on living in a designed space, we hired our stager and her partner to design the new house, too. (Karen and Heather are fantastic, btw, if you happen to be in the market for a stager/designer team. Here’s my review of Karen’s work.)
Anyway, long story short, we now have pricey, staged bookshelves inside the living spaces of our new house, and actual books in boxes downstairs, in the basement. Also in the garage. We live in strange times.
So last week I started working with two new students and, while looking for my books on sentence combining, I happened onto my collection of books on mastery teaching, the subject of years of strife with our former school district. (We wanted mastery teaching, the district didn’t.) My mastery-teaching books, I decided, were going to live upstairs with the humans.
One day later, the Times was out with a report that mastery teaching has come to New York City, of all places.
Few middle schoolers are as clued in to their mathematical strengths and weakness as Moheeb Kaied. Now a seventh grader at Brooklyn’s Middle School 442, he can easily rattle off his computational profile.
“Let’s see,” he said one morning this spring. “I can find the area and perimeter of a polygon. I can solve mathematical and real-world problems using a coordinate plane. I still need to get better at dividing multiple-digit numbers, which means I should probably practice that more.”
Moheeb is part of a new program that is challenging the way teachers and students think about academic accomplishments, and his school is one of hundreds that have done away with traditional letter grades inside their classrooms. At M.S. 442, students are encouraged to focus instead on mastering a set of grade-level skills, like writing a scientific hypothesis or identifying themes in a story, moving to the next set of skills when they have demonstrated that they are ready. In these schools, there is no such thing as a C or a D for a lazily written term paper. There is no failing. The only goal is to learn the material, sooner or later.
For struggling students, there is ample time to practice until they get it. For those who grasp concepts quickly, there is the opportunity to swiftly move ahead. The strategy looks different from classroom to classroom, as does the material that students must master. But in general, students work at their own pace through worksheets, online lessons and in small group discussions with teachers. They get frequent updates on skills they have learned and those they need to acquire.
Mastery-based learning, also known as proficiency-based or competency-based learning, is taking hold across the country. Vermont and Maine have passed laws requiring school districts to phase in the system. New Hampshire is adopting it, too, and piloting a statewide method of assessment that would replace most standardized tests. Ten school districts in Illinois, including Chicago’s, are testing the approach. In 2015, the Idaho State Legislature approved 19 incubator programs to explore the practice.
A New Kind of Classroom: No Grades, No Failing, No Hurry
As happy as I am to see this development, I’m a bit leery, too.
My model for mastery teaching is the precision teaching at Morningside Academy, where students make two years’ progress in one year’s time, as measured by the Iowa Test of Basic Skills.
At Morningside (I attended their Summer School Institute a few years ago), students don’t learn to solve mathematical and real-world problems using a coordinate plane before they know how to divide multiple-digit numbers. Students don’t determine their own learning goals at all, or assign themselves practice. Every Morningside student follows the same coherent, field-tested curriculum, which works because topics are logically sequenced and practice regimens are effective and efficient.
Still, this sounds promising:
At Moheeb’s middle school, the approach has been transformative. In the 2013-14 school year, 7 percent of its students read at grade level, and 5 percent met the state’s math standards. Two years later, 29 percent were proficient in English, and 26 percent proficient in math, pulling the school close to the city average.
This year, all the eighth graders at the school who took the algebra Regents exam and 85 percent who took the earth science exam were marked proficient. The scores signified a high point for M.S. 442, teachers said.At Moheeb’s middle school, the approach has been transformative. In the 2013-14 school year, 7 percent of its students read at grade level, and 5 percent met the state’s math standards. Two years later, 29 percent were proficient in English, and 26 percent proficient in math, pulling the school close to the city average.
This year, all the eighth graders at the school who took the algebra Regents exam and 85 percent who took the earth science exam were marked proficient. The scores signified a high point for M.S. 442, teachers said.
We will see.