This is the ninth post of my Mastering Mastery-Based Learning in NYC tour. Start with the first post on NYC Big Takeaways and then read about NYC’s Mastery Collaborative, The Young Woman’s Leadership School of Astoria, Flushing International, KAPPA International, North Queens Community High School, EPIC North, and New Classrooms.
“Mastery-based learning can reopen a conversation about equity.”
With just these few words, John Duval launched us into a dynamic conversation. Duval leads the Model Redesign Team in the Office of Postsecondary Readiness, which houses a number of initiatives related to high school innovation around areas of whole school design, competency-based education (including the Mastery Collaborative), culturally relevant pedagogy, and effective uses of school time. Previously, Duval led the launch of the New York City Department of Education’s Expanding Success Initiative (ESI). This initiative, dedicated to improving education for African-American and Latino young men, launched the EPIC model, which will have four schools in both district and charter variations this coming September. Here are a few highlights of the conversation:
The Intersection of Culturally Responsive Education and Competency-Based Education
ESI designed the EPIC model with four core concepts, including competency-based education (CBE) and culturally responsive education (CRE), or the belief that “achievement is anchored not just in building from one’s existing strengths but in full engagement of one’s self and lived experience.” (See the EPIC Playbook for more information.) Duval explained how the intersection of these two concepts transforms the classroom and school dynamics. “Let’s start with the idea that mastery-based learning is a better way to do school,” he said. “When you focus on competencies, you are focusing on the ability to transfer skills and you are focusing on the important higher orders skills. In CBE, this is real shift for the teaching force in two ways. First, from a design perspective, it requires creating more complex learning arcs for young people. This is very difficult, especially if you’ve never been trained this way. Second, it creates more transparency and accountability for everyone involved. Once a student – especially an African American or Latino one – knows what skills he or she is supposed to develop, he or she can pinpoint what a teacher is or is not doing to help them.”
He continued, “Just knowing that grading is more objective based on progress toward standards rather than the highly variable, subjective conventional grading can bring a huge change in the student experience. Then when the practices are in place for students to have more agency and responsibility for their education, there can be a tremendous cultural shift in the school. There is more respect for students. And there is the expectation that when there is tension or conflict between a student and teacher, listening to each other and understanding each other’s perspective is the avenue for resolving it, not taking the student out of the classroom or the school. The practice of exclusion inhibits learning on the part of students and adults.”
He then introduced the work of Chris Emdin, an associate professor in the Department of Mathematics, Science and Technology at Teachers College, Columbia University and author of For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood… and the Rest of Y’all Too: Reality Pedagogy and Urban Education. “Emdin talks about reality pedagogy and the importance of using practices that create space for students to express themselves. This isn’t going to happen if we are flooding students with content or operating from our assumptions. We need to layer in the CRE conversations so that instead of trying to guess how the student is identifying themselves, as African-American, as a man, or as an artist, a son, or a brother, we create the space where they can express themselves and their interests. This can only happen when the power between teachers and students changes.” (See Emdin’s TED Talk.)
“One of the problems of the lack of diversity in the education leadership is that people start with different assumptions and ask different questions based on their life experiences,” suggested Duval. “It means we may not always be asking the right questions to help expose underlying issues. As the power dynamics shift and students are more empowered, it is possible that we will begin to shift policy questions as well as the processes we use to resolve them.”
“When you get down to it, both CBE and CRE are about the power dynamics within a classroom or school and both support a similar shift. In CBE, we use words like ‘agency’ and ‘personalization’ to explain notions of student voice around ideas of pacing, content, et cetera. In CRE, we use the lens of race, gender, and sexual orientation to drive a conversation around who defines student identity in the classroom and how the learning experience either honors a student’s identity or not. But the two concepts can – and should – work in concert. When they do, they create the conditions to challenge bias and for all people in the school to be open to learning.”
Duval then excitedly began to think about what is possible. “There are so many ways we can engage students in managing their own education. Student-led conferences are a simple but profound example. I am fascinated by the peer review process and self-assessment process. To what extent can students self-assess with precision? That would really put power in a different place.”
Regents and Implicit Bias, Culturally Relevant Education, and Choice
In all of my visits to NYC schools, the concern was raised that the Global History Regent was archaic, misaligned with high engagement pedagogical strategies and all-around bad for kids. It focused on recall of content – the lowest level of skill. It was instructionally and culturally incompetent, requiring teachers to cover the content and teach students from all types of backgrounds and life experiences to memorize facts about the Byzantine Empire when there are so many other ways for students to engage in the big concepts around empires. This is bad enough – but add to it that many students are trying to finish four years in high school but are missing many of their foundational skills. Time is precious, and we should be using every high engagement strategy we can to help students build their literacy skills. There must be a better way to demonstrate students understanding the core concepts of global history.
Duval explained, “We need to be honest about what is going on in schools in response to our current graduation requirements. There are certain blocks of content that are not relevant to the lived experiences of our students. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t expose students to a wide-range of things. But we need to respect our students, which means always returning to the question of whether or not we are helping them develop the skills to make their own choices and design their own future. Currently, there are patterns that occur. Students don’t find the content relevant. They are bored or perhaps even offended. They flare up. Then adults flare up. Layer in notions of implicit bias with a predominantly white teaching force, and the end result is a conflict where young men of color are bound to be the losers. Our data says the impact is systematic.”
Teaching and Learning in a Mastery-Based Environment
I shared with Duval that it was exciting to see schools that already have a robust pedagogical strategy seek mastery-based learning as a way to further improve teaching and engage students. He reflected on the changes in the field of teaching with, “Good teaching lends itself to laying a mastery-based structure on top of it. Teachers become more intentional about their goals and then more intentional about which strategies are really effective.”
During my site visits, many educators suggested that when teachers become more intentional about learning goals, they realize that they have placed too much emphasis on content and not enough focus on durable, teachable, highly useful skills that students can develop and carry with them through and beyond their years in school. Duval noted that “students can all access content whenever they want with their phones. Building in choice is going to become a standard practice. As we shift to mastery, we are asking higher demands from teachers: they are going to be designing the process flow for how students learn and advance, which is fundamentally more difficult than delivering a curriculum. If you want to assess students’ skill acquisition through things they create, then you need to provide them opportunities to create. We have to ask ourselves, ‘What is really happening in classrooms that are only organized around chalk and talk, quizzes, and end-of-course tests?’ We are beginning to orient teaching and learning in a completely different way – designing learning arcs that end in demonstrations of independent mastery – as compared to the conventional system of delivering curriculum and instruction.”
He continued, “It’s not that teachers are going to be replaced by technology. We need them more than ever. Their jobs are changing to become more challenging and more meaningful. Teachers are increasingly embracing a growth mindset for themselves so that they truly believe they can learn to teach students higher order skills, coach students in the habits of work, and deeply know their disciplines. Our job at the district and for principals is to create the conditions for teachers to grow.” He then wondered aloud, “Do we really expect teachers to be good at everything? If not, then we need to start thinking about different organizational structures within the district and different types of teacher roles. We need to build in more flexibility about how we deploy teachers.”
He pointed out that it is important for teachers to deeply know their discipline as we begin to be more focused on meeting students where they are. When conventional school focuses on delivering grade level curriculum and passing students on with Cs and Ds, they are not accountable for ensuring students learn. In mastery-based learning, teachers need to be able to identify which pre-requisite skills students are missing and develop a plan for building them. This means that teachers need to understand learning progressions in their discipline. He also suggested that districts and schools might think about creating modules that allow students to make progress without being totally dependent on teachers every step of the way, thereby freeing teachers up to provide individual or small-group instructions where students most need support.
Duval shared an observation about granularity of the instruction and assessment framework. “Teachers make instructional choices in response to the grain size of what they are teaching,” he said. “There is a difference if you start with six big competencies or 400 standards. It is going to make a difference in how learning targets are designed. The granularity will shape the instructional strategy and how much time and effort is spent assessing, logging, and tracking. It will also impact how assessments are designed. Schools are going to make different choices based on a number of different considerations. For me, the question of ‘right’ grain size of a competency is not quite the right question. Rather, it’s the alignment between grain size of outcome and appropriate instructional strategy and the implications of this alignment for larger whole-school questions around student meta-cognition of core skills across content domains. Districts need to think about designing their systems and policies to allow variation.”
Advancing Mastery-Based Learning in a Big District
Most of the districts moving to competency-based education are smaller ones, although there are now a number of examples of mid-sized districts taking the plunge. (See my site visits to Charleston, Lake County, and Henry County.) It’s not that competency-based education won’t work in all types of schools and for all types of students. It’s simple the problem of scale: how do we help all the teachers in all the schools understand competency-based education, build the skills to manage personalized classrooms, build assessment literacy, and calibrate within their schools what proficiency looks like for every grade level? It’s not going to work as a mandated policy – it requires dialogue. Competency education is educator driven: schools decide to convert because they are tired of trying to help children learn in a system that is designed to sort.
The NYC Department of Education, the largest district in the United States, has established the Mastery Collaborative to support forty schools (this is nearly ten percent of the high schools, whereas the majority districts other than top ten have less than ten high schools) in developing mastery-based learning and grading. The strategy for now and in the near future is to work with those schools that want to become mastery-based. “Right now we are in a curation phase,” Duval said. “We are learning a lot and curating a set of learnings. This is very important, as we need to be able to offer schools insights and choices about what they can do to integrate mastery-based learning and what they shouldn’t do. We need a handbook that is specific enough that teachers can understand what instruction looks like in the classroom when students are empowered, when there is transparency, and when the primary focus is on skill-building.”
Duval explained that the next steps will be to think about best ways to support educators to be highly capable in culturally responsive, mastery learning environments. “Nothing is ever linear in a school or district change initiative. We have to have a plan if a window of opportunity opens. We need to be thinking about how we strengthen the human capital pipeline so that schools don’t have to direct resources to re-training teachers. We need to recruit more men of color into the process. We need to think about our hiring processes and our induction processes. How do we get new teachers placed in mastery-based schools so they get hands on experiences in a mastery-based classrooms?”
Most importantly, Duval believes that it is critical to redesign the assessment paradigm to be more performance-based. He emphasized, “The current assessment structure feels like it is written in stone – but it isn’t. At some point in time, someone created these ideas about when and how assessments should be given. This means that we can change them. It requires getting people on the same page about the limits of the current assessment paradigm, which is a challenge. We also need to be able to offer different mechanisms for quality control beyond compliance and end of year assessments.”
However, the political sphere that districts operate within creates a barrier. “The discourse around education can be polarizing and toxic,” Duval admits. “It takes bravery to want to have more transparency. It takes bravery to say your eighth grader has been getting Bs, but they are in fact reading at sixth grade level. What we need is a political sphere that values honest discourse and listening. How do we carve out space for people to be able to fail so they can figure out how to fix things? This is a very hard ethical question when there are young people’s lives in the mix. But we can’t get beyond the traditional system unless we can tolerate risk and understand that failure leads to learning.”
“What would it take for innovation, with its failures and breakthroughs, to be culturally acceptable in education?”
Next on the agenda is exploring more deeply the intersection of competency education and culturally responsive education to support teacher’s professional development and tapping into the incredible resources in NYC so that students can extend their learning into the community.