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Aurora Institute

NYC Big Takeaways

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Learn Lessons from the Field

Selfie ShotThis is the first post of my Mastering Mastery-Based Learning in NYC tour. 

I love my job – always learning, always meeting incredibly insightful, dedicated educators, always seeing new parts of the country – it’s just one big adventure. However, the most recent trip to New York City was also fun, fun, fun thanks to the incredible team at the NYC Mastery Collaborative: Jeremy Kraushar, Joy Nolan, and Juliana (Charlie) Brown. Natalie Abel, program manager at iNACOL and project manager for CompetencyWorks, also came along to get to see mastery-based learning up close. Add on seeing Hamilton, which helped to sweep out some of the webs of racial bias that seeps into one’s head, and this trip was by far one of the highlights of 2016.

I learned so much from this trip and have done my best to capture the depth of the conversations in each of the posts:

The Story of Angelica

The team at Kappa International told the story of Angelica, a model student getting good grades who failed a Regents exam. How could that be? They were honest and brave and faced up to the fact that something was wrong. They’ve embraced mastery-based learning so that both teachers and students know where students are in their learning process and can do something about it when there are misconceptions or students aren’t progressing. Imagine a world where every school was that honest and brave. Wouldn’t the college remediation problem go away?


I think competency-based education makes sense. But will it be an effective model for adding real value? Can we figure out what the elements of quality implementation are? I don’t like to overstate the benefits until we see more states, districts, and schools pointing to results. I’m open to all kinds of results – they don’t have to be from state accountability policies, but we do need to hold ourselves accountable – so I tend to explain competency-based education but not sell it as an idea.

However, in speaking with the team at Flushing International about mastery-based learning, my confidence level in competency education spiked. I have the utmost respect for the educators in the International Network for Public Schools. Thus, it was so affirming to hear Principal Lara Evangelista explain that the transparency of the mastery-based learning has: 1) increased the intentionality of their teachers on their curricular, instructional, and assessment decisions and 2) allowed students to become even more motivated, engaged, and empowered.

Rants about Regents

I’ve been visiting New York schools for twenty years, and there are always concerns about the Regents. However, the frustration had risen to a whole new level, especially concerning Global History. Everywhere I went, educators talked about forcing education to lower levels with its emphasis on regurgitating content; misalignment with providing culturally responsive classrooms (which can easily slip on the slope into a form of institutional racism); and lack of attention on efforts to build intrinsic motivation and student engagement through offering opportunities for voice and choice. I think this is a no-excuses situation – the Regents need to rethink their system of assessment and accountability policies to align with what we know about the learning sciences: engaging, motivating, teaching, and learning.

New Terms

There were three fascinating concepts that I had never heard of before that are expanding my understanding of competency-based education.

Spiraled Rubrics

The Young Women’s Leadership School has a three-tiered grading system with spiraled rubrics that indicate not yet, meets, and exceeds. Not yet is always left blank, as it is assumed there are individual issues that teachers need to identify to help students move to meeting the expectations. Meet is established at grade level, whereas exceeds is set at the next grade level higher. Thus, students can easily begin to work at a grade level higher. The design of the school is set around skills so that when a student performing a grade level higher moves to the next course, the content is going to be different and they’ll have the opportunity to continue to improve their skills toward the next performance level.

The Proximal Gap

At North Queens, the phrase proximal gap was raised to describe the degree to which the teacher’s instructional skills are aligned or not with the instructional needs of a student. For example, if you have a student reading at the fifth grade level but a teacher who doesn’t know how to do close reading, there is a large proximal gap. If a teacher is skilled on learning progressions in math for performance levels 3-5 and a student has large misconceptions in level 3, then there is no proximal gap at all. I think it is worth applying this idea to your school’s capacity in comparison with the needs of your students – not just any single teacher, as there is no reason to believe any one teacher is going to know everything. It can even be applied as a concept beyond academics. If 30 percent of your students show indications of having trauma in their life but none of your teachers know how to implement trauma-informed services, you are going to have a problem.


Joel Rose introduced me to the concept of anchor weights as a technique for helping students meet grade-level standards by ensuring they fill the pre-requisite skills they are missing. The concept has a lot of power, as it opens up the door to thinking specifically about what students need rather than suggesting they need to take classes over or move in a linear fashion through performance levels. I think it may also open the door to a new type of metric that can recognize the distance students are progressing and recognize the skills of teachers in helping them to do so.

New Understandings

The conversation was so rich during the school visits and in the car as we traveled to the corners of New York boroughs – a clear reflection that our understanding of competency education was getting deeper and deeper. Here are a few ideas that have launched new areas of inquiry and opened my mind even further.

Keys to Learning

What are the rituals and routines that reinforce the culture and strategies of the conventional classroom? Individual desks all in a row, students sitting alphabetically, waiting quietly, teachers in the front of the classroom, everyone getting same curriculum even to the point of same page on the same day in different schools, bells to move to the next class, A-F grading, extra credit, and the list goes on.

What are the rituals and routines that will empower students and support the personalized classroom? These are the keys to learning: transparent learning outcomes; explicit rubrics; units that explain options for students to learn, practice, apply, and reflect on their learning; processes to agree upon the expected behaviors for each class (otherwise known as codes of cooperation); mastery-based grading that allows a student to understand what they need to do to further demonstrate proficiency.

Are all practices the same? Do some have more impact than others? Do some need to be packaged together? And what types of characteristics would allow us to know if the learning being implemented is high quality or not? We need to be able to make this more discussable and easier for teachers to access. There are already a lot of resources available – can we organize them into professional development modules so teachers anywhere can give the keys to learning to their students?

How CBE Opens the Door to Culturally Responsive Education

My conversation with John Duval, Executive Director, Model Redesign Team, Office of Postsecondary Readiness at NYC Department of Education, left me speechless at times, as it opened entire ways of thinking about the implication of mastery-based learning on equity. For example, does introducing the keys to the classroom for students and creating structures that empower students challenge the patterns of institutional racism that eat away at our public schools? If so, we need to get clear about what high quality implementation looks like and get it into place immediately.

Another point raised was the intersection of mastery-based learning and culturally responsive education. Duval argues that in schools continuing to use exclusionary policies while forcing students to sit through content-driven courses that are perceived as irrelevant, we are creating a self-fulfilling conflict in which the students end up out of the classroom and possibly on the streets. By focusing more on skills and offering transparency of learning goals, mastery-based learning frees students from curricular content choices from teachers (and Regents) that are perceived as irrelevant (i.e., boring and possibly offensive) and enables them to create meaning and purpose in their education.

This conversation helped me to understand that we are still at the doorstep of fully understanding how mastery-based learning can be used to challenge patterns of institutional isms and to generate more equitable outcomes. Thanks, John!

Standards-Based Doesn’t Equal Student-Centered

We need a mid-course correction about the idea of standards-based grading. It doesn’t help to only talk about how students are doing in terms of grade-level standards. We need to think about their starting point. A student who transfers into a school not knowing their alphabet is unlikely to meet the second grade standards. We have to think about the student and their starting point.

Furthermore, all the grading systems have to get their act together. It’s been five years now, and there are only a handful of products that can get close to producing a student-centered report that reflects how the student is progressing over a period of time across several domains. Schools are making do with what the grading systems do provide. They’ve lowered their expectations. Companies and their investors need to understand this – just because you have a sale doesn’t mean you really understand the market.

Skills Over Content

Over the last year, I’ve been hearing more and more competency-based schools talk about how they are shifting toward a focus on skills. I assumed it was a combination of the transition to Common Core with its emphasis on lifting the standards above recall and comprehension. Or perhaps it was that the ideas of Hewlett Foundation’s deeper learning were taking root.

However, in my conversations with the educators in NYC, it became clear that part of the shift is simply due to the intentionality created by mastery-based learning. One educator explained that once teachers start to talk together about what they want students to know and do when they graduate or when they complete a course, they shift to what students should be able to do and know. It’s the skills that are transferrable and position students to be lifelong learners, not the content. One educator explained that before they became mastery-based, they emphasized 80 percent content in their courses. Now it’s about 50-50. Other schools are organized around skills, with content a combination of what students need in order to engage in problem-solving (as rigor requires solving problems using knowledge), Regents exams, and the rest offered as choice.

The focus on skills is going to drive schools toward performance tasks and performance-based assessments. It’s not too soon for states or regional collaboratives of districts to begin to think about structures for calibrating.

Using Time Effectively

We got off on the wrong foot when we used the phrase “Learning in a constant and time is a variable,” as most people focused on flexible pacing rather than what it would mean to have time as a constant. It’s not so much about the flexibility of time but what we do with that time to support students. The Kappa International team is thinking hard about how to take advantage of the intentionality created through mastery-based learning to think more about effectiveness of strategies to engage and motivate students as well as strengthen the instructional cycle so that students are always advancing.

Culture of Support

Every school has a culture, but not every culture is designed to support learning in a mastery-based environment. I pay a lot of attention to what makes a strong learning culture as I visit schools. They aren’t all the same. For example, I noticed that safety was an important part of the culture at Merit Prep in New Jersey, whereas I didn’t hear that word once while in Maine.

I heard the concept of support as a school culture characteristic raised at Epic North by students and at the Young Women’s Leadership School – Astoria by teachers. In both cases, a culture of support was articulated: the importance of having a group of peers who have your back, who cheer you on, who don’t let you give up, who take turns taking the lead, and who hold the expectation that you can succeed even when you are swamped by doubts.

How important is that as a characteristic of a successful school culture? Probably very high for making the transition to competency-based education. Probably even higher for students who have only known school failure. And just think about what it could do in helping students drive toward excellence.

– – –

There were so many other insights. The difference between giving grades and earning grades. The difference between how schools with robust pedagogy integrate mastery-based learning as compared to those that use mastery-based learning to open the door to developing a strong school-wide pedagogical philosophy. Whether it is time for us to rethink alternative schools in a way that recognizes the challenge of rapid credit accumulation when the real challenge is rapid skill-building.

Thanks to all of the students, teachers, and leaders for taking the time to talk with me and show me their schools. And a special thanks to Jeremy Kraushar, Joy Nolan, and Charlie Brown of the Mastery Collaborative for such a special week.

See also: