When I was in school, I coveted good grades. I was quick to smile at teachers and eager for extra credit projects. A school improvement movement gathering force these days will require adjustments by people like me.
You can call it performance-based, competency-based or mastery education, whatever. Its advocates want to ensure all children learn their lessons, rather than just marking their report cards and passing them on to the next grade whether they have mastered the material or not.
This change is easier to describe than accomplish. A group of 175 private schools (planning to add some public schools) have created the Mastery Transcript Consortium to make the idea a reality, but none have it up and running. Thankfully, Jay P. Goldman, editor of School Administrator magazine, has produced an issue that goes deep into how this approach is faring in some Iowa public schools.
The problem is that mastery education contradicts the current American preference for passing as many children as possible into the next grade, no matter how little they have learned. Despite what many radio talk-show hosts say, research has shown that holding children back does not usually make them better students. So if schools are going to insist on mastery, they have to find time in the current school year to make it happen, because most of the slow kids are going to be promoted no matter what.
Matt Townsley, director of instruction and technology for the Solon Community School District in Iowa and author of one of the magazine’s pieces, told me academic stragglers at his high school use special “seminar time” to catch up. “Teachers request specific students to work with on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays,” he said. “Students receive re-teaching and/or re-assessment so their previous low standard marks can hopefully be improved based upon an increased level of demonstrated understanding.”
In my experience, the most successful efforts at raising achievement have involved more time. Some charter schools have been able to add an hour or two to the school day. Teachers in public systems that can’t afford a longer day have closed the gap by persuading students to come before or after school, during lunch or on weekends, and during the summer.
Solon can’t guarantee mastery with its system. The school year ends and the door shuts on more instruction. “Once the reporting period ends,” Townsley said, “our report of student learning is written in ink.” There are also no provisions for fast kids to be accelerated into higher grades.
Making mastery the goal means ending practices many of us hold dear. Extra credit assignments — a standard cure for grade anxiety — usually don’t deepen learning, so have to go. Homework is just practice and can’t count toward the final grade. Most disturbing to me, no grade boosts can be awarded for being a classroom angel.
Noelle Tichy, executive director of teaching and learning for the Des Moines public schools, said “only the mastery of academic standards are part of the grade and GPA” in her district. Disrupting class or not turning in homework will lower a student’s rating in categories such as “work completion” or “working with students” but should not affect the student’s grade if she knows her stuff. A teacher-pleasing student should not get an A if he hasn’t learned much.
I am not the only person resisting this. Townsley has heard some parents say, “This isn’t how it works for anyone in the real world.” Those who wonder about the need to reteach so often are reminded of their own early struggles for competency, such as the driver’s license road test. They are asked to consider the unfairness of failing students for not doing homework even if they know the material.
College admission officers confessed in the School Administrator issue that as they adjust to such changes, they may put more emphasis on SAT or ACT test scores that the school does not control. Until schools have more time to ensure mastery, I don’t think this approach will achieve its potential. But it is at least moving in the right direction.