Author: Sydney Schaef

Five Key Lessons for Mastery Learning Startup

March 15, 2016 by

Sydney Schaef

This post originally appeared at Springpoint Schools on January 5, 2016. 

As I see it, the biggest challenge we face in American public schools today is this: we’ve got an antiquated factory-based school model, and a workforce that has proven particularly effective in implementation. Let’s face it: most of us were taught this way as students, and most of us were trained this way as teachers. I among.

For the last several years, I have had the opportunity to serve as the Mastery Learning Specialist at the School District of Philadelphia, a position made possible by the Carnegie Corporation’s vanguard school design grant, Opportunity by Design. The grant afforded us as a design team a full year to engage in deep research, scan the field, visit exemplary school sites, talk with stakeholders, design, get feedback from experts, reflect, and iterate on our work.

The experience was transformative. Out of this collaborative design experience have emerged multiple open admission, competency-based schools in Philadelphia, and an open-source competency model, designed and developed as a collaboration between the School District of Philadelphia and nonprofit partner, Building 21. We call it the Learning What Matters Competency Model. The LWM Competency Model has been described by experts as “a major contribution to the field,” and “one of the strongest, personalized, competency-based models in conception.” I share that not to boast, but to say, we took the work very seriously, we were set up for success by the resources invested in the project, and we are now keen to explore opportunities to share the model broadly and invite others to improve, and build upon, the work.

I have come to believe that if you are serious about innovation in education generally, and about transforming outcomes for historically underserved youth specifically, you’ve got to study up on competency-based education (CBE). In every way, CBE challenges the dominant pedagogical model of our American public schools and the assumptions on which it is based. It embodies the principles that I believe must guide and ground the work of redesigning our public schools.

Competency-based education is, interestingly, both ancient and nascent. It is the core of our oldest apprenticeship models that span history and pre-date our formal schooling institutions, yet at the same time, it is an emergent and rapidly growing strand within our current education landscape. Schools and school networks are leading the way in practice. Funders are prioritizing “mastery-based” or competency-based (my preferred term) learning models. Many states are making significant shifts in policy in order to provide the flexibilities needed, such as removing seat-time mandates, rethinking the Carnegie credit as the time-based unit of learning, and exploring flexible promotion, crediting, and graduation pathways and policies. In other words, this is happening – and it’s a powerful and important tide of change in our time. (more…)

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