By Zoë Kashner


Why do you believe in mastery-based teaching and learning?

I think that a mastery-based system puts the student at the center of learning and puts the responsibility for learning on the student. With the old model of the university, the professor was the sole source of information.  Because technology has advanced to where it is, and almost all the information is accessible to almost everybody, that old model no longer works. So the role of the teacher has to shift to help the students wade through all the information and learn how to access it and how to evaluate it. And as the role of the teacher changes, the role of the student changes.

Mastery-based learning is actually a methodology of teaching. At the core of it, students move along the curriculum or material as they demonstrate mastery, and there are no constraints of time. And in that system there needs to be clear expectations, plenty of opportunities to practice without penalty, and feedback.

Standards-based grading is about assessment and grading, and how those scores are then communicated to the students and parents. So there is overlap. One of the biggest things about standards-based grading—why it’s so important and necessary—is that it does away with the commodification of grades. By commodification, I mean where students are focused not necessarily on learning, but just on earning a grade. And then teachers can also use grades punitively. I know that’s a blanket statement and not every teacher does that, but it’s part of the traditional grading system. There is zero research that proves that it works; it’s just tradition.

What are your top 2 pieces of advice for educators interested in making the shift?

There are small shifts that a teacher can make within his or her own practice. Ken O’Connor, author of A Repair Kit for Grading: Fifteen Fixes for Broken Grades, has a repair system. It’s a really good starting point because there are practices in there that a teacher can do without changing everything.

So, I do have two pieces of advice. Read everything that’s out there about mastery, because the practitioners don’t even agree on a definition. One of the biggest aids for me was reading everything on standards based learning, on mastery learning—articles and books. Just familiarize yourself with what’s out there and see what works for you.

And if the first piece of advice is “read everything,” the second one is “go slowly.” It’s so important to go slowly because this change requires such a huge paradigm shift for everyone involved. It’s really important that all the stakeholders in the community not only understand how the system works but why we need to make that shift.


How has the Mastery Collaborative supported schools in its first year?

It’s really a community. There has been support in both directions. At the quarterlies, or through email, or just networking—I’ve had many teachers, administrators, and coaches who have contacted me to talk about my experience or resources, so we’ve definitely supported the collaborative in that sense.

But then again, we’ve taken away a lot. I guess I’ll speak for myself and not for the whole school, but for me, what being part of the mastery collaborate has done is help me move the focus from standards-based grading to mastery learning. It’s important that I make that distinction. When we began our mastery journey, it was six years ago. We didn’t do it as the whole school, I was part of a pilot group. There really wasn’t as much talk about proficiency learning or mastery-based learning, the term that was used was standards-based grading. And while there is the same core in both methodologies—they go hand in hand—we were more proficient with standards-based grading than actual mastery learning. So being part of the mastery collaborate has shifted our focus to the instructional aspect of mastery learning as opposed to the grading system of standards-based grading.  

Can you please tell us about the handbook you created for QSI students and families?

School-wide, this is our 3rd year with standards based grading, although like I said, there had been a smaller pilot group playing around with it. As we began our school-wide plans, my administration and I realized that there was a real need for a cohesive vision. There were parents who were confused, there were teachers who were confused, and because this was a massive paradigm shift, there needed to be clear expectations.

Clear expectations is one of the goals and benefits of a mastery-based system, and we needed to have them for ourselves as well. So I went to the internet, and did a bunch of searching, and there were only two school districts that I could find that publicized this type of handbook. I reached out to them and said, “Hey, can we borrow, steal, adapt, adopt…” and they said, “Sure, do whatever you want with it.”

What was the response from of the students and families?

We made the staff handbook and the community guide. It was all very helpful because it laid out what we were doing for complete transparency. At that same time, we had shifted from using traditional rubrics to using proficiency scales. We decided to use the Marzano Proficiency Scales. I think that created a lot of confusion, and the handbook cleared some of that up.

In addition to the handbook, I created a screencast. I replicated a presentation of a Q&A that I did for the PTA. That was probably the most helpful. We also put the community guide at the beginning of the planner that students get it at the beginning of the year.

Have you noticed a difference in your students since making the shift? What kind of reaction did you get?

At first, confusion. We’re starting to get there. We see—especially with the younger kids—a faster shift. The shift in the younger grades was a lot more noticeable in terms of taking ownership of their learning, being able to speak more about demonstrating proficiency instead of earning a grade. That’s one of the biggest shifts in the middle school. In the high school, one of the biggest shifts is the desire to reassess. Sometimes I still think it’s driven by the desire to get a high score, in all honesty, but the ownership been pushed onto the students, they feel accountable for their learning. But that paradigm shift hasn’t taken place 100% for the older students, and I don’t expect it to.

Because we are an early college school, that complicates things. Some of our juniors and seniors are taking almost all college courses, and then they are not using mastery learning. For example, I teach college English. In the 11th grade, they take the English regents a year early, and if they meet the Queens College criteria, they go into English 110. A lot of our college professors are coming from the college budget, and they are college professors.

At the end of the day, we are using the traditional grading system in those college classes because we are locked into what the college does. Now, part of our mission is maybe to enact some change at the college level. We’d love to see Mastery Learning take hold at Queens College, but we haven’t really gotten there yet.

It’s kind of an uphill battle with our juniors and seniors, they are so used to this traditional grading system and then they see it in college, and that almost undermines the work we do at the lower level.