Although mastery and competency-based learning is widely discussed in education circles, it is surprisingly difficult to find a school that effectively implements this approach. I recently joined a team from PHS to visit one such school, New Haven's High School in the Community. We were warmly welcomed by Community Coordinator Cari Strand who led an incredible day of discussions and observations with staff and students. To sum up their approach, High School in the Community requires all students to demonstrate mastery of specific learning targets (content and skills) in order to advance and ultimately graduate.
Instead of the traditional Freshman-Senior progression, they established the following "Stages of Advancement."
Although this may at first seem like semantics, I witnessed first hand that it is far from it. Although it is expected that a typical student will progress through this in 4 years, it may take less time or more depending upon the student. The focus here is not on seat time or Carnegie units. The focus is primarily on student learning.
To monitory and track student progress (and communicate with parents), they also use the following "Mastery Performance Levels."
4 – Exemplary Student has proven expertise in course material and is ahead of course pace. Student is on track to finish this course and may move on to the next course level before the academic year has ended.
In the afternoon, we had an opportunity to speak with members of the student council. One common theme from this conversation is that they thought there was a better sense of purpose now in school. It was less about compliance and more about learning. Some admitted that they fell behind early since mastery learning "was harder." They did like, however, that nothing was holding them back. If they put the time and effort in, not only could they excel, but also complete their competencies in even less than 4 years. Some students from the school actually enroll in local college classes during their Bridge (senior) year since they have demonstrated mastery of all the learning targets.
High School in the Community uses JumpRope, a standards-based grading platform. The teachers that we spoke with liked the program and demonstrated how standards were assessed and then reported out through the student/parent portal. It is much more visual than a traditional program and seems to do a good job of conveying both what students are excelling at as well as learning gaps that exist.
There are many other takeaways and questions that came from this visit, and I will touch upon those in future posts. I do, however, want to conclude by saying how courageous this group of educators are. Despite many of the obstacles faced with this transition, they know that at the end of the day, it is best for students. One staff member said that the most difficult part is that it "exposes" many of the issues that exist under the surface in traditional school, yet are ignored or glossed over. Their mastery system not only unearths these issues (particularly learning gaps), but addresses them head on in a creative, thoughtful, and courageous way. This district is a model for those who know that our traditional approach to grading and student progression is fundamentally flawed and are seeking an alternative path.
I again thank High School in the Community for hosting us and wish them the best of luck in their journey!