In a compelling piece for the Washington City Paper, D.C. high school teacher Rob Barnett has confessed his anguish at passing students who haven’t mastered the content of his math courses and described his radical solution.
It’s called mastery learning. Barnett recorded all of his lessons, put them online and let each student move through them at his or her own pace. “They must show they understand one topic before advancing to the next,” he said. “I think of myself not so much as a teacher but as a facilitator of inquiry.”
This method is not new. I remember a Virginia high school that tried it 20 years ago. Barnett identified charter schools in Yuma, Ariz., and Chicago that are having success with it. It is a logical way to deepen the education of our children and, as Barnett discovered in his classes, inspire initiative. “They learn to assess their own understanding, to ask for help when they need it, and to teach themselves and their peers without my guidance,” he said.
But mastery learning is almost completely at odds with American school traditions. Barnett had difficulty, for instance, dealing with the required annual D.C. tests that assume everyone learns at the same pace.
A parent I know in Michigan found his public school system helpful at first, but it eventually reacted to his daughter’s fast pace under a makeshift mastery program as though the child had violated the dress code.
As Vipul Gupta tells the story, his daughter’s experience with mastery began innocently at the Grand Blanc school district. When the girl entered fifth grade, a test showed she was a year ahead of her class in math. She could take sixth grade at the school or, under Michigan law, could do an online course.
She chose online. When she completed sixth-grade math in a few months, she went ahead and did seventh-grade math, too. She asked to do the same in science. The school resisted at first, but eventually she was taking ninth-grade science as a sixth grader. She is now five years ahead of her grade in math and three years ahead in science. Her school also let her take an entrepreneurship course full of 11th- and 12th-graders at the district’s Career Institute.
Now, in seventh grade, she has been made to pay for the crime of getting too far ahead of her classmates. Almost everyone in her middle school takes six courses. This school year she was only allowed to take five.
“They refused to allow my daughter to take her second-year Spanish foreign-language class — a subject she adored and a fun break in her day, while we had a joy of speaking this at home — and instead make her sit in the library for one hour doing homework,” Gupta said.
According to Gupta, district officials said the entrepreneurship class put his daughter over the schools’ credit limit, an almost unheard-of barrier to learning I have never before encountered in any secondary school. Grand Blanc school officials did not respond to my requests for comment.
Barnett, who is leaving Washington soon for a teaching position in Europe, sees all kinds of ways mastery learning could spread, but he admits it will not be easy. “For as long as we can remember, including when we ourselves were students, we’ve taught in a specific way, and it’s hard for us even to imagine what a new system would look like,” he told me. “How will we classify students if not by age? How will we organize students if not by year-long courses?”
Gupta is ready for a change. Because of his daughter’s experience, he said, “my eyes have opened to how thinking outside the box and outside the traditional norms of a classroom environment at school can result in great challenge and growth.”
Given the listlessness of many U.S. schools, it would be a welcome shot of adrenaline to try mastery learning, as Barnett has. But educators will have to have the persistence and courage of Gupta’s daughter, rare qualities even in adults.