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Aurora Institute

Shifting to Mastery-Based Approaches in New York City Public Schools

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Jeremy Kraushar

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, How to Get Started, Learn Lessons from the Field

Revell, student at FDA VII.
Revelle, student at FDA VII. From FDA VII video.

“I want to achieve, I want to get high grades; [mastery-based learning] is a great way to map out exactly how to get there.”

         — Revelle, student at Frederick Douglass Academy VII, Brooklyn NY

A small but growing number of New York City schools are making assessments more meaningful for teachers and students through mastery-based approaches to learning. There are early and encouraging signs that mastery can motivate and engage students who have experienced previous academic failure by providing a clear outline for what they need to learn. The video below demonstrates these powerful effects at Frederick Douglass Academy VII High School (FDA VII) in Brooklyn:

Mastery-Based Learning – Featuring Frederick Douglass Academy VII High School from Digital Ready on Vimeo.

Starting Out Small

While school-wide implementation models have been a source of inspiration, more often than not, a shift toward mastery starts on a much more compact level. Last year, teachers at FDA VII “took the leap” by transforming their curriculum and grading policies to reflect student learning more transparently. This year, school leadership hopes to take it school-wide. At Brooklyn International High School and Hudson High School for Learning Technologies, teachers have worked alone or in small groups to pilot new ways to deliver content broken down by skill, and provide more granular feedback in distinct areas of learning.

Forming a Community

The NYC Department of Education’s Digital Ready program supports schools undertaking this shift by helping teachers adapt their existing curriculum and create class structures that have the potential to transform the entire school experience. Instead of moving students together through units or semesters based primarily on a singular number or letter grade, teachers are modifying their classes to highlight, assess, and provide feedback on the skills and content students need to master. While terminology differs from school to school, we consider mastery-based and competency-based education synonymous, with students having multiple chances to prove understanding of explicitly defined sets of skills and content in a course of study.

Teachers in Digital Ready’s mastery-based working group have formed a community of bold, like-minded practitioners who meet monthly and share resources like curriculum maps, progress reports, and assessments. Because schools approach mastery in different ways, we focus on bringing teachers together to norm the practices and ideas around mastery and facilitate sessions where teachers can develop competencies (or outcomes) aligned with Common Core and NY State standards.

After identifying the most essential skills they want their students to understand, teachers discuss and share innovative ways to create assignments and assessments aligned to these competencies in which students can show what they know. In our collaborative model, teachers are encouraged to borrow from each other, make valuable connections across schools, and share their experiences around the complicated issues, including messaging to parents, managing the greater amount of student data, and using new technological tools.

Moving Forward

As evidenced in the video, teachers and students agree that a mastery-based approach is hard work but helps students to focus on the content and skills they need to work on and to take a more proactive role in the learning process. For these reasons, more and more teachers say it’s absolutely worth the effort.

Going into our second year of Digital Ready, we hope to serve the growing number of schools interested in using mastery-based approaches by creating a detailed inventory of the systems teachers, departments, or schools have put in place.

Digital Ready is managed by the NYC Department of Education’s Office of Postsecondary Readiness, with generous support from the NYC Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment.


Jeremy Kraushar is the Mastery Learning Manager for Digital Ready, in the NYC Department of Education’s Office of Postsecondary Readiness. He is a former middle and high school teacher and has worked on multiple technology programs for the Department. He currently leads Digital Ready’s mastery-based assessment working group and is pursuing a Master’s in Public Affairs from Indiana University.