Ah-ha Mastery Moments

Educators at Staten Island Technical HS, an MC Incubator school, have shifted how they message progress and learning this year, in order to de-emphasize the competition inherent in traditional grading structures. They feel that grade competition can be damaging to learners, and takes the focus away from progress and learning. In addition to this language shift, they’ve moved their grading scale from 0-100 to A-F. (See this “Ask MC” for more on the wisdom of incremental change, and please email your own ah-ha's to us at

Here are some ah-ha moments from Staten Island Tech HS about shifting to a mastery approach with grading:

Students at Staten Island Tech HS dig into a collaborative science task

Students at Staten Island Tech HS dig into a collaborative science task

On the power of teacher influence:

“Kids are wired to please, so if we show them that learning and progress is what we value, they value that, too.”  —Mark, Principal

“The classroom is where students experience school. If you just change your classroom, you’ve changed their whole experience.” —Bianca, science teacher

On reducing the stigma of grades:

“The letter grades create a less visceral response. If the grade is a bit lower than they were hoping, it’s a less visceral reaction.” —Bianca, science teacher

“I don’t even say the word grades anymore. I just say ‘feedback.’ Everything is feedback. We live in a feedback loop now. If they get a quiz grade they don’t like, do it again—it’s just feedback.” —Pat, writing teacher

On preparing students for postsecondary life:

“Geometry isn’t going to change much over the next 10-15 years, the academic content generally is not going to change much . . .  but the skills students need are likely to change a lot. It’s my job to keep an eye on that, and prepare students for the world they will enter.” —Mark, Principal



Three take-aways

Three take-aways and best practices from the Living Lab visit at MS 442: “Operationalizing your mastery philosophy"

1. Pedagogical philosophy drives school design 

MS 442 came to mastery-based grading four years ago, when they were thinking about how their school could better serve students. Math teacher Lisa Genduso says, “we were always strong with supporting students socially and emotionally, always good at making students comfortable and confident...but the rigor wasn’t so high.” In a search to up their rigor, the school partnered with design thinkers to support them in thinking through their school’s goals. “They did a really good job of questioning us and listening to us,” Genduso reports. From this reflection on their school’s philosophy, the staff decided to pursue competency-based grading. The coherence of MS 442’s philosophy is striking, and suggests that other schools may benefit from the reflective and generative practices of the MS 442 staff.

Read more about MS 442’s “Intentional School Design” here.



2. Norm second-chances: Update Weeks

Because continuous improvement is part of the school’s philosophy, students have built-in class time to revisit learning outcomes for practice and re-assessment. At MS 442 this time is school wide, and known as “update week.” During this time students are given a chance to improve their mastery level in a given outcome. “We’re giving them the language to think about which skills they need to work on,” Priyanka, a math teacher, explains. A successful update results in one demonstration of mastery. At MS 442, students need three demonstrations across time.




3. Manage behavior without grading it

MS 442 uses an in-house grading tracker called “The Hive,” designed by self-taught tech-guru and math teacher, Jared Sutton. Because The Hive is custom built, it tracks not only learning outcomes, but the school’s mentoring system, and behavior tracker, as well. At MS 442, behavior is disaggregated from grades and tracked separately. “We document behavior in a way that connects to their positive behavior incentives. They’re eligible for incentives as long as there’s no unresolved behavior issue. They always have the opportunity to restore,” explains Jared. This restoration opportunity further messages the idea of growth--students at MS 442 always have chances to practice and improve.

Interested in hearing more from MS 442 student Moheeb? Check out this article from the New York Times.





Dear MC,

Progress report season just passed, and it brought up a lot of lingering questions about our grading policy. One we can’t seem to agree on is, how do we enter missing work in the gradebook? Entering a “1” doesn’t seem like it reflects what students know. But also, some kids aren’t doing homework. That should show up in the gradebook, right? Any advice?

Missing answers about missing work


Dear Missing answers about missing work,

Progress reports are where the rubber meets the road, and “report card day” provides a great incentive to look at how your grading policies play out practically. Kudos to you for doing the work of digging in and examining your policy!

Your instinct to enter a “1” could be spot on—maybe, maybe, depending on your school’s pedagogical approach... After all, in a mastery system that “1” should represent “Not Yet,” as in: The student has “not yet” provided sufficient evidence of mastery. Even better would be a grading system where you can enter the words “Not Yet” instead of the “1” that may feel punitive to you.

Separately, there’s a homework-related issue to discuss here. In a mastery system (or any equitable grading system), grades should be a message about where students are on the path to mastery of skills and knowledge. So, grades should not be used to reward completion of a task and/or to reward compliance (showed up on time, was not disruptive, etc.). A grade for turning in homework is a completion/compliance grade. Maybe your school needs a grading policy that specifies what kinds of tasks get entered into the grade book--these should be rich assessments of student learning.

Homework, do-now’s, and other smaller/faster checks for understanding  may not be grade-worthy evidence of student learning—but they’re invaluable information for you about how much students are getting traction with the instructional goals in your class—and they are a great basis for timely coaching and feedback to help students get the traction they need. In addition, tracking these sorts of smaller tasks may give you a picture over time of who’s making steady progress and who needs support—so while we suggest not grading these more grain-sized checks for understanding, we do suggest, tracking them in a way that doesn’t impact students’ grades, but give you a record of what’s going on on a more daily basis in your classes. Instead of entering a “1” or a “NY” for tasks that are skill practice, like homework, classwork, or formative assessment, try tracking these tasks without grading them. Let us know how it goes.

Thanks for writing, and happy progress-monitoring!




Ah-ha mastery moments!

Though we talk about mastery all the time, we get ah-ha moments frequently in our shoptalk with mastery practitioners.

Here are three ah-ha moments we'd like to share with you.

(Please email your ah-ha's to us at, and we might share them here!)


Jesse at EPIC North on why he uses project-based learning:
“I know my students have mastered something when they finish a complex task. It represents about a month of work, and if they can do that, I know they get it. Knowing a kid gets it is more difficult when someone is doing day by day instruction, because then you have to choose how you know if they got it.”

"Ahhhh, I get it now!"

"Ahhhh, I get it now!"

Bart at Hunter’s Point on messaging outcomes:
“We talk about student-friendly language, but it shouldn’t just be student-friendly. The outcomes are for the students; the language should be fully accessible to them.”


Luke at UA Maker on giving students multiple opportunities:
“Retakes need to be part of your course—if you value revision in learning.” 



Ask MC: A Mastery Advice Column


Dear MC,

Since our teachers are now giving letter grades instead of number grades in classes, the question came up about whether we are going to use letter grades on report cards as well. We haven't done this in the past. I know that lots of our old numerical grades weren't really indicative of student learning; I don't think just using letter grades on its own is either, but I'm not sure what implications I'm not thinking about if we make that switch now.

Mulling over midterms



Dear Mulling over midterms,

Switching to letter grades from 1-100 scale is a possible first step along the path to a more mastery-focused approach to grading . . . we have another grade-conscious school making this very shift this year, as a first step toward a genuine mastery grading practice. Using letter grades is a first step in a continuum—and it might be a good place to be for this school year.

Another matter: Schools are supposed to have a grading policy that is written and produced on demand by students/families who want to know the basis for their grades. So any change, from what the grades are for, to what marks are being used, should be indicated in a grading policy that students and families can see and know about.

Here is DOE guidance on grading policies, updated for this school year. Also linked is their guidance specifically for schools using mastery-based grading practices.

When the mastery lightbulb turns on, it is tempting to shift a bunch of practices all at once, but incremental change can be a sensible way to move forward. The most important thing is to message each shift in practice/policy clearly to teachers, students, parents, and other stakeholders—be clear about exactly what is changing, and why. Being sensitive to where stakeholders are is a great practice--kudos to you for knowing what next step is appropriate for your school!




The Mission and the Message

How we found our ‘why’—and how we’ve used it to create urgency and common purpose in our community’s quest for greater educational equity.

By Julianna Charles Brown, Jeremy Chan-Kraushar, Joy Nolan, and Patrick Williamson of Mastery Collaborative, a program of New York City Department of Education’s Office of Postsecondary Readiness

Any school that has embarked on shifting to mastery-based teaching and learning can tell you that messaging and mission are vital to this complex endeavor—which affects every aspect of teaching, learning, assessment, and school culture. A clear and powerful mission inspires all stakeholders to connect to and invest in the work more deeply and authentically. Without a clear mission, the work of a school or any organization is susceptible to a lack of focus, resistance from within, and confusion in implementation. As a leader, it’s hard to call the shots without a guiding mission. As a member of a community, it is necessary to have clarity about what’s happening and why.

'Talking about race and mastery' training with Border Crossers

'Talking about race and mastery' training with Border Crossers

A strong mission statement articulates the ‘why’ that powers the work. Great missions connect the day-to-day operations of an organization with a desired larger impact, and ideally, all stakeholders can contribute to its creation. Once a strong mission is developed, it should then become fundamental to the way you speak about your work. When taking on large and complex endeavors—like transitioning away from traditional education to mastery-based models—the ‘why’ must be meaningful and inspiring enough to justify the sustained focus required to accomplish multidimensional school change over several years’ time. In working with our school partners, we help to co-create communications materials and provide training that supports school leaders and staff in talking to parents, students, community partners and others about their school's mastery-based systems. We also model the kind of mission-driven communications that practitioners can use to think about their own communications approach.


How we found our ‘why’

We started the Mastery Collaborative (MC) in 2015-16, to form a community for dozens of schools across New York City that were implementing mastery-based shifts in relative isolation. We dedicated that first year to creating a lively community of practice with and for member schools, and learning from them about mastery implementation models around the city. While visiting schools, we noticed a distinct feel in more advanced competency-based schools. There was positive energy in the air, and there was a shift in the adult/student power dynamic—as one school leader put it, “Students here have lots of choice and freedom, and lots of responsibility to their own learning and to our school community.”

In these schools, students regularly described what they were learning and why and were able to pinpoint how they could improve; we were seeing the self-confidence and assurance of students who valued school and felt they belong there, who were were empowered to own their learning—and we were seeing educators who believe in the young people they work with, and who understand that power is not a zero-sum game. Helping students find their power as learners only makes a class more compelling and powerful for them. Giving up a position as a lecturer at the front of the room only means finding more power as a facilitator of students’ learning. By the conclusion of MC year one, a hypothesis was forming: that there was a unique connection between mastery-based shifts, culturally responsive practices, and equity. To share out these ideas, we made program videos such as Why make the shift to mastery-based learning? and How does mastery transform school for students and teachers?

We began our second year knowing we had  to explore the connection between mastery, cultural responsiveness, and equity. The MC community of schools eagerly joined in, digging deeper into the why of mastery learning, and the philosophy that both demands and powers these complex shifts.

This definition of educational equity has been meaningful to our team as we explore how mastery and CRE together can create more equitable learning for young people.

This definition of educational equity has been meaningful to our team as we explore how mastery and CRE together can create more equitable learning for young people.

In year 2, we asked each MC member school to create a goal for infusing CRE into their mastery-based practices. Additionally, we asked everyone in our community of educators to attend an anti-bias training called “Talking about race and mastery.” We set up a series of dates for small sessions of this training, hoping everyone could find a time to come together to explore the intersections of race and schooling. We also facilitated a working group that met online and in person across the year to explore the intersection of mastery and CRE. This group developed the Equity Snapshot, which beings to detail the ways that CRE and mastery intersect. By popular demand, we also started the yearly MC Summer Institute this past July with a Day 1 deep dive on CRE and mastery. Here are the resources from that day.

Our school-based community members contributed reactions, opinions, and ideas around our mastery-and-equity hypothesis. At  trainings, gatherings, and site visits, we invited and made time for conversations and written input about the relationships between mastery, cultural responsiveness, and equity. We made a practice of synthesizing, incorporating, and sharing practitioners’ ideas about philosophy and practices. 

We learned so much from and with educators at mastery-based schools across the city, who delved into exploring CRE and mastery: administrators, schools counselors, and teachers implementing mastery in our schools. In our anti-bias trainings and working group sessions, certain elements of mastery rose to the top as most closely aligned to academic research on culturally responsive education:

  • Transparency: path to success is clear and learning outcomes are relevant to students' lives and interests. Shared criteria reduce opportunity for implicit bias.

  • Changing power dynamics: facilitation shifts refocus the roles of students and teachers to include flexible pacing, inquiry-based, collaborative approach to learning. Student drive their own learning, and teachers coach them.

  • Positive learning identity: growth mindset and active learning build agency and affirm students’ identities as learners (academics, race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, etc.)

These findings helped to explain the distinct student-centered culture we noticed in Year 1 in the longest-practicing mastery schools—and contributes to the why for the complex work of creating effective mastery systems that are culturally responsive. Our Year 2 exploration of CRE and mastery led us toward the development of this community mission:

The Mastery Collaborative supports, advocates for, and documents the use
of mastery-based and culturally responsive practices to create more equitable environments in New York City schools.

Armed with this clear and powerful new mission, our communication strategy came into clearer focus. Now it is easier to build coalitions with others who value this work. Our mission has created a sense of urgency and a through-line for all we do.


Spreading the urgency of our message

One example of how we tied together our evolving understanding of the ability of mastery to increase equity in schools was the creation of a program video, ‘Why We Do The Work.’

This video highlights the voices of students, teachers, administrators, and experts from the field in hopes of connecting these dots for a wider audience. Students and teachers reflecting on past experiences in traditional settings and provides context for shifting to a more culturally responsive approach to mastery-based teaching and learning.

The video lays out our organization’s vision through quotes from Chris Sturgis of CompetencyWorks and members of the Mastery Collaborative team. Constructing a short video to translate the urgency of the work was difficult work, and was possible only after our yearlong process of inviting co-creation of our mission stance across our community. We hope that the short video can assist in crystallizing our focus and mission for all stakeholders, and can be used to galvanize the urgency this work for the MC community and beyond.


Aligning your mission to your message

The shift to mastery-based education is complex. It requires shared commitment to “unlearn” old ideas, approaches, and systems—and to embark on a long-term, coordinated effort with a multitude of stakeholders. A mission that is clear and aspirational provides common context, clear direction, and justification for sustained effort across a school community and across several years of change management. A mission is a filter for everything your organization or school does or might do, and a rudder to keep the course set in the best direction. So how do you create a mission that will win hearts and minds, and stand the test of time?

Here are some things practitioners can keep in mind when creating or iterating on their school's mission statement:

  • Co-create your mission statement with valued stakeholders, inviting the input and expertise of everyone in the group, when engaging in any complex philosophical change. Hear out their reservations and concerns, as well as their enthusiasm and willingness.

  • Create a mission your whole community can buy into, but that can also be tailored to different audiences. Each member of your school community has a different role in pushing the work forward, and a strong shared mission will keep those efforts cohesive.

  • Incorporate a range of voices and perspectives from across your organization as you communicate your mission to new or larger audiences. This helps to communicate the buyin your mission has, as well as how it matters to and affects various stakeholders.

Across the MC community, there is a great urgency to our work—so the way that we talk about our mission is of utmost importance. Across our community, we seek to create to conditions for students to understand and own their trajectory as learners, and to experience the motivation and joy in learning for the thrill of learning itself. We want our students to feel that their identities are seen, understood, and valued within their schools. We need to be transparent with students in regards to what they need to improve on to achieve success in any given classroom. We need to build system capacity and write policies to support this work. We need to keep seeking new allies and partners in this work, to better serve those young people who stand to benefit most, to the extent that we get it right. Your organization may share some of these urgencies, or may have other important work to accomplish. How you message your mission will partly determine your degree of success.



Catalyzing Mastery-Based Learning: NYC’s Mastery Collaborative

By Chris Sturgis (this post originally appeared in 7/9//16)

Mastery Collaborative 'Speed Rounds'

Mastery Collaborative 'Speed Rounds'

How does a huge district open the door to mastery-based learning when the rest of the district is focused on other areas of improvement and innovation?

New York City Department of Education created the Mastery Collaborative to support schools that were ready to take on the new frontier of mastery-based learning. The Department’s policy for school autonomy has formed a strong foundation; however, schools need support as well. Led by an extraordinary group – Jeremy Kraushar, Joy Nolan, and Julianna C. Brown – the Mastery Collaborative is building a network of leader-educators, a knowledge hub, and a shared vision of what mastery-based learning can be in NYC.

“Speed round” conversations at a Mastery Collaborative meeting allow school leaders, teachers, and students from participating schools to “cross-pollinate” effective ideas, practices, and experiences about mastery. In the above photo, Justin, a 7th grader from Brooklyn, talks to Joaquin Vega, principal of Bronx International High School, about how students feel the impact of mastery-based grading.

The Collaborative is made up of forty schools: eight Living Lab schools and thirty-two Active Member schools (a list is at the bottom of this post with links to the articles written about the schools CompetencyWorks has visited). The Living Lab schools provide visitors with a chance to see what mastery-based schools look like and to talk to other educators who are experienced at working in a schoolwide mastery system. Living Lab schools also post resources in a shared wiki page so others can quickly look at different options regarding grading practices, design of competencies, or school policies. The Mastery Collaborative team works with the schools to set goals aligned to a shared community framework, learn from one another, and develop overall guidance documents. For example, they have developed a tool to evaluate LMS systems to expedite the process for schools to consider different products. They are in the process of working with DOE Central’s Office of Academic Policy to offer PD that will help schools develop fair, transparent, and comprehensive mastery-based grading policies and messaging for teachers, students, and parents.

Some of the schools in the Mastery Collaborative sought waivers through the PROSE initiative, a joint effort of the UFT and the Department that has offered opportunities for schools to become mastery-based. However, most of the practices within mastery-based schools do not require waivers.


“Our goal is to create a strategy where more and more schools want to turn to mastery-based learning,” explained Jeremy Kraushar. “We know that a compliance strategy will not work, so we are building a volunteer strategy.” So far it is working: the number of schools have doubled over the past year. Leadership from other parts of the district are coming to meetings to learn more about mastery-based learning and to consider what they can be doing to support it.

One of the Collaborative’s strategies is to form strong relationships with the divisions within the Department of Education that oversee the policies related to mastery-based learning. Brown explained, “Any time there is innovation, schools are going to butt up against the system. For example, grading policy can limit asynchronicity, in which students may be working on different performance levels or units at different times.” Thus, the Mastery Collaborative team has built bridges with the Office of Academic Policy to explore what is allowable or isn’t regarding grading, as well as to begin to shape solutions.


The Mastery Collaborative community has developed a shared language for talking about competency education in NYC with the Framework for Mastery Implementation – school-wide systems, curriculum & classroom planning, facilitation, and communication. The framework will be useful to schools trying to understand the school-wide systems and classroom practices, so it is included in detail below.

If you are new to competency-based education, it’s worth taking the time to watch the five videos at the MC website:


In its first year, Mastery Collaborative developed working groups that bring cross-school expertise and ideas to bear on some of the more challenging issues: Curriculum Design in Math and ELA, Grading Policies & Software, Academic Policy, and Culturally Responsive Education/Equity. Below are highlights of our conversations regarding some of these areas:

Curriculum Design: The Craft of Teaching

Schools have different starting points. Some have well-developed, cohesive pedagogical philosophies that shape the design of the school. For these schools, integrating mastery-based learning creates even more intentionality in instruction and assessment practices, and the transparency enables students to take more responsibility and have even more opportunity for choice. Other schools have primarily depended on the conventional model of direct instruction, individual teachers setting goals, proficiency and grading, teacher delivery of one curriculum, and extrinsic motivation.

Knowing that there was a range of starting points, Mastery Collaborative has designed its focus on introducing practices for the classroom and for the school. Joy Nolan described this as “introducing practices with philosophy around the edges. As teachers try new practices, it challenges assumptions and opens discussion about pedagogy.” She expanded, “Our schools are focusing on the craft of teaching. As in any craft, there is specific expertise to draw on, complemented by creativity. When teachers in a school have shared and explicit learning outcomes, curriculum can be thought of as designing and creating a set of learning experiences. The expertise teachers bring is rooted in their knowledge of the discipline, their range of instructional strategies, and their skill in assessing what students know, their misconceptions, and how to provide effective feedback.”

The Collaborative uses a range of techniques to help schools hear about each other’s practices. At a professional development session, they hold “publishing parties” in which schools open their laptops and share some of their tools and resources in the community’s digital Sandbox, walking around with a microphone asking, “And what is KAPPA International adding to the Sandbox today?” They have three minute “speed rounds” where people quickly explain a practice they have been using or some strategy that is working with each other…and then move on to the next.

The Myth of Objectivity and Mastery-Based Grading

Much of the effort of the Mastery Collaborative is centered on the design and implementation of mastery-based grading. In discussing shortcomings of traditional grades, Brown noted that “once students see a number grade, they can’t see the feedback anymore.” She explained that in the traditional system, grades are often used to sort students, and sometimes there isn’t much feedback because there is no firm belief that all students can learn to a level of mastery. We need to think about how the way we communicate with students relates to the growth mindset. The focus should be on how we deliver feedback to best help kids learn, rather than as a mechanism for tracking. “What is the purpose of grading?” asked Brown. “Is it telling us something about a point in time, or can it help us to understand progress? We need to continue to press for more innovation and deeper alignment of grading practices with student learning.”

“One of the biggest fallacies is that number grades are objective,” continued Brown. “We think that because it is a number, it is inherently objective, but that isn’t true. Teachers develop totally different ways to assign numbers, they weigh things differently. There are psychological effects that are related to the process of being graded. It’s one of the most powerful signals we have and we need to make sure that it is both accurate and motivating.”

Transparency Begets Equity

“If it isn’t explicit, then it is inherently inequitable,” explained Kraushar. “When we allow the education system to be opaque, then we are tolerating subjectivity. Given the power of racial bias, this has the power to generate inequitable outcomes for students.” Brown expanded, “We need to think intentionally about what we are doing to help students develop their identities as learners. If we aren’t challenging our biases, we are at risk of labeling students, thus shaping their experience in school and their motivation.” Making the connection back to grading, Brown emphasized, “We have to be aware of the impact of ranking students. Some students benefit from ranking, but what is the impact on the remaining ninety percent? There are many ways to recognize academic excellence without ranking students.” This kicked off a conversation about other ways we might recognize students: for their effort, for growth, for deeper learning, for learning from their mistakes. We could have bands rather than individual ranking. We could even rethink how we determine the culturally powerful role of valedictorian.

The Mastery Collaborative is increasing their focus on equity over the coming year. They’ve started with a small working group to explore culturally responsive education (CRE) and equity – and in the coming year, each Mastery Collaborative school will set and implement a goal to increase CRE/equity in some way. The focus is primarily on combining competency-based education and culturally responsive education as a means of increasing racial equity, reflecting the district’s emphasis to improve achievement for young men of color and the ongoing racial gap in graduation rates.

“All of us carry some types of bias with us,” said Kraushar. “The question for all of us educators across the system is whether we have processes and practices that will help uncover them. Mastery-based learning goes a long way toward offering many of those practices: standards-referenced grading, transparency, and more opportunities for students to express themselves and have choice within the curriculum. Equity depends on transparency and accountability.”

For more on the Mastery Collaborative, stay tuned for the discussion with John Duval, Executive Director, Model Redesign Team at the NYC Department of Education.





Problem Solving with Math Ninja Lisa Genduso from Carroll Gardens School for Innovation

By Zoë Kashner

Lisa Genduso is a math teacher at Carroll Gardens School for Innovation, part of the MC Living Lab.

Lisa Genduso is a math teacher at Carroll Gardens School for Innovation, part of the MC Living Lab.


Tell us about your problem-solving class. What do students do? Why was the class created?

About three years ago at this time, we were noticing that while we had strong programs, some of our kids needed additional support. So, through that, the problem-solving classes developed to complement what was happening in the traditional math class. Students do game-like challenges to get them thinking mathematically in an engaging way.

These were additional math classes to the core math class? What grades were involved?

Yes. In our first year, we started with our sixth graders. Since they were new to our school, we wanted to get them into the problem-solving mindset that we wanted to build. This year we brought it up to our sixth graders and our seventh graders.

How does problem-solving support students' success in math generally?

I like to summarize problem-solving class as critical thinking class. We don’t necessarily worry about the answer—we try to encourage kids to have metacognition moments, like: “What are you thinking about in this moment in order to help you solve this question?” We want to build on strategies, so that they can take those strategies into real-world situations they deal with, or just into a good old-fashioned math problem, where they’re going to have to sit there and build upon their prior knowledge and persevere through solving it.

We found that when it came time to deal with a more involved math problem, kids kind of lost interest—they didn’t stay focused, even if they had the math skills. But problem-solving class pushes kids to be okay with grappling with something that isn’t necessarily easy at first, and trying to figure it out.

I imagine in addition to building their skills, it has also built their confidence.

I think so. I will settle on 1-2 questions in maybe most class periods. They always start off with, “I need help with this,” and I laugh and walk away. I just kind of leave them to get messy with it. Usually they can get there, or at least have ideas in place to get there. It’s funny, it’s now the end of May, and there are still situations where it’s been two minutes and they raise their hands and I say, “It’s May, I didn’t answer this question in September and I’m not going to start now.”

Do you see an effect on their regular math classes?

I do. As far as sixth grade problem-solving goes, I do.  They solve problems around tables, and that’s because so much of the sixth grade unit is built around those ratio units, where they look for patterns, and they can find their answers together. They look on a graph, and they can find their answers.  I build off that idea, so that I work in conjunction with the team.

How do you have 25 students doing 15 things in one class session? How do students experience it? How do you keep track of what everyone is doing and give feedback?

We are helped out by the fact that we are an ICT school, so there are two teachers. Within some of our bigger projects, my co-teacher and I will specifically say, “I’m the point person for this half of the class,” and “You’re the point person for this half of the class,” so that instead of getting through it with 25 different kids in this unit, I’ll get through it with maybe 12 or 13, and that makes it a little easier. We’ll also do things like make use of technology. We have 1-to-1 technology for the students, which allows us to have a “sum up” time, in a Google Doc, where kids can say what they did that day and get feedback.

So in a way, you can support them without checking in with every child in the class during class time?

Yes, as you begin to teach kids how to do this, you can give them five minutes at the end of the class and say “OK, go to your Google Docs, and summarize your work for today.” And that gives us the opportunity to just read the independent reflections, and you can very quickly see who understood their goal for the day, and who didn’t, and that sets up what you’re going to do with the kids for the next class.

How do you go about giving feedback to the ones who are struggling?

It depends on what we’re up to with a project. There are days when some kids are starting to do the “Do Now” and a teacher will pull a group of 4 students to the back and say something like “I saw that you guys were having a similar situation, you were struggling with this, let’s clarify that, so that we can proceed from there.

Another thing that can be useful is, using the technology, you can do ShowMe lessons or PowerPoints, Screencasts, where you can be talking the kid through something.  You can really have a lesson set up for a kid who didn’t understand something and needs a refresher, or a kid who’s really advanced, and needs to move ahead of everyone else. You can spend 15 minutes setting up an independent lesson for them, and they can hit play and go through their lesson on their own.

Do you have advice for teachers who want to start allowing students to progress asynchronously, but don't know how to get started?

I think what teachers have to be most prepared for is that so much of their planning has to be on the front end. You know, you’re not just making one lesson plan then, you’re making bigger paths for kids to follow. If there’s technology available, that’s probably going to allow for the easiest way to make that happen.  If there’s not technology available you can still do it, but you have to be ready to go with paper, pretty regularly, and stay organized with folders. If you have the technology, it’s easier for kids to progress asynchronously, using different online platforms, or just Google Folders, Google Docs. Google Docs is a great help in allowing kids to work at their own pace.

Having the students access work themselves is a good way of doing it?

Yes, that works, and also it gives the kids that independence. If you give them a good checklist, you know, instead of having them always asking, “Well, what do I do now?” you can tell them “You finished your step 3, look at what your step 4 is.”

What is the role of distributive leadership at your school? How does this collaborative environment empower teachers to go for it with mastery?

We have a really strong chair leadership model here. We currently only have one administrator. Last year we had a principal and an assistant principal, and our principal who left to go to the district office really set this up for us, and our AP has moved into the principal’s spot, and so over the past few years we have really built capacity by creating positions, like our department heads, who are responsible to check in with our teams by subject areas.

We have grade teams that make sure all systems and routines are set up for a grade, that also allows for looking at student work protocols for different students in each subject. We also have branched out and created focus leaders for different topics in our school. So, this year we have a technology focus leader, a mastery focus leader, a mentorship focus leader, and we have an extended learning opportunities focus leader. In addition, our department heads meet weekly with the administration so that the eight of us can be on the same page. The principal obviously knows what’s going on with all of us. Just as things can overlap, it gives us an opportunity to have those weekly discussions.

Our staff is open to communicating and trying different things. The administration has set the tone that “I’m OK if you try something and it doesn’t work.” That kind of attitude to experiment in our own classrooms and feel OK about that has provided us with the opportunity for people to be more open minded about everything.

As far as mastery specifically goes, then, we are given flexibility to set up mastery in different ways based on different departments. For example, the literacy department wanted to focus on ten shared outcomes that they use across grade levels, that they even use with the social studies team. Math and science wanted to handle it differently, we had more, we wanted to make it more skills and practice-based, and make it a little more specific like that. So we went to our administrator, we said this is what we think works for us, she said, “OK, give it a shot,” and it’s worked for us, so we have been allowed to continue that. And we can do that because there’s that flexibility to say, “This might not have worked well, this did work well.” There’s openness to try something.

For example, Jared Sutton, who is our mastery point person, he likes coding, and he used GoogleScripts to create an online grading/tracking platform for us. That’s how he spent his summer. It has the capabilities to have not just our own mastery-based grading platform built into it, but it also has our mentorship program built into it, and it has our behavior trackers built into it.

You have a completely customized grading system?

Yes, Jared thought he could figure out a way to make more things work together, and he locked himself in a room over the summer and did that.

How does mastery work for high-performing students and special needs students?

Students are evaluated the same way, they receive the same grades on any assignment that they hand in. My students receive different assignments or additional assignments along the way, yes, but the grade values that they receive are always based on a learning outcome that’s tied to their grade level, and that’s what they receive.

In order for us deem a student as meeting a learning outcome, we require they have to have met or exceeded that learning outcome in at least three trials. So, one of those high performing students might need only three times to meet the outcome, taking the form on a exit ticket, a quiz grade, and a project. And they might have done it three times, and done that learning outcome well, so they’re good.

Some of those kids might need additional time to meet that outcome, and that’s fine. They might need seven opportunities to meet it, seven different trials. We’re not concerned about when the student meets that learning outcome, just whenever they get to that date, the student is able to get that concept and meet that outcome. So if they meet it in October rather than February, it doesn’t really matter to us. We actually moved our report cards to June—only in June. Throughout the year we give progress reports, based on what’s in our online platform, where we say to this point, your child has met this percentage of learning outcomes that have been assessed. It may say what they’re on track to do, but still saying nothing is set in stone.

So with a high performing student, if it only takes them three shots to achieve an outcome, is there a point in the year when you give them additional challenges?

It’s not like they get to October and they’ve finished the sixth grade outcomes, so they can move to the seventh grade outcomes. Throughout the units they’ll have additional opportunities [to stretch their skills]. Additionally this year we started an intensive program, where instead of kids only being in traditional ICT classes, they are homogeneously grouped in grades, based on skills, and these groups change flexibly. So in November we noticed that we have 13 high achieving sixth grades who are pretty much beating all of the math and learning outcomes, so those kids are grouped together, and they started doing some advanced work two times a week all mixed together to work on additional concepts. This also allows for our seventh and eighth graders to – the seventh graders start to do some of the eighth grade algebra work as seventh graders.

How does (or how can) MBG make teachers better at their jobs?

It can work, providing that there’s clarity to the system—you can’t hold anything back—teachers, parents, students need to understand what it means. The goal of mastery is that everyone understands everything. And for some people that comes naturally, and some people have to work really hard at it.  So then you have to put the time and effort into working really hard at it.  It’s not OK for kids to be happy with an “A” for approaching, getting a 2 in a different kind of competency based grading system, there has to be that realization that makes you strive to get those threes and fours—those “meeting”s and “exceeding”s. Until those things go together, it’s a hard system. When families don’t care about things like that, it doesn’t work as well.

It helps teachers prepare better. You can very clearly see where students can be successful, and you can very much see what their next steps are.



Interview with Barry Frank of Queens School for Inquiry

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.


Mastery Motivates Students: “No Way” vs. “Not Yet”


Mastery Motivates Students: “No Way” vs. “Not Yet”

by Zoë Kashner

Can a mastery-based school culture give students a useful way to track their own progress and achievements? A visit to Flushing International High School (FIHS), one of eight Mastery Collaborative Living Lab schools, provided some insight into this issue.

During the visit, school leadership, faculty, and students discussed with guests how a focus on mastery has changed the outlook of school departments, individual teachers, and especially students. Rather than looking at grades only as a final score, students now track their progress toward mastery throughout the year, on a group of subject-specific goals. Goals are assessed multiple times over the year, allowing students to see which specific goals they need to focus on to improve their mastery of key skills and knowledge.

FIHS Science teacher Jordan Wolf with students

FIHS Science teacher Jordan Wolf with students

Switching to a Mastery-Based Model

This method of grading is of recent vintage at FIHS. Five years ago, the leadership and staff began to discuss concerns about the role of assessments. “We were not communicating our grading and assessment policies clearly enough,” explained Principal Lara Evangelista.

To address the problem, teachers began creating homemade report cards with many personalized comments to indicate how well students were meeting specific standards. At the end of marking periods, students were able to see how they could improve in specific terms. Then, the staff came up with an even better idea, said Evangelista: “Why don’t we tell [students] at the beginning what we are looking for?”

Over the course of the next four years, school leadership, faculty and students integrated clearly stated learning goals into everything from lesson plans, to the online grading system, to teacher-student advisories.

An International Perspective

Students at Flushing International High School after presenting on a panel about mastery-based grading at their school

Students at Flushing International High School after presenting on a panel about mastery-based grading at their school

Students at FIHS are all recent immigrants who are new learners of English. Students entering the school have been in the United States less than four years. They  come from 40 different countries, and while the majority of students speak Spanish or Mandarin, more than 20 native languages are represented at this school. For many, FIHS is their first school in the United States. Students new to the school are often “experiencing culture shock,” explains vice-principal Kevin Hesseltine. “It’s overwhelming.”

FIHS is one of 22 schools around the country that practice the International School model. This model emphasizes five core principles: (1) heterogeneous levels, (2) experiential learning, (3) project-based problem solving, (4) language and content integration, and (5) one learning model for all.

This collaborative approach to learning can seem like a topsy-turvy world for students who may be used to a more competitive, memorization-based education in their countries of origin. Hesseltine remembers a former student from mainland China who explained that she didn’t like group work because her motto, based on her experience in school in China,  was “Kill or be killed.”

While concern with achievement can be healthy, beating out others for top grades isn’t a goal that leaders want students to have at FIHS or at any mastery-based school. Instead, students should focus on the learning goals, and their own progress towards independent mastery of them.

Tracking progress and grades

To transition to a system where learning goals are emphasized—and frontloaded—FIHS began looking at different online grading systems that could be shared with students and families throughout the year. They found that the JumpRope grading tracker offers not only goal-based grading, but also a system of color-coding that works especially well for parents who may not speak English. In a student’s online report, red shading indicates an area of weakness. Green indicates the student is on track, meeting expectations for a given goal, and yellow means that the student is on the margin of meeting and not meeting a particular expectation.

Using JumpRope requires teachers to implement a backwards design, articulating learning goals before giving and recording assignments and assessments. Each assignment or assessment is then linked to specific learning goals.

At FIHS, the math department led the way through the transition to JumpRope. Teachers used per session funding to meeting outside of school during the late spring to determine together what they wanted their learning objectives to be. The math department came back in the fall with a working list of learning goals across all four high school grades, and began to implement the JumpRope mastery tracking system.

Each department migrated to the JumpRope system as they were able to, with some more cautious departments waiting until others had laid the foundation and worked out the kinks in the program. Principal Evangelista explained that in a school where teachers and administration collaborate constantly, “trust is essential.”

Ongoing Improvement

Some incoming students find the grading system—as well as high school in general—overwhelming. Though teachers make every effort to write goals in student-friendly language, understanding the more fine-tuned aspects of expectations can still sometimes be a challenge for students who are still acquiring English. Older students remember going through the wording of each goal with a dictionary when they first arrived in ninth grade.

This activity sheet from science teacher Jordan Wolf’s lesson about   physiology includes a learning goal and a brief rubric at the top.

This activity sheet from science teacher Jordan Wolf’s lesson about physiology includes a learning goal and a brief rubric at the top.

The grades that students get are cumulative throughout the year, so each student has the chance to improve. A panel of students explained how working with JumpRope motivates them to improve throughout the year.

Students grow to understand that if they are not meeting expectations, they can get coaching from their teachers on crucial next steps to increase their mastery, get some more practice, and improve their grades. The message is “not yet” rather than “no way, you failed.”

“If you have a bad grade in one outcome, you can do extra homework and do well in that outcome,” explained one student. (The extra work provides evidence to the teacher that the student has progressed toward mastering that outcome.)

Learning Goals at the Center

Now that teachers and students are used to a mastery-based approach, learning goals have become the basis for all teaching and learning at FIHS. Activity sheets that students use to complete assignments now include specific learning goals, and a rubric so students can understand expectations for demonstrating mastery. Both students and teachers agree that putting learning goals at the center provides a useful framework for their mutual work.