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Aurora Institute

Magical Mastery Tour

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

Issue(s): State Policy, Create Pilots and Innovation Zones, Create Enabling Conditions for Competency-Based Education

Digital Ready
Photo from the Digital Ready Website

In October, Jeremy Krausher, Joy Nolan, and Michael Preston of Digital Ready organized what can only be called the Magical Mastery Tour. (Click here if you’d like the Beatles to accompany your reading.) Don’t be misled by the name Digital Ready – this team, based in the Office of Postsecondary Readiness at the New York City Department of Education, is promoting student-centered, personalized, mastery-based learning drawing on blended learning to increase and enrich learning opportunities for students. Their work is supported by the NYC Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment. We were joined by Julian Cohen, Senior Executive Director for the Office of School Design and Charter Partnerships, and Debbie Marcus, OPSR’s Deputy Executive Director of Sustainability and Strategy, on part of the tour. I am so grateful to everyone for sharing their knowledge about schools and providing greater depth to my understanding of how competency education is taking root in New York City.

During the three-day Magical Mastery Tour, we visited Bronx International High School, Carroll Gardens School for Innovation, EPIC North, Bronx Arena, and Urban Assembly Maker Academy (one of the Carnegie Corporation Opportunity by Design schools). In-depth descriptions of each will be published over the coming weeks.

Innovation is alive and well in the New York City schools. Bronx International and Carroll Gardens School for Innovation are two of the most developed competency-based models I’ve seen. Bronx Arena is challenging assumptions of traditional schooling every chance they get. EPIC North and Maker Academy (with only two months under their belts) are already on their way to pushing our understanding of how competency education can serve as the backbone to very different school models.

Although I never had any doubt, the Magical Mastery Tour has proven to me that competency education is a structure that will not only hold up any pedagogical approach or school design, but will actually help improve it by engendering greater intentionality and innovation. Educators will have much greater flexibility as long as there is transparency and alignment about what students are expected to learn and how they are going to be assessed, and as long as they continue ensuring students get the support they need until they demonstrate they are ready to move on to the next stage of learning.

Background on New York City and New York State Policy

A Note on Language

The NYC Department of Education uses the phrase “mastery-based.” However, according to Jeremy Kraushar, Mastery Learning Manager of Digital Ready, many schools are using the language of “outcomes” or “outcomes-based.” In general, the approaches described in the posts on the schools were consistent with how CompetencyWorks defines competency education. (Click here for introductory materials and here for a detailed definition.)

State Policy Environment

I think it’s safe to say that the innovations that are taking place in NYC schools are doing so within the constraints of the policy environment. New York State has yet to clear out the rubble of seat-time policies from its education code. Students have to have 44 credits and pass 5 Regent exams to graduate. (Remember, the Regents were put into place because no one could count on 44 credits saying anything about skills.) One does have to wonder why they didn’t drop the credits once they put the exams in place. This is a fine example of how education policy tends to accumulate rather than be replaced.

In general, New York state policies and regulations are not designed to help innovators who are rethinking how to organize schools for learning. There are holes here and there that schools can sneak through. For example, if coursework is designated as blended, it is free of time requirements, so schools may try for that designation even if blended learning isn’t their core innovation.

One of the strongest aspects of innovative policy is the New York Performance Standards Consortium’s efforts in advancing performance-based assessments as a valid measure of student learning. This has required incredible effort on the part of schools to build agreement on what a high-quality system of performance-based assessments looks like, as well as equally incredible advocacy to build recognition among state policy leaders.

New York City Department of Education

Given the size of NYCDOE, which serves over 1.1 million students in 1700+ schools, it makes sense that there would be several catalytic initiatives to promote improvements and innovation. Two of them are directly related to supporting mastery-based models.

PROSE: The momentum for mastery-based education in NYCDOE is developing in a new initiative, Progressive Redesign Opportunity Schools for Excellence (PROSE), which was created by an agreement between NYCDOE and the United Federation of Teachers (UFT). The program is designed “as part of the new contract between the UFT and the DOE to allow schools to implement innovative plans that fall outside of the Chancellor’s Regulations or UFT contract.” Currently there are sixty-two schools participating, with more in the process of becoming PROSE designated. The flexibilities requested are bottom-up, driven by teachers and the principal in collaboration, and a joint DOE and union panel advocates for and monitors the flexibilities in place of the relevant regulations. Approximately 10 percent of schools are focusing on innovations such as flex time, credit accumulation related to mastery-based learning, class size flexibilities, and different roles for teachers.

Digital Ready: Digital Ready, which is based in the Office of Postsecondary Readiness, is focused on expanding student-centered strategies supported by technology to improve college and career readiness. The revised definition of student-centered learning advanced by the partnership between Nellie Mae Education Foundation and Jobs for the Future has four tenets, one of which is that it is competency-based.

The Digital Ready team are strong advocates for mastery-based learning. Although Digital Ready began by focusing on “mastery-based assessment,” their understanding has expanded to a six-part definition. While I was in town, they convened a conversation with representatives from twenty-two schools interested in “mastery-based learning.” They are in the process of developing a Mastery Collaborative of middle and high schools to support schools that are in the process of converting to competency education.

(FYI – If you haven’t seen it, check out Digital Ready’s video on mastery-based grading. It’s one of my favorites describing the change in the relationships of students to their learning by adjusting grading to be in relationship to standards.


As is in the case of most large districts trying to innovate, bumping up against compliance culture is always a challenge. Most school leaders describe having to spend resources navigating various regulations as they work towards greater personalization.

My focus during the site visits was on school models – I didn’t ask a lot of questions about policy, levers, and obstacles. However, one concern popped up several times: the highly competitive nature of getting into high school that has developed under the NYC school choice policy is creating parental concern about mastery-based grading in middle school. Just as parents are worried about competency-based transcripts impacting their children’s ability to be admitted into competitive colleges, NYC parents are worried about mastery-based middle school transcripts hurting the chances of admission to the more selective high schools.

NYCDOE has the ability to support or at least partially support mastery-based grading in its STARS information system, but many parents want a conversion to traditional A-F grading, as few of the high schools are familiar with mastery-based grading. The district will have to ramp up a communications effort with its high schools if they want to see mastery-based grading expand in the lower grades.

(This post was amended on December 18, 2014)