This article is part of a series of case studies of schools in New York City. For the full story, start with my overview of the Magical Mastery Tour and the three biggest takeaways. You can also read the report on Bronx International High School.
Carroll Gardens School for Innovations (MS 442) has only been using a mastery-based structure for three years, but it’s definitely one of the most well-developed competency-based schools I’ve visited. It’s the best example of a school designed so that personalized, mastery-based education works as well for students in special education as it does for all students. In other words, it’s a universal approach that works across a diverse population.
Thanks to Michael Preston, Jeremy Kraushar, and Joy Nolan for their leadership in bringing CGSI to the attention of CompetencyWorks. I am grateful to the extraordinary educators at CGSI for sharing their insights: Deanna Sinito, Principal; Noreen Mills, Assistant Principal; Liz Reale, technology and problem-solving teacher; Lisa Genduso, math coach and problem-solving teacher; Grace O’Shea, science teacher; Eric Silberberg, special education teacher focused on science; Jared Sutton, math teacher and technology specialist; and Connor Allen, science and problem-solving teacher.
The CGSI Approach
CGSI has created an integrated approach. Or perhaps I should call it an intentional approach, as every policy, practice, ritual, and routine reinforce each other and contribute to the culture of learning. Even though I saw each of the strands in all of my visits to the classrooms, it’s nearly impossible to pull out any single one as distinct from the others. I haven’t seen anything quite like this model in my many school visits, so I’m just going to call it the CGSI approach.
CGSI started down this path by confronting the question, How are we going to serve our struggling and challenged learners while ensuring other kids can continue advancing?
CGSI takes this question seriously, as they are serving approximately 200 students in grades six through eight. Carroll Gardens has one Nest class, which is an integration of general education students and five students with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Forty seven percent of the students have IEPs, 10 percent of students are ELL, and approximately 75 percent of students are FRL.
They began by identifying several powerful assumptions that shaped their design:
- All students, whether advanced or struggling, deserve an individualized plan for education.
- Start with what motivates and engages students when designing instruction and learning experiences.
- Create structures that focus on learning.
They then braided together seven elements into a cohesive approach:
- School Culture Focused on Students, Student Voice, and Learning
- Personalization (described as individualized learning by CGSI)
- Integrated Co-Teaching (all the classrooms at CGSI are Integrated Co-Teaching (ICT) classrooms that include students with and without disabilities and feature two teachers: a general education teacher and a special education teacher)
- Project-Based Learning
- Mastery-Based Grading
- Valuing Teachers, Teaching, and Teacher Leadership
With so much depth of their design, I came up with a list of eight important takeaways from this visit.
1. Invest in Skills that Empower Students
Some schools tell you what their culture is from the outset, at which point it becomes your job to look for evidence of that culture. CGSI educators rarely mentioned culture, instead talking about what works to help students learn. It took me a bit to realize that student learning is the culture – as well as the purpose and the primary principle that drives the design and operations of the school. It all starts with helping students build the skills to own their learning.
Student agency was not raised directly as a value or a principle in our opening conversation, but it was there in every classroom (later, as I walked through my thirteen pages of notes, I realized it was a constant thread).
Student agency first came to my attention when I watched a group of students talk about a book first with each other and then as a class. I want to add to what Elizabeth said… I’d like to expand on Juan’s point… I disagree with Heng’s point because… In every class, students were using Accountable Talk practices.
Sinito explained that they put this into action once they realized students weren’t listening to each other; they were just raising their hands and waiting for their own turns to talk. In that environment, talking wasn’t learning. It wasn’t an exchange of ideas, and students weren’t seeing themselves as part of a community of learners. By implementing a school-wide practice of Accountable Talk, students have learned how to be more accountable to and supportive of each other in their learning. In addition, this means that oral communication and critical thinking skills are being developed during discussion in the classroom.
Another example was raised by Assistant Principal Noreen Mills as she described the CGSI mentoring approach. They had tried using an advisory model, but some students’ social-emotional needs required individual contact, while others benefited from small groups. Now every student has an adult mentor (either one on one, in a pair, or in a small group of up to five). These mentors check in with them at least once a week to talk about what is going well, to set goals, and to coach them on how to communicate their needs to teachers and other students. Helping students develop the skills to set goals, assess progress, and identify their needs is a critical step towards empowerment.
2. Make Sure Your Mastery-Based Structure and Implementation is Benefiting Teachers as Well as Students
“I can” statements drive the mastery-based structure at CGSI. Students may have “I can” statements as a daily goal, a weekly goal, or as a standard upon which they will be assessed (using Not Yet, Approaching, Meeting, and Exceeding). Within this structure, teachers have learned how to write outcome statements that drive the “I can” approach. They work together to create a shared understanding of what it means to meet a standard, to build capacity to design units grounded in projects, and to design rubrics and assessments aligned with standards.
Connor Allen, a science teacher noted, “We saw the value of mastery-based grading immediately. The students get meaningful feedback, and they have to respond if they’re at Approaching or Not Yet. It empowers the students. We are focusing our mentoring on helping kids to learn how to harness feedback.”
Allen then pointed out the impact competency education has on teaching, “Mastery-based grading makes you understand the ideas you are going to teach for the entire year and how they connect to one another. You write your outcomes at the beginning of the year and make sure the assessments are assessing what’s important.”
Jared Sutton, an eighth-grade math teacher, described how mastery-based learning has made his job more challenging, fun, and creative. “Mastery-based grading forces you to be intentional. First, I identify all the big ideas that students need to know and do. Then I design all the assessments that will be used by the end of the year. I also weave in all the things I want to make sure the students don’t forget. Throughout this process, I can add word problems or interesting context (like hip hop artists) in ways that students don’t expect. This intentionality means I have to be strategic about the structure and flow of the curriculum. For example, I agonized this summer over whether I should bifurcate deriving linear equations into rate of change and y intercepts. I love math, and this gives me an opportunity to think even more deeply about it.”
Moving to mastery-based grading also forced the educators at CGSI to ask a few important questions. What does it mean to be on grade level on this standard? What do we mean when a student is Exceeding?
As they clarified the difference between Meeting and Exceeding, they began to create extensions that students can access asynchronously. They also made sure students could access curriculum and projects from the higher grades so they could begin to advance beyond their grade level.
3. Asynchronous Learning Goes Hand in Hand with Mastery-Based Grading
There are many reasons and ways to personalize a school. CGSI focuses on personalizing education because it is a powerful motivational approach that ensures students are getting what they need to progress. CGSI sees personalization as a way of engaging learners by pursuing their interests. With this in mind, they offer a tremendous array of after-school programs that engage, inspire, and allow students to pursue topics that are of high interest and relevance to them.
The primary personalization strategy at CGSI is described as asynchronous learning. In all of my visits in New England and California, no one has ever mentioned the term in this context before. In fact, I’ve always thought of it as a phrase used in discussing online learning. However, in NYC, almost every school mentioned asynchronous learning, regardless of whether they had substantial blended learning or not. It’s a term that is used to describe students working on different parts of a curriculum or learning progression at a pace that is effective for them.
Sinito explained how asynchronous learning and mastery-based grading go hand in hand at CGSI:
By definition, a fully ICT school with nearly 50 percent of students with IEPs is going to have the majority of our students entering school two academic levels below the grades. Some are at even lower academic levels. This means we have to be prepared to individualize instruction for all of our students.
With our amazingly dedicated staff, we wanted to find a way to individualize within the classroom structure. We asked ourselves, “How can a teacher continue to provide opportunities for a student who is challenged by the material to keep learning and demonstrate mastery, while another child can move on as soon as they have shown mastery?”
For us, the answer was ICT. Having stations, parallel teaching, grouping, and technology-supported learning materials created by teachers help provide the capacity to personalize learning.
Once we moved to mastery-based grading, it helped us even more to ask ourselves, “What happens when a student masters a skill? What happens when they don’t?” In this way, we started focusing on the students rather than the curriculum.
Strategic grouping is a core practice at CSGI. As one teacher explained, “Students maybe working in different ‘classes’ within the same classroom.” The ICT model is particularly helpful in being able to have frequent regrouping. Genduso explained, “It is very helpful to have a mastery framework. For students with IEPs, the mastery framework is very clear. It’s strength-based, as the kids know what they are able to do even as they work on challenging tasks. Learning seems more obtainable because they see progress.”
4. Serving Students in Special Education is Strengthened by Mastery-Based Education
One of the challenges that CGSI has encountered is helping students who have been moved from District 75 to the ICT classroom understand the culture and expectations of a mastery-based school. In District 75, students often get recognized for effort and may even receive credit based on effort, rather than on learning. The first time they find out they are expected to keep learning or revise, some students become frustrated and even refuse to do it again.
“Students are so anxious about grades,” Genduso said. “In mastery-based grading, we teach them that if they are at the Approaching level, they can still get better. They learn that if they ask for help, they can get better. It’s a growth model. We are giving them a constant assessment, telling them specifically, ‘here is what you can do right now.’”
Mills agreed. “With an asynchronous, mastery-based structure, kids can move at their own pace. It makes a huge difference when students know they can keep working until they master it. It also makes a huge difference that they can be working at eighth grade in math and sixth grade in ELA. With traditional grading, they got the grade and moved on to the next thing. Now we only have one report card at the end of year. The rest of the year, they get progress reports.”
5. Mastery-Based Grading Can Strengthen Project Design
CGSI has a cohesive way of teaching that is evident throughout the school. Teachers create projects that allow students to discover and/or allow apply their learning.
Silberberg characterized mastery-based grading as being helpful in the planning process. “Instead of just having a kid doing a project, I have to be clear about the one or two specific things I’m looking for. I need to know what I want the kids to learn as I design the project. It also makes assessing projects a lot easier, as there are clear rubrics. I think mastery-based grading is helping me become a better teacher.”
CGSI is prototyping a problem-solving class to accelerate sixth-graders’ comfort and skills with critical thinking. They are considering creating a follow-up class for seventh graders, as it is proving so engaging for students to have the opportunity for concentrated deeper learning.
6. There are Three Steps to Successfully Leading Personalized, Mastery-Based Schools: Constant Conversation, Hiring, and Distributed Leadership
Sinito discussed how, as the principal, she works to protect the integrity of their overall approach without breaking it into “flavors of the month.” She explained the three areas she is relentless in attending to: constant conversation, hiring, and distributed leadership.
It starts with having a cohesive philosophy and a dedication to constantly improving the school. New ideas have to be able to be integrated into our holistic approach. It’s a constant conversation to maintain coherence and sustain a shared vision. We have to make sure that improvements, innovations, and new efforts build on each other.
People are the most important element of a school, and hiring the right people is the most important thing I do as a principal. I look for two things: belief and aptitude. We want people who share our belief that all children can learn and that their job as teacher is to learn, as well. I look for dedicated, smart, hungry people who want to innovate.
I also focus on making sure leadership is distributed. This model won’t work if one person or one team is trying to figure everything out. We use inquiry teams run by teachers to improve and innovate. Our inquiry hypotheses are concentrated on student outcomes through asynchronous learning and the Danielson Framework, but we now structure them around student outcomes. It makes a huge difference to keep the focus tightly on students.
Because communication between teachers and about students is critical to the success of CGSI, teachers meet weekly in grade-level meetings as well as in departments. There are also Saturday retreats dedicated to common planning, and in the spring, departments cover each other so that they can take an entire day to plan for the coming school year.
They value this planning time. Allen emphasized, “Maybe I’m crazy, but it’s really exciting to be with your department for a day to become a think-tank about how we can strengthen our work. We all support each other, and it makes a huge difference to have an entire planning day.”
Eric Silberberg made a comment I’ve heard at almost every competency-based school: a request for more time. “It’s important for teachers to be given the time to implement ideas and make sure they are effective.””
Sinito pointed out one area of strength, “We have a great deal of autonomy in NYC to hire and manage our budgets. With our student population (most being FRL and many having an IEP), the funding is fair. We are able to hire the number and quality of teachers that we need to make this model work.”
7. Blended Learning Strengthens Asynchronous, Mastery-Based Schools
CGSI values technology as a means to expand both its asynchronous learning and learning opportunities for students. They are the first Apple Distinguished School in NYC, and have put a great deal into planning for technology. To implement these plans, they:
- Wrote three years of curriculum and have continued to update and revise it.
- Aligned professional development with these curricula so that staff is able to use the technology, as well.
- Sent two teachers to Apple Academy in Cupertino (they are sending another two this year), who then turn-key what they learned and guide technology professional development.
- Operate at above a 1:1 student/teacher-to-device ratio and operate using the SAMR scale.
In sixth and seventh grades, students take a technology class to make sure everyone knows how to navigate devices and use them in their learning. Teachers place many of their projects online using presentations, videos, and iTunes University. They expect a lot of their staff, and as a result offer whatever they need in order to meet high expectations (this is may be time, resources, and/or support). In addition, students are able to use adaptive software such as Khan Academy, iReady, and Achieve 3000.
Technology also strengthens communication within the school. As students become more comfortable with technology and being their own advocates, they are beginning to email teachers through the Engrade system. Jason noted, “The sixth graders are using the message function a lot more. They are reaching out and asking why they received a certain grade. They want more feedback.”
8. Addressing Equity Requires Careful Conversations with Students and Parents
In addition to the conversations about the school’s personalized, mastery-based structure and asynchronous learning, we were able to spend some time talking about how to think about equity and excellence in this environment. Current policy is focused on achievement gaps based on standardized exams, but the focus of the next generation of schools will be on individual growth and ensuring students have access to deeper learning. At the same time, we know we must guard against grouping becoming tracking. CGSI is aware of this and taking the appropriate steps.
“We group based on where students are on their learning progression and by who needs extra help,” Reale explained. “It’s not based on aptitude. From the teacher perspective, mastery-based grading provides the information we need. It’s much easier to know how kids are doing and respond by organizing small groups, and then regrouping the next day or next week.”
Sinito explained, “We don’t track students. We work with them, starting with where they are, what their strengths are, and what they want to do. We are confident that as they demonstrate mastery, they will be able to be successful in the next level of learning as long as they have adequate time and supports.”
However, the decision of where to go to high school has become a benchmark in children’s lives in NYC the same way college is. Sinito explained the dynamics that CGSI students are currently in. “We operate in a choice environment. When I grew up, we didn’t shop for schools until college, but our students and their families are expected to make choices that are shaping their futures starting in fifth grade.”
As Mills put it, “We educate parents about their choices, looking back at the progress students have made. We are also required as part of IEP process to do Level 1 vocational assessments at age twelve. This is a useful step in opening up the conversation about the choices they are going to have to make in applying for a high school.”
I think I only captured about a tenth of the rich conversations we had during my three hours at CGSI. I also imagine that if I were to return next year, they will have improved, strengthened, and expanded much of what has been written here. We know that there are going to be additional challenges for large districts to convert to competency education. We also know that it starts with educators like those at CGSI who are driven by doing the right thing for kids.