This past spring, I was proudly describing a performance assessment in which I had my ninth- and 10th-grade students map out their neighborhood using parallel and perpendicular lines. My colleague brought me down to earth. “That’s an eighth-grade standard,” she said, referring to the linear equations they needed to master in order to complete the assignment. She was correct in that many of my students had studied the material in middle school and had probably even passed relevant assessments, but they hadn’t remembered it by the time they reached my classroom. So, was I shortchanging them by not exposing them to new, more challenging content as my colleague was suggesting? Or was I supporting their individual and collective development by helping them master what they hadn’t retained? Was I setting my expectations too low or was I, as I prefer to think, providing them with a deeper, more applied learning experience? As a teacher in a personalized, mastery-based high school, I am constantly pondering questions like these.
Most schools in the United States were designed more than a century ago and operate on the assumption that students of the same age learn at the same rate, and should learn the same things at the same time. After decades of organizing schools and delivering content in this way, we know that this approach fails too many students across the academic spectrum. With the support of the Carnegie Corporation, my high school was specifically designed to be personalized. Personalized education is now supported in many states, including my home state of Rhode Island, and by many education philanthropies including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. Even our beleaguered secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, is a proponent. Personalized learning involves leaving behind “seat time” and instead putting students’ individual interests, strengths and needs at the heart of their learning experience. A competency, or mastery approach, is the holy grail of personalized learning because it allows students to go at their own pace and meets them where they are in their academic journey—not where they “should” be. In my classroom, I break down Common Core State Standards (CCSS) domains and standards into tiers of activities that gradually increase in depth of knowledge and rigor. Students who can successfully apply the most advanced concepts in a standard like “solve problems using right triangles” are fully proficient. They can, for example, work with others to determine the height of a tree on our campus using trigonometry. Other students who understand more standard applications—for example, identifying the sine ratio—will pass but only be partially proficient. Instead of a simple letter grade, which averages students’ skills over a number of learning standards, I provide detailed descriptions of student strengths and gaps through mastery-based grading. And I ask students to take ownership for their own learning and track their progress, using Schoology, a learning management system, and the Grid Method, a mastery learning technique that helps teachers organize students working at their own pace.
A Difficult Transition
Transitioning from standards-based curriculum, instruction and assessment to a mastery-based system is one of the biggest challenges for the personalized learning movement. A recent RAND study showed that schools
struggle to find the time, flexibility and support needed to make these transitions. At my school, I experienced two major challenges when I developed mastery-based learning targets and rubrics based on the CCSS. First, I found I could not address all of the CCSS with the depth that mastery required, and second, I felt I was privileging specific content at the expense of larger, 21st-century skills like problem-solving, collaboration and critical thinking. Currently, I am trying to balance my approach both by focusing on the mastery of Common Core skills and content that are also heavily emphasized in the SAT and by addressing other content in a more traditional way. Still, as my colleague pointed out, this forces me to make difficult choices between coverage of content standards and depth of learning focused on larger skills and practices. Personalized learning is so appealing. Education is more meaningful when it is personally relevant, and our kids are not one-size-fits-all. But while it makes common sense, we cannot just layer it on top of the Common Core and expect it to succeed. We may need to rethink the Common Core standards and be willing to trim the amount of content in the traditional math canon, so we can help students truly master critical math content. We may need to reassess whether the traditional high school math pathway from algebra to calculus, which privileges abstract content, is the math that is most conducive to developing mastery. And we may need to work closely with higher education to reconsider what constitutes “college-ready” in math. Personalized, mastery-based education raises challenging questions about everything from equity to curriculum, from college preparation to the Common Core State Standards themselves. And if we truly want to personalize learning, we must be willing to grapple with those questions.