By: Meg Stentz

At the 2018 MC Summer Institute, teacher leader Dina Klein of Marsh Avenue Expeditionary Learning School, shared her experiences with implementing culturally responsive practices.

Dina described that her understanding and implementation of Culturally Responsive Education (CRE) happened in phases. First, she examined representation in curriculum, then in her classroom management, and more recently, realized how much her whiteness permeates her experiences and how students might see her.


As a first step in learning about CRE, Dina looked at the texts she uses and asked: Will every student see themselves represented at some point during the year? When her curriculum came up short, she added texts and resources from more diverse perspectives. This additive method is often a first step, but ultimately not enough, she found.

Classroom management

Having a culturally responsive classroom means in part that the way you relate to students makes them feel safe, cared about, and competent. Dina noted that the way she related to and managed her students wasn’t as effective as she wanted, or maybe the effect she was looking for had changed. Dina put it this way: “The conversation I’d been having for six years, the phrases I always used—it wasn’t working anymore.”

Dina works with MC Summer Institute participants to infuse culturally responsive practices into their own classrooms.

Dina works with MC Summer Institute participants to infuse culturally responsive practices into their own classrooms.

Dina reports that her thinking shifted from: What’s the matter with them? to: What’s the deal with my practices?  In reflecting on how she interacted with her students, and seeking to shift the power in her classroom, Dina came to a critical realization.

“I learned that I am white.”

Dina reports that the realization that race was something she hadn’t had to think about: “Being white, coming from a traditional middle class family, and being a woman in a hetero-normative relationship, were all things that presented in the classroom and my practices and I hadn’t realized how that impacted others. I want to empower all my students, and especially the students who don’t always have access to that power.”

Her realization affected every part of her teaching—and she had to address it, since CRE isn’t a checklist of tasks to make school more equitable, but instead a mindset and an approach to teaching that can shift power to better serve students.

Big thanks to Dina for sharing her learning with our community, and for taking up this crucial work. Care to share your own journey to cultural responsiveness, or where you are on the path? We’d love to hear. Write to us at



Tune up your mastery grading practices

by MC Co-Director Joy Nolan

A warm (not to say muggy, at least here in NYC this week!) welcome back to a new school year, to educators across the MC community and beyond! We are proud that our community is deeply engaged in meaningful shifts meant to empower young people.

Are your grading practices keeping up with your diligent efforts to be clear, fair, equitable, empowering, and responsive to learners? As the school year begins, we're sharing a resource your school can use to troubleshoot and tune up your grading practices.

Note: It is a multi-page document so click the link to see all pages: Mastery Grading Reflection & Template.

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By Meg Stentz

Every fall and spring, Mastery Collaborative schools host visits to share strong practices with our community of practitioners, and interested guests from the broader world of student-centered learning. Participants at MC visits visit classrooms, talk shop about practices, get resources, and hear from educators and students at each host school. Here are excerpts from a Q/A session during a visit in April to MC Living Lab School Flushing International High School (FIHS).

Communicating a mastery philosophy to parents is something all MC schools need to do, but at FIHS there’s also often a language barrier. How do you explain your grading system to your parents? Do they understand them?

Students at FIHS participate in a "tea party" where each student is a character from a novel they're reading in class. 

Students at FIHS participate in a "tea party" where each student is a character from a novel they're reading in class. 

FIHS students & staff respond:
Naudia: My parents are always asking what I did in school today and what I learned. They might ask to see my grades and see how I am doing. I open Jumprope and show them, and they are satisfied. They might ask to look at the outcomes and they can see what grades I have, and then they don't need to come to the school from far away.

Kevin, AP: The color-coding for grades in the JumpRope platform has really helped us. We do a workshop with the parents, but they can also see at a glance if it's red (not yet at mastery): that's clear.

Yesen: I can speak to that, too. One of my parents doesn't speak English, and sometimes he checks Jumprope, but also every three months or so, the school sends home a progress report, and the color coding is clear. If it's yellow (approaching mastery), he will force me to translate what the outcomes say, and then he'll tell me I need to go and talk to my teacher and learn what I need to do to improve my grade in that outcome.

How is school and grading here different from how they were in your first country?

FIHS students respond:
Yesen: In Egypt, you just get a 300 page book or so, and you study it. You take a test one time, and you have no chance to revise. You pass or you fail and have to take it again in the summer.

Gloria: Can I connect that to my experience in my country? I am glad to have JumpRope here, because in my country, the only way to know your grade is to go and ask the teacher. In Korea, they do not tell you what your grade is, and so you have no way to figure out what you need to improve.

Naudia: I agree with you. In my country, Bangladesh, there is just a pile of books you have to read, and you don't know how you're doing. At the end of the year they just hand you a report card and you see your grade and think, Oh my gosh, how did this happen?


Learning is hands-on and project-based. Here students explore cause & effect in a living environments class by studying diseases and im

Learning is hands-on and project-based. Here students explore cause & effect in a living environments class by studying diseases and im

What growth do you see in yourself, maybe on a specific outcome or in your learning in general, after being at this school for a few years?

FIHS students respond:
Gloria: I grew in the outcome “Challenge yourself.” When I first got here, in 9th grade, everything was not happy for me. I missed my friends, and I had just gotten here. I didn't know how to challenge myself. But then my teachers encouraged me and I learned how to challenge myself. College life will be more challenging, and you have to be able to do more.

Yesen: In 12th grade, the expectation is higher. What would've gotten a 4 in 9th or 10th grade is not enough in 12th grade, so it's important that you think more deeply. Also, using your time. In 11th grade I did not do well in this outcome. I would usually do the assignment, but I would submit it late. Now I am more careful and am submitting everything on time. I even sometimes am submitting something one day early.

Erika: I agree with what Gloria said, but for me it was different. I have been here for five years, and so I am more used to challenging myself. When I first came here I was very scared and was challenged, but the outcomes help me to see what I need to do.


Thanks so much to the wonderful students and staff at FIHS for hosting the MC community and sharing their mastery system with us! Do you have a question for the MC community? Write to us at




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By Joy Nolan and Meg Stentz

This month we’re sharing posts about the Mastery Collaborative community's explorations at intersections of culturally responsive education and mastery- based teaching and learning. This year, 141 teachers and administrators from MC member schools attended anti-racism trainings facilitated by Border Crossers, an organization that educates educators about race and racism.

We ask educators at our trainings to problematize traditional education in these three realms: grading practices, facilitation, and curriculum—and to bring their knowledge of race, racism, and cultural responsiveness to bear on reaching for more equitable practices.

Here are ideas from our community about how to make curriculum more responsive to and empowering for students. Have suggestions or questions? Drop us a line:

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Talking about Race (and Mastery): Part 2


By Meg Stentz and Joy Nolan

In our last post about takeaways from trainings with Border Crossers and the Mastery Collaborative team about race, racism, and mastery, we shared members’ ideas about equity issues in traditional grading. In this post, we share participants’ ideas about how race can play out in our classroom dynamics in inequitable ways, and how we can plan for more just, and equitable, and effective facilitation moves.

Developing the skills to address racial incidents and engage in learning moments around race and racism is just one powerful facilitation strategy that MC community members bring to their classrooms and school communities. Here are a few of their ideas. Please read with an eye to what’s happening and can happen in your own school and classroom.

We also welcome your ideas and input about how this work can go further. Write to us at with a strategy you use, or ask a question for us to tackle in an upcoming “Ask MC” mastery advice column.


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Talking about Race (and Mastery): Part 1


By Meg Stentz and Joy Nolan

A crucial aspect of being in the MC community is to explore, as a community of public schools, connections between culturally responsive education (CRE) and mastery (also known as competency-based education, or CBE). In our second year as a program, an MC working group from across our member schools began to dive in and identify connections between CRE and CBE: transparency, changing power dynamics, and positive learning identity.

To deepen the MC community’s racial justice work, each MC member schools commits to sending its mastery team to a training called “Talking about Race (and Mastery)”—co-facilitated by the MC program team and our partners at Border Crossers, an organization that offers anti-racism trainings for educators. Between last year and this year, nearly 300 educators have attended this training, in Level 1 and Level 2 sessions, to build awareness about the history of race and racism—and connections to practices in our schools that can dismantle—or perpetuate—inequity.

In these trainings, Border Crossers leads participants through an active exploration of racism in institutional, interpersonal, and internalized dimensions. With this lens, we turned an eye towards examining  how bias and racism might play out in three key areas of practice in schools: grading practices, facilitation, and curriculum. Participants suggest and discuss “old school” practices that work to recreate race-based inequities, and used their understanding of mastery and pedagogy to reimagine what more equitable schooling would look like.


Below we share participants’ ideas from one of these sessions. We hope these ideas spark your thinking, and we welcome your ideas about where we could go further. Write to us at


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Three take-aways

Recently Meredith Matson, Assistant Principal/Mastery rockstar, facilitated a professional development about enriching rubric criteria for the staff at MC Active Member School Urban Assembly School of Design and Construction ( Below, three take-aways from Meredith's session.

The MC community is always digging in to rubrics! Here, teachers take advantage of a bulletin board at KAPPA International to see rubric criteria. 

The MC community is always digging in to rubrics! Here, teachers take advantage of a bulletin board at KAPPA International to see rubric criteria. 

1. Rubrics too often contain “laundry-lists.”

Learning tasks should push students to higher-order thinking. Because rubrics guide these tasks, the criteria for mastery should reflect the deep thinking students need to engage in.

Non-example: Cite at least three sources.

Example: Provide sufficient evidence and reasoning to support your claim.


2. The value of transitioning from
     task-based to skill-based rubrics

In order to push the depth of knowledge/richness of criteria, focus on durable skills, rather than task-specific minutiae. Higher education programs generally don’t (yet!) prepare educators to teach in a mastery-based environment, it’s natural for teachers to gravitate towards the task-based rubrics used in traditional education.

To help her colleagues to move away from task-specific rubrics, Meredith asked them to first think about the skill or skills a given assignment is designed to assess. Then, to create criteria for mastery of that skill. (What would it look like to use evidence successfully to support an argument?) Focusing on higher-order skills, rather than on aspects of task completion, increases the rigor of rubrics—and makes expectations more transparent and contextualized for students.

3. Zeroing in on criteria for what genuine mastery looks like

A teacher commented, sagely, that teachers gravitate towards “laundry list” rubrics in an effort to make the learning criteria more demonstrable for students. While this is an honorable impulse, it rests on the false assumption that learning can be captured in laundry lists. For example, it’s easy to imagine a student citing three sources, and still not having evidence to support a claim adequately.

Without laundry lists of criteria, teachers need to get even more clear about what it looks like for students to demonstrate their mastery of skills and knowledge, for real. Assessment and grading is nuanced, but getting closer to the heart of what “mastery” looks like is where the power of this shift lies.



Kudos to UASDC for digging in to this challenging and important work on behalf of students! Have questions about rubric criteria and grading in your classroom? Send them to, and they may be featured in Ask MC: a Mastery advice column.

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The Single-Point Mastery Rubric

This post by MC Co-Director Joy Nolan has been adapted from a longer piece featured on Competency Works.

Behold the single-point rubric, my favorite tool discovery of the year. (And click here for a single-point rubric template you can copy and use.)

You can use the middle column for either of these purposes:    *  Assess several outcomes at once for a larger task/project (most common use we've seen so far). In this case, use the middle column for a short list of  learning targets/outcomes that are in play for the assessment at hand.   *  Or, for a smaller, more focused task, the middle column can be used to list indicators/ criteria for a single outcome.

You can use the middle column for either of these purposes:

* Assess several outcomes at once for a larger task/project (most common use we've seen so far). In this case, use the middle column for a short list of  learning targets/outcomes that are in play for the assessment at hand.

* Or, for a smaller, more focused task, the middle column can be used to list indicators/ criteria for a single outcome.

Joy leads a session on student-centered feedback at MC's 2017 Summer Institute.

Joy leads a session on student-centered feedback at MC's 2017 Summer Institute.

You can use the single-point rubric to communicate about learning in these ways . . . .

  • as a reflection tool for individual learners after a project/assessment (also a great basis for preparing for a student-led parent/teacher conference).

  • as a peer feedback tool for pairs or groups of students. You know how hard it is to get students to give each other positive feedback as well as criticisms? This rubric makes positive feedback half the exercise, by design.

  • as a coaching tool for teachers and students to use together. If you have just a few precious minutes to give useful guidance to a student, this is the tool for you. It gets to the heart of the matter as efficiently as possible.

  • as a learning and grading tool for students who struggle with reading/English. Because it is streamlined and contains a fraction of the text one sees in traditional rubrics, the language load is lighter, more useful and less overwhelming for students who don’t read easily.

Want to read more about single-point rubrics? See the full piece here

Still have questions? Write to us at, and your question could be featured in our Ask MC mastery advice column!


The resource above is an adaptation of a rubric posted at—tweaked for competency-based/mastery-based use.


Fluckiger, J. (2010). Single point rubric: A tool for responsible student self-assessment. Teacher Education Faculty Publications. Paper 5. Retrieved April 25, 2014 from

Mertler, C. A. (2001). Designing scoring rubrics for your classroom. Practical Assessment, Research & Evaluation, 7(25). Retrieved April 30, 2014 from



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.”