Mastery – Putting Learning Before Grades

May 17, 2012 by

I work with a team of people that submitted a letter of intent to the New Mexico State Department of Education to create a health careers high school in Albuquerque, New Mexico. It will be the second in a series of schools dedicated to serving young people who have not been well served by traditional high schools—and there are a lot of those kids in my home town. Nearly 40 percent of all high school students drop out and if you are a young person of color and poor it’s more like 50 percent. This mass of more than 25,000 young people is served in incredibly complicated schools that are incapable of the complexity and sophistication to be successful. About a year and a half ago I helped create ACE Leadership High School, an Architecture Construction and Engineering high school in my home town to get at this sticky problem. We are an outward facing institution that is ambitious about its own development and we incorporate lots of ideas from different disciplines.

Last month I picked up a copy of the Harvard Business Review which had a story by Walter Isaacson about Steve Jobs, the most successful designer of my generation. While I am not a techie and I’ve never been a disciple of his, I was intrigued by his journey to success and his reputation as a creative genius. I found two principles in the article that we educators should borrow: “Simplify” and “Put Products before Profits.” “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication” is the mantra at Apple and it motivates their designers to continually improve their products. This approach is the complete opposite of our experience in schools which are incredibly complicated places and they grow more complicated daily by adding more and more programs and initiatives that are intended to incrementally improve their performance. According to Larry Cuban, “a complicated system assumes expert and rational leaders, top-down planning, smooth implementation of policies, and a clock-like organization that runs smoothly.”

Don’t get me wrong, comprehensive high schools have to be complicated for them to operate. However, I believe our schools should lead them as “complex” rather than complicated organizations because they are human institutions rather than mechanized operations. Cuban speaks about complexity the following way, “ . . . conflict, and unplanned changes occur all the time. So do adaptations because of the web-like independent and interdependent relationships that make up the system.” Unfortunately, there is nothing simple about a school whether it is designed to be complicated or complex. So what does Jobs’ belief in simplicity have to offer education?

This brings me to Job’s second tenant: Put Products Before Profits. A parallel in schools would be to put learning before grades. Maybe simplicity can’t be a principle for the organization, but it could be a principle for the classroom where learning actually happens. Instead of creating complicated systems in classrooms that measure proxies for learning like homework, classroom participation, seat time, coverage, and credits we could focus on the product of learning rather than the profits of grades. That is our goal at ACE Leadership and our hope for our new health careers high school. This approach is known as “Mastery” and it still requires a complex system of evaluation because not all students learn in the same way and many would need to demonstrate that they had learned through a variety of methods. However, focusing on Mastery undoubtedly gives more clarity to our instruction and a simpler and more streamlined approach to instruction and assessment.

At ACE Leadership and at our new health careers high school we will ask students this question: “Can you prove that you have learned this idea?” Or, “Can you solve this problem?” This shift opens the door to Performance Assessment that actually evaluates whether a student has mastered a concept or idea and it gives the teacher the freedom to design relevant learning because they are not confined to a standardized test to assess Mastery. Our approach to Mastery is coupled with our belief in student engagement as the pathway to learning. We do not believe you can do one without the other because disengaged students need to know that their daily experiences in school matter. Also, when Mastery is done well it opens up the opportunity to learn for many students who have never fit in school. It puts the burden on the teacher to create a personalized approach to assessment that invites students into the classroom rather than creating monolithic assessment systems that cannot accommodate the variety of young people we serve.

Mastery is a simple idea of putting learning before grades and it requires a complex institution to pull it off.

__________About the Author__________

Tony Monfiletto, Co-Founder, Executive Director and Principal of ACE Leadership High School is a native of Albuquerque New Mexico and has worked in school reform since 1990. He began his career at the Chicago Panel on Public School Policy. After leaving Chicago in 1993, he joined the staff of the Legislative Education Study Committee in Santa Fe where he specialized in public school finance. Tony was the founder of Amy Biehl High School, a model of innovation in the Albuquerque community that was designated a “mentor” school by the Coalition of Essential Schools.

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