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Rick Hess Straight Up

Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Assessment Opinion

To Replace Skill Mastery for Seat Time, There Are 3 Requirements

Rethinking school time looks easier than it is
By Rick Hess — January 08, 2024 4 min read
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When you’ve been around as long as I have, one gets all manner of intriguing questions. While I usually respond to such queries in private, some seem likely to be of broader interest. So, in “Ask Rick,” I occasionally take up reader queries. If you’d like to send one along, just send it to me, care of Greg Fournier, at greg.fournier@aei.org.

Dear Rick,

I heard you speak recently about your book, The Great School Rethink, and you touched a bit on the mastery-based learning model. You suggested that it has a lot of promise but also that you don’t think people necessarily understand how big the challenges are to doing it well. My school is piloting mastery-based learning right now, so I’m wondering what strategies you’d recommend for the model to be successful?

Sincerely,

Moving to Mastery

Dear Moving,

It’s a terrific question. But given that it’s also a question about pedagogy and practice, I should give my standard disclaimer: I’m not a teacher, coach, school leader, or curriculum developer, and I don’t have to do the hard work of putting mastery into practice. So, I’m talking as an observer, not a doer. Be forewarned.

For readers who may have heard the term “mastery-based learning” but aren’t 100 percent sure what it is: It’s an approach that abandons the familiar time-bound model, in which teachers are obliged to march classes in lockstep and instead allows students to proceed at the pace at which they “master” knowledge and skills. In theory, this allows all schools to give students the additional time and support they need (while allowing others to progress more rapidly if they’re ready to move on).

All that said, I think there are at least three requirements for mastery-based learning to deliver. It requires being clear on the skills and knowledge that students are supposed to master, developing valid and reliable ways of assessing that mastery, and ensuring that students do indeed master them. Where things get tricky is that these keys entail practical and political challenges that aren’t always obvious and whose severity varies by subject and grade level. This means mastery may look deceptively easy in some settings ... and then prove to be much more difficult in others.

OK, let’s run through the three points.

First, you can’t do mastery-based learning if it’s not crystal clear what students are supposed to learn. You’d think this would be obvious, but I can’t tell you how often I’ve chatted with someone who spoke eloquently about mastery-based learning until it came to explaining how it would play out in specific subjects or grades. The conversation then devolves into hand waving, vague generalities, and assertions of, “Well, we’ll have to work that out.” This is a problem. While it may not be terribly difficult to determine how to identify and sequence essential knowledge and skills in math, early literacy, or high school STEM classes, it gets a whole lot trickier in areas like English/language arts, history, civics, K–8 science, or the arts. Plus, deciding what’s essential in some of these areas can get political in a hurry.

Second, it’s not enough to figure out what the essential skills and knowledge are. You also need to develop valid and reliable ways of measuring mastery. If students are expected to master the ability to explain photosynthesis or determine authorial intent, then it’s necessary to assess that in a timely and explicit fashion. After all, mastery-based learning is premised on the notion that students will move forward once they’ve mastered a specific skill or body of knowledge. Assessments need to be precisely calibrated, and they need to yield rapid feedback. This poses a challenge for the kinds of authentic assessment that many educators would like to use. It’s tough to ensure that large numbers of portfolios, essays, or oral presentations are evaluated appropriately. But the alternative is relying on standardized tests, even for knowledge or skills (like civics, writing, or art) for which they may be an awkward fit. And worse, because we haven’t spent a lot of time or energy developing these kinds of assessments, schools have to rely upon makeshift options.

Finally, for a school to fully embrace mastery-based learning, it must maintain an unflinching commitment to ensuring that students master essential knowledge or skills before they progress. Some students may need to spend extended periods of time on a given unit or subject (and that may be especially true for students who are chronically absent, which could complicate efforts to reengage them in school). And some students will not be ready to graduate when they turn 18. Our history of holding the line on these kinds of expectations (from minimum competency testing to “Read by 3” programs) is not impressive. We’ve seen extraordinary grade inflation in recent decades precisely because giving students bad news is unpleasant for teachers, students, and parents alike. It’s a political headache and it’s only too easy to imagine schools where “mastery-based” serves as a euphemism for “good enough.” That would be bad for learning and awful for students who get pushed forward without crucial knowledge and skills.

So, as I see it, those are the three keys. And, truth be told, I fear a lot of schools are inclined to experiment with mastery-based learning without having sorted those issues out. Where that’s the case, I fear it’s primed to be one more promising idea that disappoints in practice.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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