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Aurora Institute

Making Mastery Work

Education Domain Blog

Author(s): Susan Patrick

Issue(s): State Policy, Base Learning on Mastery Not Seat Time

(First of all, thanks to the great work being done by Achieve’s Competency-based Pathways Working Group– of which Chris Sturgis (MetisNet, CompetencyWorks) and I are members. It is a pleasure to work with such a forward-thinking team.)

Achieve’s Cory Curl has presented a nice summary of a ground-breaking report released by the Nellie Mae Education Foundation (NMEF):

Making Mastery Work: A Close Up View of Competency Education (link)

The report captures lessons learned from 10 schools implementing competency-based programs through their involvement with the Proficiency-Based Pathways Project (supported by NMEF and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation).

Cory pointed to some key conclusions from the report, including:

  • Competency-based approaches have two distinguishing characteristics:
    • Clear, measurable definition of mastery, along with procedures and tools for tracking that mastery
    • Flexible use of time
  • The chance for students to progress at their own pace is motivating, particularly for struggling students.
  • Time-based policies and systems at both district and state levels often pose challenges. Educators are finding ways to create flexibility within these existing structures, but this room for states to augment policies to foster this flexibility.
  • There is no single blueprint or established menu of instructional tools geared for these initiatives, so teachers often create their own curriculum, assessments and management and feedback systems.
  • The biggest logistical challenge is the lack of high-quality data and technology tools to assess and monitor student progress that are tailored to each school/initiative’s approach.
  • CBP will likely benefit from a number of new conditions, including the Common Core State Standards and Next Generation Science Standards.


Federal rules and accountability structures are often time-based, as well, posing problems for true competency-based learning environments offering flexible pacing for students to advance. The ESEA Reauthorization discussions need to focus on this as a critical element – designing the future of learning to support transformative, student-centered learning models.

Across the country, pioneering schools and school districts are changing the way they design and organize their use of time and curriculum in an effort to ensure each student moves forward based on demonstrated mastery of content, not just the amount of time spent learning. Online and blended learning offer solutions to move toward student-centered, competency based learning – anytime and everywhere.

As schools move towards a 21st century model of preparing students for college and a career, it is becoming unnecessary to maintain a system based on time spent in the classroom, according to the report’s authors. Rather, learning happens at different times in a variety of settings, and progress should be demonstrated by mastery of content, not merely grade promotion. In the proficiency-based systems examined in Making Mastery Work, students advance at their own pace as part of a cycle of continuous learning and achievement. This mix of freedom and responsibility is positively impacting both the teaching and the learning at the eleven schools studied in the report.

To download the report and to read a special series of blog posts exploring its findings in-depth, visit