This blog was first published on CompetencyWorks.

How does a huge district open the door to mastery-based learning when the rest of the district is focused on other areas of improvement and innovation?

The New York City Department of Education created the Mastery Collaborative to support schools ready to take on the new frontier of mastery-based learning. The Department’s policy for school autonomy formed a strong foundation; however, schools need support as well. Led by an extraordinary group–Jeremy Kraushar, Joy Nolan and Julianna C. Brown–the Mastery Collaborative is building a network of leader-educators, a knowledge hub and a shared vision of what mastery-based learning can be in NYC.

“Speed round” conversations at a Mastery Collaborative meeting allow school leaders, teachers and students from participating schools to “cross-pollinate” effective ideas, practices and experiences about mastery. In the photo above Justin, a seventh grader from Brooklyn, talks to Joaquin Vega, principal of Bronx International High School, about how students feel the impact of mastery-based grading.

The Collaborative is made up of forty schools: eight Living Lab schools and thirty-two Active Member schools (a list is at the bottom of this post with links to the articles written about the schools CompetencyWorks has visited). The Living Lab schools provide visitors with a chance to see what mastery-based schools look like and to talk to other educators who are experienced at working in a schoolwide mastery system.

Living Lab schools also post resources in a shared wiki page so others can quickly look at different options regarding grading practices, design of competencies or school policies. The Mastery Collaborative team works with the schools to set goals aligned to a shared community framework, learn from one another and develop overall guidance documents.

For example, they have developed a tool to evaluate LMS systems to expedite the process for schools to consider different products. They are in the process of working with DOE Central’s Office of Academic Policy to offer PD that will help schools develop fair, transparent and comprehensive mastery-based grading policies and messaging for teachers, students and parents.

Some of the schools in the Mastery Collaborative sought waivers through the PROSE initiative, a joint effort of the UFT and the Department that has offered opportunities for schools to become mastery-based. However, most of the practices within mastery-based schools do not require waivers.

A Volunteer Strategy

“Our goal is to create a strategy where more and more schools want to turn to mastery-based learning,” explained Jeremy Kraushar. “We know that a compliance strategy will not work, so we are building a volunteer strategy.” So far it is working: the number of schools have doubled over the past year. Leadership from other parts of the district are coming to meetings to learn more about mastery-based learning and to consider what they can be doing to support it.

One of the Collaborative’s strategies is to form strong relationships with the divisions within the Department of Education that oversee the policies related to mastery-based learning. Brown explained, “Any time there is innovation, schools are going to butt up against the system. For example, grading policy can limit asynchronicity, in which students may be working on different performance levels or units at different times.” Thus, the Mastery Collaborative team has built bridges with the Office of Academic Policy to explore what is allowable or isn’t regarding grading, as well as to begin to shape solutions.

A Framework for Implementation

The Mastery Collaborative community has developed a shared language for talking about competency education in NYC with the Framework for Mastery Implementation–school-wide systems, curriculum & classroom planning, facilitation, and communication. The framework will be useful to schools trying to understand the school-wide systems and classroom practices, so it is included in detail below.

If you are new to competency-based education, it’s worth taking the time to watch the five videos at the MC website:

Advancing Mastery-Based Learning

In its first year, Mastery Collaborative developed working groups that bring cross-school expertise and ideas to bear on some of the more challenging issues: Curriculum Design in Math and ELA, Grading Policies & Software, Academic Policy and Culturally Responsive Education/Equity. Below are highlights of our conversations regarding some of these areas:

Curriculum Design: The Craft of Teaching

Schools have different starting points. Some have well-developed, cohesive pedagogical philosophies that shape the design of the school. For these schools, integrating mastery-based learning creates even more intentionality in instruction and assessment practices, and the transparency enables students to take more responsibility and have even more opportunity for choice. Other schools have primarily depended on the conventional model of direct instruction, individual teachers setting goals, proficiency and grading, teacher delivery of one curriculum, and extrinsic motivation.

Knowing that there was a range of starting points, Mastery Collaborative has designed its focus on introducing practices for the classroom and for the school. Joy Nolan described this as “introducing practices with philosophy around the edges. As teachers try new practices, it challenges assumptions and opens discussion about pedagogy.” She expanded, “Our schools are focusing on the craft of teaching. As in any craft, there is specific expertise to draw on, complemented by creativity. When teachers in a school have shared and explicit learning outcomes, curriculum can be thought of as designing and creating a set of learning experiences. The expertise teachers bring is rooted in their knowledge of the discipline, their range of instructional strategies, and their skill in assessing what students know, their misconceptions, and how to provide effective feedback.”

The Collaborative uses a range of techniques to help schools hear about each other’s practices. At a professional development session, they hold “publishing parties” in which schools open their laptops and share some of their tools and resources in the community’s digital Sandbox, walking around with a microphone asking, “And what is KAPPA International adding to the Sandbox today?” They have three-minute “speed rounds” where people quickly explain a practice they have been using or some strategy that is working with each other…and then move on to the next.

The Myth of Objectivity and Mastery-Based Grading

Much of the effort of the Mastery Collaborative is centered on the design and implementation of mastery-based grading. In discussing shortcomings of traditional grades, Brown noted that “once students see a number grade, they can’t see the feedback anymore.” She explained that in the traditional system, grades are often used to sort students, and sometimes there isn’t much feedback because there is no firm belief that all students can learn to a level of mastery. We need to think about how the way we communicate with students relates to the growth mindset. The focus should be on how we deliver feedback to best help kids learn, rather than as a mechanism for tracking. “What is the purpose of grading?” asked Brown. “Is it telling us something about a point in time, or can it help us to understand progress? We need to continue to press for more innovation and deeper alignment of grading practices with student learning.”

“One of the biggest fallacies is that number grades are objective,” continued Brown. “We think that because it is a number, it is inherently objective, but that isn’t true. Teachers develop totally different ways to assign numbers, they weigh things differently. There are psychological effects that are related to the process of being graded. It’s one of the most powerful signals we have and we need to make sure that it is both accurate and motivating.”

Transparency Begets Equity

“If it isn’t explicit, then it is inherently inequitable,” explained Kraushar. “When we allow the education system to be opaque, then we are tolerating subjectivity. Given the power of racial bias, this has the power to generate inequitable outcomes for students.” Brown expanded, “We need to think intentionally about what we are doing to help students develop their identities as learners. If we aren’t challenging our biases, we are at risk of labeling students, thus shaping their experience in school and their motivation.”

Making the connection back to grading, Brown emphasized, “We have to be aware of the impact of ranking students. Some students benefit from ranking, but what is the impact on the remaining ninety percent? There are many ways to recognize academic excellence without ranking students.” This kicked off a conversation about other ways we might recognize students: for their effort, for growth, for deeper learning, for learning from their mistakes. We could have bands rather than individual ranking. We could even rethink how we determine the culturally powerful role of valedictorian.

The Mastery Collaborative is increasing their focus on equity over the coming year. They’ve started with a small working group to explore culturally responsive education (CRE) and equity–and in the coming year, each Mastery Collaborative school will set and implement a goal to increase CRE/equity in some way. The focus is primarily on combining competency-based education and culturally responsive education as a means of increasing racial equity, reflecting the district’s emphasis to improve achievement for young men of color and the ongoing racial gap in graduation rates.

“All of us carry some types of bias with us,” said Kraushar. “The question for all of us educators across the system is whether we have processes and practices that will help uncover them. Mastery-based learning goes a long way toward offering many of those practices: standards-referenced grading, transparency, and more opportunities for students to express themselves and have choice within the curriculum. Equity depends on transparency and accountability.”

For more on the Mastery Collaborative, stay tuned for a discussion with John Duval, Executive Director of the Model Redesign Team at the NYC Department of Education.

Living Labs Schools

Member Schools

For more, see:


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