Few middle schoolers are as clued in to their mathematical strengths and weakness as Moheeb Kaied. Now a seventh grader at Brooklyn’s Middle School 442, he can easily rattle off his computational profile.
“Let’s see,” he said one morning this spring. “I can find the area and perimeter of a polygon. I can solve mathematical and real-world problems using a coordinate plane. I still need to get better at dividing multiple-digit numbers, which means I should probably practice that more.”
Moheeb is part of a new program that is challenging the way teachers and students think about academic accomplishments, and his school is one of hundreds that have done away with traditional letter grades inside their classrooms. At M.S. 442, students are encouraged to focus instead on mastering a set of grade-level skills, like writing a scientific hypothesis or identifying themes in a story, moving to the next set of skills when they have demonstrated that they are ready. In these schools, there is no such thing as a C or a D for a lazily written term paper. There is no failing. The only goal is to learn the material, sooner or later.
For struggling students, there is ample time to practice until they get it. For those who grasp concepts quickly, there is the opportunity to swiftly move ahead. The strategy looks different from classroom to classroom, as does the material that students must master. But in general, students work at their own pace through worksheets, online lessons and in small group discussions with teachers. They get frequent updates on skills they have learned and those they need to acquire.
Mastery-based learning, also known as proficiency-based or competency-based learning, is taking hold across the country. Vermont and Maine have passed laws requiring school districts to phase in the system. New Hampshire is adopting it, too, and piloting a statewide method of assessment that would replace most standardized tests. Ten school districts in Illinois, including Chicago’s, are testing the approach. In 2015, the Idaho State Legislature approved 19 incubator programs to explore the practice.
More than 40 schools in New York City — home to the largest school district in the country, with 1.1 million students — have adopted the program. But what makes that unusual is that schools using the method are doing so voluntarily, as part of a grass-roots movement. In communities where the shift was mandated — high schools in and around Portland, Me., for example — the method faced considerable resistance from parents and teachers annoyed that the time-consuming, and sometimes confusing, change has come from top-tier school administrators. Some contend that giving students an unlimited amount of time to master every classroom lesson is unrealistic and inefficient.
New York City Department of Education officials have taken a contrasting position. The city has a growing program called the Mastery Collaborative, which helps mastery-based schools share their methods around the city, even as they adopt different styles. To date, there are eight lab schools, whose practices are being tested, honed and highlighted for transitioning schools. M.S. 442 is one of them. Some struggling schools hope the shift will raise test scores. But the method is also growing in popularity among high-performing, progressive
schools, as well as those catering to gifted and talented students and newly arriving immigrants.
This fall, the Education Department plans to spread the method further, by inviting schools to see how the Mastery Collaborative works, even if they aren’t yet considering making the switch. They will be encouraged to attend workshops and tour schools, with the hope, one D.O.E. official said, that they will find elements that they can use in their own classrooms.
Several factors are driving this. The rise of online learning has accelerated the shift, and school technology providers have been fierce advocates. It’s no surprise that schools adopting the method are often the same to have invested heavily in education software; computers are often ubiquitous inside their classrooms.
Mastery-based learning can be traced to the 1960s, when Benjamin Bloom, a professor at the University of Chicago and an education psychologist, challenged conventional classroom practices. He imagined a more holistic system that required students to demonstrate learning before moving ahead. But the strategy was not widely used because it was so labor intensive for teachers. Now, with computer-assisted teaching allowing for tailored exercises and online lessons, it is making resurgence.
Government policy has also contributed to its adoption. Under the federal education bill passed in 2015, states are permitted to forgo single end-of-year subject tests for nuanced measures. In the mastery-based learning world, this is largely seen as a positive move.
Joy Nolan, one of the directors of New York’s Mastery Collaborative, said the method gives students more agency and allows them to gain traction, no matter their level. “The mastery approach really puts the focus on you and your growth,” she said.
Some of the schools she assists — like the North Queens Community High School — came to mastery-based learning as a way to help disillusioned and at-risk students.
“It’s the narrative we want to change,” said Winston McCarthy, the school’s principal. “We want to change the conversation from ‘I’m not successful at this’ to ‘This is where you are on the ladder of growth.’”
Mastery-based learning, of course, has its critics. Amy Slaton, a professor at Drexel University in Philadelphia who studies the history of science and engineering in education, worries that the method is frequently adopted to save costs. (When paired with computers, it can lead to larger classrooms and fewer teachers.)
Jane Robbins, a lawyer and senior fellow at the American Principles Project who has written critically about mastery-based education, said she finds the checklist nature of the system anti-intellectual. While it may work to improve math skills, it is unlikely to help students advance in the humanities, she said.
Others question the method’s efficacy. Elliot Soloway, a professor at the University of Michigan School of Education, contends that students learn by slowly building on knowledge and frequently returning to it. He rejects the notion that students have learned something simply because they can pass a series of assessments. He suspects that shortly after passing those tests, students forget the material.
“Mastery folks don’t understand the fundamentals of what learning is about,” Mr. Soloway said.
In any event, advocates argue, the current education system is not working. Too many students leave high school ill prepared for college and careers, even though traditional grading systems label many top performers. Last year, only 61 percent of students who took the ACT high school achievement test were deemed college-ready in English. In math, only 41 percent were deemed college-ready.
Even proponents say the system has its problems. Switching to mastery-based learning requires a great deal of coordination. “It’s not an overnight thing,” said Lisa Genduso, the math coach for M.S. 442. It can also meet with resistance from faculty members who aren’t keen on experimentation. The year M.S. 442 moved away from the traditional system, it lost seven teachers.
But Moheeb defended his school’s approach. It encourages students to “work on what they’re struggling with,” he said.
“It’s different for different kids,” Moheeb said with a shrug.
In New York, where students speak more than 200 languages and arrive in classrooms with varying degrees of proficiency, some schools adopted the method out of necessity.
At Flushing International High School, whose student body is dominated by recent immigrants, mastery-based learning lets students concentrate on learning English. This gets them speaking, reading and writing as quickly as possible, while also rewarding them for picking up academic skills and knowledge. In a biology classroom, for example, lab reports are evaluated on the student’s understanding of concepts as well as on a command of scientific vocabulary.
The Young Women’s Leadership School of Astoria educates girls who may become the first in their families to go to college. In addition to fulfilling Common Core requirements, assignments are designed to help students learn critical thinking and workplace skills. Students engaged in a group history project, for example, may need to demonstrate that they have learned to collaborate and investigate. For a solo science assignment, they may be asked to demonstrate that they can innovate.
At Moheeb’s middle school, the approach has been transformative. In the 2013-14 school year, 7 percent of its students read at grade level, and 5 percent met the state’s math standards. Two years later, 29 percent were proficient in English, and 26 percent proficient in math, pulling the school close to the city average.
This year, all the eighth graders at the school who took the algebra Regents exam and 85 percent who took the earth science exam were marked proficient. The scores signified a high point for M.S. 442, teachers said.
To make the system work, teachers used New York State curriculum guidelines and Common Core standards to develop a rubric of every skill students needed before they could move to the next grade. In Moheeb’s sixth-grade class, there were 37 skills designated in math and 37 in English. They included the ability to add and subtract decimals; identify, understand and describe unit rate; recognize story elements; and discern what is important in a text.
In lieu of grades, students are assessed on a color-coded scale: Red means not yet meeting the standard; yellow, approaching it; green, meeting a standard; and blue, exceeding it. The scale is designed to be visually appealing and to encourage students to think of learning as a process. To meet grade level for each skill, students need to prove three times that they have acquired it. They may explain to a teacher their process for working through problems as a way to show they understand the material. Or they may perform well on an online test or a quiz.
Progress throughout the year is cumulative, meaning that even if students don’t grasp something early on, if they learn it by the end of the year, they will get a “good” grade. The school also has an online point system for behavior.
Ms. Genduso, of M.S. 442, said the approach was introduced at a challenging time for the school. A third of the students at the school require special-education assistance and attend classes that include a number of high-performing students. Even with two teachers (one trained for special education), it was difficult to engage everyone.
“We were not reaching all of these kids,” Ms. Genduso said.
In late 2012, educators at the school were trying to think big. Housed on the second floor of a sprawling brick building on Hoyt Street, M.S. 442 was 14 years old and struggling with low test scores and declining enrollment. It had done a poor job of attracting families from the neighboring brownstones, and many of the teachers were dispirited. The school shed its name, New Horizons Middle School, and introduced computers. Some teachers began using computers for in-class lessons. Another group thought it would complement the student advising system. The changes led to conversations about what had been happening inside classrooms and whether a new approach was needed.
Eventually, the school decided to switch to mastery-based education. Still, the move was slow. First, the school offered more hands-on group activities. For a seventh-grade math unit on ratios and proportion, for example, the class opened a pretend catering company. Students practiced their math skills as they figured out pricing and discounts for their menus.
The next year, the school transformed its mentoring program. Students set behavioral goals and logged online. They could determine to be on time more often, do their homework more regularly or talk less in science class. Their mentors noted their goals and the progress made. The platform was a hit with students and with teachers, who believed it empowered children to think about their growth in new ways.
In the 2013-14 school year, educators at the school came up with a list of desired academic outcomes. If students could be motivated by an online log to stop talking in class, perhaps a log would motivate them to learn to write an introductory paragraph or add fractions.
Engaged by the project, Jared Sutton, a 27-year-old algebra teacher, helped develop a software program for grading called the Hive. It’s the program that Moheeb uses, via his iPhone or a classroom computer, when he wants to check his progress, which he does multiple times a day.
Parents, however, remained skeptical. While students received end-of-year report cards with their mastery points translated into percentage grades (necessary when applying to high school), many parents were confused by the frequent progress reports detailing dozens of outcomes for each subject. Some simply wanted to know whether their children were passing.
“There can be a real concern that they don’t understand,” said Noreen Mills, principal of M.S. 442. “But once they understand, they get on board.”
On a sunny morning last spring, the new approach was visible in a sixth-grade math class. Signs around the room reinforced the school’s philosophy: “Failing proves that you are trying,” one read; another, “Being wrong is the key to being successful.”
Students in T-shirts and hoodies organized into four groups. At one table, they worked on a conversion problem, trying to determine when a dog owner would need to buy more dog food. The dog owner had 45 pounds of kibbles, and the dog ate 10 ounces a day. The problem tested a math skill they would need to master by the end of sixth grade: “I can convert from one unit of measurement to another.”
“He’s confused,” one boy said of his seatmate, who had circled the correct answer but was puzzled by the procedure. “But at least he got the right answer.”
“I don’t think we should leave it at that,” said Priyanka Katumuluwa, their teacher, who leaned over their desks as she pointed to the problem. Both boys looked up at her, then down again at the page. They were listening intently.