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Aurora Institute

The Big Three Takeaways of the Magical Mastery Tour

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

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

ThreeAlthough there were many takeaways from my visits to schools in New York City (what Jeremy Kraushar of the Digital Ready team referred to as the Magical Mastery Tour), I’ve selected three to write about here, as they respond to questions we’ve received over the past six months.

Please note: I’m using mastery-based, the term used by NYC, and competency-based interchangeably.

Most of these findings are based on schools that are doing tremendous work in developing highly developed mastery-based models. Descriptions of Bronx International, EPIC North, Bronx Arena, Carroll Gardens School for Innovation, and Maker Academy will be published in the coming weeks. However, one insight discussed below came from a school that shared the difficulties it was having developing a prototype model. While it’s important to learn from challenges as well as successes, schools trying their best to innovate don’t need the light from the internet shined upon them, so we didn’t write up a case study in that particular case.

1) Competency Education Benefits Students with Language Needs and in Special Education 

For the past year, I’ve been listening carefully to understand how competency education may benefit or create unanticipated consequences for students in special populations, especially English Language Learners and students with disabilities. I didn’t see any potential issues, but I also wanted to double check my own assumptions.

The visit to Bronx International has confirmed my previous research (as an example, see the interview with Alice Collins from Adams 50) that a competency education structure is beneficial for learning English as well as for helping students learn academic skills, in that it helps to separate out these two different goals. By creating very explicit and transparent academic goals, content teachers assess specifically on content or skills. Building English language and literacy can more easily become school-wide goals when students are empowered to own their education and seek opportunities to build their language skills.

At Carroll Gardens, the educators are constantly asking themselves, How do we support students with special needs while also benefiting all students? (This is the reverse of the traditional system, which thinks about serving students with disabilities as an add-on.) They have found that the personalized, mastery-based approach is a universal approach that enables them to provide the extra time and support as needed to both students with an IEP and those without. As Digital Ready’s Jeremy Kraushar described it, “The IEP is a structure that helps schools follow a student’s progression. Mastery-based learning is essentially creating an IEP for every kid.”

However, I do think competency education is going to open the door to another challenging issue in this arena: as students near graduation, how can we address the issue of needing more time within the context of family and student preferences? It’s not a new issue at all, but we are going to end up having to face it head-on. Principals of competency-based high schools consistently tell me they can get most of the students in special education to the levels of proficiency-based graduation requirements if they have more time. However, students and their parents value graduating with their class so highly that they won’t remain in high school for an additional year or two. Essentially, the cultural benchmark of graduating with your cohort at age eighteen is so strong that it is in fact creating a time-based structure we may need to honor at least in the short run.

If additional years in high school aren’t an option for students who are either at lower academic levels than their age or need more time to learn, then we need to think about steeper learning trajectories and building in more time before the four-year graduation ceremony. This will require conversations within states and districts about funding strategies, and conversations with parents and students about what it will take to graduation by the time students are eighteen.

After the Magical Mastery Tour, I am now truly confident that there is nothing about competency education that will diminish our ability to serve ELL and SPED students, and that there is every reason to believe that students will in fact benefit, if it is implemented with fidelity. Basically, a school that doesn’t believe ELL and SPED students are going to succeed, a school that doesn’t embrace a growth model, is going to get the same results no matter what structure they have.

2) Strategies Big Districts Can Use to Advance Competency Education

Although there is no reason to believe that competency education won’t be an effective structure in large districts and large schools, the implementation in big districts is going to be different than it is in small- to medium-sized districts. Similar to states that are advancing competency education, big districts need to create innovation space, provide support, and align policies/operations without actually mandating the conversion. Competency education really shouldn’t be implemented in a top-down only way – empowerment and transparency are core values that need to be respected from the very beginning. Furthermore, we just don’t think that educators who don’t share a growth mindset and a commitment to equity (doing whatever it takes to making sure students reach proficiency) will be able to implement the competency-based structures effectively. Schools turn to competency education because it makes sense for kids.

Although the NYC Department of Education hasn’t embraced mastery-based education as a core reform strategy, the conversations I had in NYC did lift up some insights and ideas about how big districts can move forward:

  1. Commitment before Pilots and Prototypes: I’m increasingly convinced that piloting doesn’t work as a path towards competency education. Schools should only be supported in conversion if they have done a full investigation of personalization and competency education, built capacity around a growth mindset and its implications, and have the majority of the educators wanting to move forward. Piecemeal roll-outs, pilots, and prototypes are only going to work if the commitment, authority, and autonomy are in place. (See discussion below). Thus, big districts can invest by supporting inquiry teams, site visits, and fellowships that begin to build up a distributed leadership capacity across schools. Furthermore, they can create a “readiness” approach for schools to demonstrate that they are ready to move forward.
  2. Multiple Initiatives: Districts should create several initiatives that advance competency education, not just one. NYC has at least three that are advancing mastery-based learning to some degree: PROSE, Digital Ready, and iZone. Schools need to be allowed to ally with approaches that make sense to them, and have several doors to competency education: through personalization, through school turnaround, and through acceleration. It’s important to make sure they network among themselves to share knowledge. They need initiatives to create capacity, a cadre of leaders who “get it”, and access to networks outside of the district that can accelerate knowledge development.
  3. Create Feedback Loops to Compliance and Operations Divisions: Big districts can trip over themselves and undermine their innovation efforts because the compliance side keeps doing their job the only way they know how. I was in Denver at an innovative, wanna-be proficiency-based school, while a member of the Denver Public Schools sat with the principal, telling them they couldn’t have a flex hour (an essential part of competency education) because they had to deliver 300 minutes of instruction. (As if actually helping students to learn with individual and group support wasn’t instruction.)

As I listened to educators in NYC talk about their experience with the Department of Ed, it occurred to me that formal processes need to be set up as a form of continuous improvement that allows innovators to give feedback about regulations and allows for open conversation about how to meet the spirit of the laws without constraining mastery-based education. It will require a group of open-minded, creative people to be able to make sense of the intentions of the policies and regulations through a student-centered, personalized learning, mastery-based lens. As Ty Cesene of Bronx Arena describes it, we all need to be “living on the edge of the education code.”

3) Competency Education as Infrastructure

Isn’t mastery-based the same as self-paced? We hear this question a lot, and it usually comes from folks who are thinking about competency-based education as the instructional delivery mechanism of blended/online learning rather than the comprehensive approach described by CompetencyWorks and Great Schools Partnerships.

The educators I spoke with in NYC deeply understood that competency education is a “back-end part of the school.” Each school had a rich, multi-dimensional pedagogical approach that rested upon the mastery-based infrastructure. For example, EPIC North had a comprehensive approach to youth development and cultural relevance that included academic skills resting upon forty-nine competencies that students should know and be able to do by graduation. Carroll Gardens offered highly personalized, project-grounded instruction, with the “outcomes” enabling very intentional instructional design and assessment. Bronx International’s “outcomes” supported both the development of English language and literacy as well as the academic requirements in a performance-based environment.

The schools I visited all had or were on their way to developing highly integrated approaches. Ty Cesene and Sam Sherwood at Bronx Arena described what it takes to create integrated approaches. “Although it is hard to do, we throw things out even if they are working but don’t dovetail with the overall design. We look for ‘happy accidents’ where the pieces reinforce each other. We’ll keep tinkering until all the pieces are integrated. When things go well, it’s because we simplified it, not because we made it complex. We seek simplification. If something is hanging out there programmatically, it’s likely to drift away at some point, no matter how powerful.”

Although described in different ways, it was a common theme in the NYC schools I visited: Innovation Empowered by Mastery-Based Education. The ingredients were always the same. Keep the goals crystal clear; understand student learning as a combination of social-emotional skills, cognitive development, motivation, and engagement; and give time for teachers to work together to keep trying out new ideas until they find more effective approaches.