Welcome to Mastery Communications Week! 

From August 14-18th we'll be sharing mastery resources and insights from across the country to help schools plan their communications strategies. See our flyer for details and a snapshot of the content we'll share each day. And please share your best resources and thoughts on Twitter using the hashtag #masteryweek. 
  • Supporting Educators as Ambassadors for Mastery-based Learning Teachers tell us ‘we know so much more about supporting students, it would feel like malpractice to go back to how we used to teach,’ and parents will tell you ...
    Posted by Angela Duffy
  • Q&A with Sami Smith, Middle School Mentor Teacher at CICS West Belden Mastery Communications Week, from August 14-18, will surface resources, tools, and best practices for communicating about mastery-based learning to parents, and other community members. Several national organizations will ...
    Posted by Angela Duffy
  • Q&A with Colleen Collins, Director at CICS West Belden Mastery Communications Week, from August 14-18, will surface resources, tools, and best practices for communicating about mastery-based learning to parents, and other community members. Several national organizations will ...
    Posted by Angela Duffy
  • Join the Mastery Communications Twitter chat on 8/16 at 3pm ET It’s the mid-way point for mastery week. Today we are sharing how to use an equity lens when planning CBE communications. At 3pm EST today, August 16, join ...
    Posted Aug 16, 2017, 10:55 AM by Angela Duffy
  • The Mission and the Message How we found our ‘why’—and how we’ve used it to create urgency and common purpose in our community’s quest for greater educational equity.  This post originally appeared ...
    Posted Aug 16, 2017, 6:24 AM by Julianna Charles Brown
Showing posts 1 - 5 of 13. View more »

Supporting Educators as Ambassadors for Mastery-based Learning

posted by Angela Duffy

Teachers tell us ‘we know so much more about supporting students, it would feel like malpractice to go back to how we used to teach,’ and parents will tell you the same thing: ‘we never want our students to go back to the other way, because this way leads to independence and real learning.’”

These words from Ellen Hume-Howard, former curriculum director for Sanborn Regional School District (NH), paint a picture of a school community in which parents and teachers speak a common language and pursue common goals for student learning. However, as Ellen is quick to add, this partnership is the result of years of effort. Educators and parents came to value innovations like mastery-based learning because they took the time to forge relationships, build trust, and co-create new definitions of student success.

Ellen is one of many educators in the Next Generation Learning Challenges (NGLC) community who has experience in communicating with stakeholders about mastery-based learning. We spoke to three school leaders and the authors behind Communications Planning for Innovation in Education to learn about their communications strategies and particularly the role of teachers in this work. They tell us that communicating effectively about innovations, and especially the “why” behind them, is essential. Classroom educators are the most visible—and powerful—ambassadors for next gen learning models to the broader school community.

To explore the key role teachers play as communicators, we tapped into the knowledge and experience of NGLC school leaders and other innovators to help us answer these questions:

  • Why are classroom educators so important to the work of communicating about innovative teaching and learning?
  • What kinds of support should schools provide to educators to do it well?

Classroom Educators Tell the Story of “Why?”

With another school year about to begin, educators are working full tilt to get ready. Principals are preparing professional learning activities and reviewing student data, while teachers are counting supplies, planning lessons, and setting up their classrooms. The “back to school” season is a tradition, a familiar part of the rhythm of teaching and learning familiar to parents from when they were in school.

the more schools engage with mastery-based learning and other student-centered, personalized innovations, the less learning looks like it did when parents were students. In place of rows of students at desks, we see groups collaborating around a table on a student-designed project. Instead of “all eyes on the teacher” as the sole repository of knowledge, we see learners setting goals and making choices as they navigate personalized pathways. Traditional letter grades give way to mastery-based measures, like the competency badges used in Elizabeth Forward School District (PA) or Sanborn schools’ “running report card.” Even time-honored concepts like “grade level” become less distinct.

Colleen Collins, director of Chicago International Charter School (CICS) West Belden, a K–8 charter school, puts it this way: “You’ve seen the pictures of classrooms from the 1920s, the 1950s, and even today. For a long time it was a lot of teacher heavy lifting, and students were not doing the work of learning. They were well behaved and could say what they were doing, but not what they were learning. It was about compliance.”

Like other innovative schools, CICS West Belden has committed to a personalized learning model with new goals for student learning. “Those days are long gone when just doing the work put in front of you was enough, either in school or as an adult,” Colleen explains. “Now it’s about helping students know who they are. Once a child can articulate what kind of a learner they are, what makes them curious, there’s such a different investment in learning. Kids take the wheel.”

Mastery learning looks different because it is different. Caitlyn Herman, head of schools for Summit Public Schools in the Bay Area, calls to mind the challenges these changes pose for communicating with stakeholders: “People will think about their own experiences in school, so everyone who walks through the door needs to be reminded of the ‘why’ of what you are doing and what the parent wanted from the school. It’s about students having the skills, habits, and dispositions to pursue their passion.”

As the primary points of contact for students and families, classroom educators represent your school model every day. Kira Keane, a partner at The Learning Accelerator, believes that “teachers are one of the most trusted messengers for parents and the community about what is happening in the classroom.” They are also the ones who will hear the “why?” questions.

Glossy brochures and interactive websites can be useful for communicating to the wider community, but the consensus among the leaders we talked to was clear: investing time to support teachers pays off—and not just for improving communication. Conversations about a school’s vision, goals for student learning, and a shared theory of action not only help educators better articulate about innovative practices, but this communal sense-making also improves the practices themselves.

Time to Think, Together

School leaders tell us that effective communication begins with providing educators with a common vision and messages aligned with that vision. Janice Vargo, associate partner at Education Elements, expresses it this way: “There's nothing more frustrating to teachers than when it's unclear why their district is moving in a certain direction, how this change relates to other initiatives or focus areas, and why the district or school thinks this is best for students.”

If schools want to equip educators to answer the “why” questions about the learning environment, pedagogy, assessments, and reports on student progress, school leaders need to build capacity in teachers to understand, own, and communicate about what they are doing.

Capacity-building takes time, but if you are serious about developing an effective communications strategy, this is not a corner to cut. “Allow teachers the time and space to find their voices; storytelling is one of the most effective ways to quickly and effectively communicate important messages AND emotions,” adds Kira, highlighting the role of feelings in how people experience change and innovation.

“You can never over articulate the mission,” Colleen tells us. And when it comes to supporting teachers to communicate about your next generation learning model, “practice and ownership are needed-—have you ever tried to give someone else’s presentation?”

Our experts also suggest giving teachers time to find their voices and platforms to tell their stories. For example, educators can practice communicating about their teaching and the thinking behind it to a wider audience via social media, podcasts, blogs, and guest columns.

Ways to Build Educators’ Communication Competence

Though all of the experts I talked with agree that dedicating time to help educators “own” the mission is vital, each school or district finds its own ways of using that time and building that capacity. Here are a few examples of how it might look:

  • Sanborn Regional Schools invest in creating strong teacher leadership structures where educators can grapple with the “why” questions. Educators collaborate daily in professional learning communities (PLCs), and the traditional department head has been replaced by a PLC lead. Using this configuration, peers engage with research and build expertise in practices associated with their student-centered model, such as learning progressions, performance assessment, and developing student agency. They also create rubrics, with parent input, designed to be meaningful to a student and parent audience. “This expertise has given our teachers confidence,” Ellen explains. “We have focused on using research as the basis for decisions, and teachers rely on research to communicate” with families.

  • At CICS West Beldeneducators collaborate to organize events in which parents and students learn about—and even live—the mission. For example, teachers design Innovation Nights for families to explore key features of the school’s model. Parents also get the opportunity to experience learning as the students do, as with this Tech Innovation Scavenger Hunt “Bingo” game:
  • Another way CICS West Belden’s educators help families live the model is via flipped conferences, in which students and parents drive the conversations about data, learner profiles, and emotional growth. Teachers are trained not only to explain and answer questions about the mission but also how to act as listeners and facilitators, modeling the student-centered practices and student agency of the classroom. In other words, there’s more showing than telling about practice in this communication strategy.

  • Summit Public Schools leverage multiple one-on-one touch-points with parents throughout the year, and Caitlyn shares that “every one starts with a refresh and an explanation of how what we are doing right now connects to the mission.” Considerable professional learning time is spent to “deeply embed a knowledge of the mission to make educators the ambassadors.” In Summit’s model, teachers serve as mentors for a select group of students. They receive in-depth training and support for this role, which includes frequent contact with parents, as well as 45-minute family meetings twice a year. Talking points, role-playing, and even school leader “ride-alongs” prepare each educator to serve as a mouthpiece for the Summit model. For each touch-point, “part of the task is always connecting to goals for student success...every moment of interaction is a reframing of that.”

Communications Resources for Educators

As these examples illustrate, deep understanding of how personalized, learner-centered practices align with your mission and definition of student success cannot be accomplished with a “one and done” professional learning event. However, once educators have done the foundational thinking to own the mission and model, school leaders can provide time and resources to support them in communicating the “what” and the “why” of next generation learning.

For parent events like Back-to-School Night at CICS West Belden, school leaders create a "shell" slide deck about the school’s mission and goals. Educator teams then work with an instructional coach to customize the presentation for their grade levels and teaching team. This process results in what Colleen calls “a collaboratively created slide deck for common language and consistency, but each teacher delivers it as his or her own.”

Other school leaders provide educators with resources like this Curriculum FAQ  and messaging document from Sanborn, which define and give the “why” behind competency grading. CICS West Belden’s Teacher Talking Points: Standards-Based Grading explains, in English and in Spanish, what competency-based grading is and how it can inform educators’ conversations with parents about student progress.

Materials that were originally conceived as public-facing documents can also be useful to provide language to educators. This resource from Charleston County Public Schools (SC) ties personalized learning to goals for student learning like problem-solving and contributing to the common good. This FAQ invites community members of the Fairbanks (AK) North Star Borough School District to ask questions about personalized learning to build an online bank of shared community knowledge

Last of all, do not overlook the power of peers. Members of the NGLC community are eager to share what they’ve learned about working together to craft and communicate answers to the “what” and “why” of their innovations.

For more on communicating about personalized, mastery-based learning, see the resources below:

Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Forward School District, Pittsburgh, PA.

Q&A with Sami Smith, Middle School Mentor Teacher at CICS West Belden

posted by Angela Duffy

Mastery Communications Week, from August 14-18, will surface resources, tools, and best practices for communicating about mastery-based learning to parents, and other community members. Several national organizations will share their thoughts, and we will hear from practitioners in their own words through a Q&A series. This one features Sami Smith, a Middle School 
Mentor Teacher at CICS West Beldena premier K-8 urban charter school in Chicago's Belmont-Cragin neighborhood and part of the Chicago International Charter School network and managed by Distinctive Schools.

1. How do you describe mastery-based/personalized learning at your school?

Mastery-based learning is different than traditional learning. It’s is a student-centered process as opposed to traditional teaching, which is more one-and-done. With traditional learning, teachers teach, kids learn, then they do a “thing”—like a paper, project, or tests. Then teachers move on and whatever grade students get, that’s what they have for the unit, forever. With mastery- based learning, teachers move on because we have a pace but students’ grades are not written in stone. They can (and should) have conversations with their teachers to learn what they can do to improve. I love it because, in this system, I give fewer “final grades” and give more formative feedback so that learning is a continual process. 

While some students may achieve mastery more quickly, some aren’t going to be there right away. They can take feedback from me and their peers to revise their work and attain the grade they want. Reaching mastery is not subjective. Students know when they do and do not meet standards. If they don’t, I work with them so they have next steps to do so.

2. What resources have been helpful in communicating about your approach?

We’ve got a suite of online platforms that our students use. It helps them self-direct their learning, with teacher support, and they have access to it all the time. These platforms help give us a common language throughout the school when we are talking to students and parents about mastery.

When our school began the shift to mastery, we looked at the Personalized learning working definition developed by the Gates Foundation. We started there and each teacher picked one of the four quadrants to focus on so we didn’t have to do everything all at once. We were able to pick one we wanted to do better or wanted to start working on. We all set a goal. For example, I decided to focus flexible learning environments. In my science classroom, I used to have lab tables and that was it. I realized that the set up was not conducive to how I teach. We don’t only do labs, so why is my room like that? So I reworked the set-up of the room to reflect better how students learn.

3. How does your leadership team equip you to talk about mastery to students and families? How do teachers support each other?

It goes back to what I said about setting a single goal. We didn’t start this whole hog. Our leadership reached out to teachers and asked for our input and if we wanted to try something new. Those of us who were interested helped to pilot a multi age class. I think it was successful because it was not pushed on anyone; top down doesn’t work. It has been a gradual process that we all feel ownership over. Since we helped build it, we can talk about it comfortably with any audience or stakeholder. 

Our administration also provided us with time to plan and get on the same page. On Wednesday, students have early dismissal and teachers have three hours of PD or planning time. That first year, we used that time to set growth plans for ourselves. Administration led all PD and assessed our readiness level. And, significantly, there was no stigma for teachers who took longer to get there. There was a recognition that it’s hard to change what you’re used to. Our administration was sure to meet teachers where they were. Which is also how we approach student learning. So it was essentially modeling the experience kids get. This ability to prepare fostered more buy-in, which in turn made teachers feel comfortable talking about our mastery approach. 

For new teachers, we have a new teacher institute two weeks before school starts. There is an introduction to social-emotional learning, mastery, groupings, expect

ations, etc. Additionally, our instructional coaches work with whole grade teams. They work with us on goal setting and refining our practice. The support is more one-on-one, as opposed to our whole school community building a vision for personalized learning, which was what we did at the beginning. 

4. How do you involve students in communicating about mastery?

Letting students have a voice and share their experiences is really important. We often have student panels speak to visitors. Students talk about everything we’re doing so eloquently—about how they learn at their own pace, and their work on habits of success. These panels help our visitors understand what’s going on in the classroom, as it can often be hard to make sense of if you are not used to it.

Students are also helpful in explaining mastery to parents. Our student population is 98% Latino/a and many parents only speak Spanish. While most of the staff speaks a little Spanish, there’s still a bit of a language barrier. Especially with words that are specific to mastery. Since students deeply understand mastery, they are well equipped to speak to parents about it. This goes back to what I was talking about in terms of a common language and shared understanding. Parents also have access to the online platforms where everything is housed, which is part of our dedication to full transparency.

We also conduct student-led conferences. We view these conferences as more of a conversation between the teacher, parent, and student. It is mandatory that the student is present as we believe it invests them in their own learning and is in the spirit of constant feedback. We’ve also got a back-to-school night that introduces parents to the content and process for the year as well as a technology night where students are explaining mastery to their parents. 

5. What are some common misconceptions about mastery and how do you talk to parents about that?

The most common misconception is about homework. I don’t give homework unless we haven’t finished something in the classroom. So, many parents ask why I don’t give homework.

I know that my students have stuff to do—extracurricular activities and a family life and responsibilities—but more than that, my philosophy is that learning is a process that students should own and that they can do anytime, anywhere. I think my students should be studying about an hour a night—watching videos, doing research. But I don’t think kids will all be working on the same things at the same time. They decide when their assessments happen and they know what they need to do, so they should be working on tasks with this in mind. And I am here for support for every student. For example, if a student doesn’t master a standard, I’ll send links, resources, reading, etc. I always emphasize to parents that the work their student is doing is not the same as other students, and it shouldn’t be. Some parents don’t quite understand since it is not what they are used to. The more I explain this with consistency and talk about our expectations, parents feel the intentionality behind what we’re doing.

Another misconception is that if a student doesn’t get a grade in something, they are failing. Parents don’t always realize that their students has the ability to fix any grade and to take an assessment at a time of their choosing. If they are not satisfied with their something, they can always improve it. With hard work and effort and support, students you can get whatever grade they want.

Q&A with Colleen Collins, Director at CICS West Belden

posted by Angela Duffy   [ updated ]

Mastery Communications Week, from August 14-18, will surface resources, tools, and best practices for communicating about mastery-based learning to parents, and other community members. Several national organizations will share their thoughts, and we will hear from practitioners in their own words through a Q&A series. This one features Colleen Collins, Director of CICS West Beldena premier K-8 urban charter school in Chicago's Belmont-Cragin neighborhood and part of the Chicago International Charter School network and managed by Distinctive Schools. 

1. How do you describe mastery-based/personalized learning at your school?

When we looked at our students, we saw that each student had unique strengths and areas of growth. For example, our data provided information that allowed us to identify students that needed additional supports to attain mastery, as well as students that were exceeding mastery in several areas. With this data, it became clear that we needed to develop an instructional model that could personalize learning and support flexible grouping and assessment—something that our teaching team does well.

In addition to academics, we know that our students have different needs as individuals. That’s why we often refer to relationship building as the heart of our personalized learning model. In building strong relationships with students, we get know them as learners and people. This allows us to empower our students, so they’ll demonstrate their learning in a way that works well for them. It also lets us help students figure out who they are as learners so they can, in turn, advocate for themselves inside and outside of the classroom.

Students are graded against our end of year expectations. At first, it was a big shift for parents and guardians to see competencies instead of letter grades, and when we started using standards-based grading in the 2011-12 school year, we had a mechanism to translate that to a letter grade. Today, we only use standards-based grading on report cards, and it’s been increasingly important to communicate clearly and effectively with parents about this shift.

In order to successfully transition to standards-based grades, it began by collaborating with our teachers and revisiting why we calculate and report grades. As a community, we decided that the purpose of grading students is so they, and their parents, understand academic progress. With our standards-based approach, we can communicate more effectively where students are academically. Competencies, such as effort, attendance, homework, and participation, are part of an additional conversation with parents. Our parents never see one grade that encompasses both academics and behavior. Overall, this has been a change for our teachers as well, and we’ve supported them by providing access to information and opportunities to work alongside an instructional coach when having parent conversations and looking at student work.

2. What resources have been helpful in communicating about your approach?

Recently, to describe personalized learning, we’ve found this infographic from New Schools Venture Fund very useful. We also have an info sheet 

that very clearly lays out for parents and community members how we approach standards-based grading. Teachers often refer to this info sheet when talking about our mastery-based grading philosophy. The info sheet also has a section in Spanish since most of our parents’ first language is Spanish, and we feel that offering this information in their native language can increase understanding. My teachers and I have also used individual Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA) data to demonstrate student growth in our parent communications, and it has become an invaluable resource for us.

3. Describe your communications strategy

—what resources and channels do you use?

First and foremost, our communications strategy is centered around our united enthusiasm about our vision, as well as why we are doing this work. We make sure that everyone feels confident to communicate our shared vision, and always refer back to the “Why behind the work.”

Additionally, communications to parents is important and includes three parent-teacher conferences per year. One focuses on report cards, the second on NWEA data, and the third is in preparation for students’ end of the year assessments. Each conference begins with a 2-minute explanation of personalized learning and the origin of our school’s shift to a personalized learning model. As part of these conversations, we also listen to parents. This helps us pull them in as collaborators and lets us glean more data about their child as a learner. For example, we may ask parents questions like “when does your child come home the happiest?” This allows us to flesh out the profiles of our students, and get to know them more so we can serve them better. Once our students reach middle school, they begin to take ownership over these conferences. The goal is that they will do more of the talking than their teacher when it comes to discussing their progress.

We also hold parent events throughout the year, such as Innovation Nights, where parents visit their child’s classrooms. Teachers plan activities during Innovation Nights, which makes each classroom a little different. We’ve had teachers do interesting and creative things, such as I remember a Bingo Board. On the Bingo Board, parents checked off boxes by completing activities that students do each day, like log in to our school’s personalized learning platform, complete a math task, etc.

4. What is the role of teachers in conveying these messages to students and families? 

Teachers are our main messengers when it comes to talking about personalized learning. We recognize that our amazing teachers are at different levels of readiness in talking about our work so we’ve developed resources and experiences to support them. For example, we collaboratively worked with teachers on a slide deck that captures common language and drives consistency in how we talk to parents, and the aforementioned info sheet is a useful tool as well.

However, we think it is important for each teacher to drive conversations with parents in his or her own words. So the deck and the info sheet are starting points. From there, instructional coaches support teachers to customize their communications approach, and teachers act as the main drivers of parent and student conversations.

5. How do you equip teachers to talk about mastery?

We provide teachers with training and resources to talk about mastery without scripting them. We support them to own their communications approach, provide resources to help them develop language that works for them, and give them room to practice and get familiar with the systems and language so that they can talk about our work consistently and broadly.

Join the Mastery Communications Twitter chat on 8/16 at 3pm ET

posted Aug 16, 2017, 10:55 AM by Angela Duffy

It’s the mid-way point for mastery week. Today we are sharing how to use an equity lens when planning CBE communications. At 3pm EST today, August 16, join us for one hour to chat Moderated by Chris Sturgis. Educators from across the country will talk about how these topics interact and share their thoughts and best practices.

Use the hashtag #masteryweek tap into the conversation and share your thoughts!

New to twitter chats? Follow these simple guidelines:


  1. Take some time to review our questions. It will be useful to have some answers typed up in advance.

    1. Q1: How does mastery drive equity?

    2. Q2: How can mastery approaches empower students?

    3. Q3: How can schools use mastery and equity effectively in their communications?

  2. Prepare a question of your own to ask during the Q&A.

  3. Prepare to share resources that you love on mastery and equity

Today @3pm

  1. Search for the #masteryweek hashtag on Twitter at 3pm on 8/16.

  2. Be sure that you are following the “Latest” tweets.

  3. Look out for tweets from @sturgis_chris

  4. When Chris posts a question, retweet, reply, and hear what others have to say.

    1. We will use the Q1:A1 format, so be sure to put A# in front of your answers to any questions.

The Mission and the Message

posted Aug 16, 2017, 6:15 AM by Julianna Charles Brown   [ updated Aug 16, 2017, 6:24 AM ]

How we found our ‘why’—and how we’ve used it to create urgency and common purpose in our community’s quest for greater educational equity. 
This post originally appeared on the Mastery Collaborative blog

By Julianna Charles Brown, Jeremy Chan-Kraushar, Joy Nolan, and Patrick G. Williamson of the Mastery Collaborativea program of NYCDOE’s Office of Postsecondary Readiness 

Any school that has embarked on shifting to mastery-based teaching and learning can tell you that messaging and mission are vital to this complex endeavor—which affects every aspect of teaching, learning, assessment, and school culture. A clear and powerful mission inspires all stakeholders to connect to and invest in the work more deeply and authentically. Without a clear mission, the work of a school or any organization is susceptible to a lack of focus, resistance from within, and confusion in implementation. As a leader, it’s hard to call the shots without a guiding mission. As a member of a community, it is necessary to have clarity about what’s happening and why.

A strong mission statement articulates the ‘why’ that powers the work. Great missions connect the day-to-day operations of an organization with a desired larger impact, and ideally, all stakeholders can contribute to its creation. Once a strong mission is developed, it should then become fundamental to the way you speak about your work. When taking on large and complex endeavors—like transitioning away from traditional education to mastery-based models—the ‘why’ must be meaningful and inspiring enough to justify the sustained focus required to accomplish multidimensional school change over several years’ time. In working with our school partners, we help to co-create communications materials and provide training that supports school leaders and staff in talking to parents, students, community partners and others about their school's mastery-based systems. We also model the kind of mission-driven communications that practitioners can use to think about their own communications approach.

How we found our ‘why’

We started the Mastery Collaborative (MC) in 2015-16, to form a community for dozens of schools across New York City that were implementing mastery-based shifts in relative isolation. We dedicated that first year to creating a lively community of practice with and for member schools, and learning from them about mastery implementation models around the city. While visiting schools, we noticed a distinct feel in more advanced competency-based schools. There was positive energy in the air, and there was a shift in the adult/student power dynamic—as one school leader put it, “Students here have lots of choice and freedom, and lots of responsibility to their own learning and to our school community.” 

How does mastery transform school for students and teachers? from Mastery Collaborative on Vimeo.

In these schools, students regularly described what they were learning and why and were able to pinpoint how they could improve; we were seeing the self-confidence and assurance of students who valued school and felt they belong there, who were were empowered to own their learning—and we were seeing educators who believe in the young people they work with, and who understand that power is not a zero-sum game. Helping students find their power as learners only makes a class more compelling and powerful for them. Giving up a position as a lecturer at the front of the room only means finding more power as a facilitator of students’ learning. By the conclusion of MC year one, a hypothesis was forming: that there was a unique connection between mastery-based shifts, culturally responsive practices, and equity. To share out these ideas, we made program videos such as Why make the shift to mastery-based learning? and How does mastery transform school for students and teachers? 

Why make the shift to mastery-based learning? from Mastery Collaborative on Vimeo.

We began our second year knowing we had to explore the connection between mastery, cultural responsiveness, and equity. The MC community of schools eagerly joined in, digging deeper into the why of mastery learning, and the philosophy that both demands and powers these complex shifts.

This definition of educational equity has been meaningful to our team as we explore how mastery and CRE together can create more equitable learning for young people.

In year 2, we asked each MC Member schools to create a goal for infusing CRE into their mastery-based practices. Additionally, we asked everyone in our community of educators to attend anti-bias training called 'Talking about race and mastery." We set up a series of dates for small session of this training, hoping everyone could find a time to come together to explore the intersections of race and schooling. We also facilitated a working group that met online and in person across a year to explore the intersections of mastery and CRE. This group developed the Equity Snapshot, which beings to detail the ways that CRE and mastery intersect. By popular demand, we also started the yearly MC Summer Institute this past July with a Day 1 deep dive on CRE and mastery. Here are the resources from that day.

Our school-based community members contributed reactions, opinions, and ideas around our mastery-and-equity hypothesis. At trainings, gatherings, and site visits, we invited and made time for conversations and written input about the relationships between mastery, cultural responsiveness, and equity. We made a practice of synthesizing, incorporating, and sharing practitioners’ ideas about philosophy and practices. 

We learned so much from and with educators at mastery based schools across the city, who delved into exploring CRE and mastery: administrators, schools counselors, and teachers implementing mastery in our schools. In our anti-bias trainings and working group sessions, certain elements of mastery rose to the top as most closely aligned to academic research on culturally responsive education:
  • Transparency: path to success is clear and learning outcomes are relevant to students' lives and interests. Shared criteria reduce opportunity for implicit bias.
  • Changing power dynamics: facilitation shifts refocus the roles of students and teachers to include flexible pacing, inquiry-based, collaborative approach to learning. Students drive their own learning, and teachers coach them.
  • Positive learning identity: growth mindset and active learning build agency and affirm students’ identities as learners (academics, race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, etc.) 
These findings helped explain the distinct student-centered culture we noticed in Year 1 in the longest-practicing mastery schools - and contributes to the why for the complex work of creating effective mastery systems that are culturally responsive. Our Year 2 exploration of CRE and mastery led us toward the development of this community mission:

The Mastery Collaborative supports, advocates for, and documents the use of mastery-based and culturally responsive 
practices to create more equitable environments in New York City schools. 

Armed with this clear and powerful new mission, our communication strategy came into clearer focus. Now it is easier to build coalitions with others who value this work. Our mission has created a sense of urgency and a through-line for all we do.

Spreading the urgency of our message

One example of how we tied together our evolving understanding of the ability of mastery to increase equity in schools was the creation of a program video, ‘Why We Do The Work.’

Mastery Collaborative - Why We Do This Work from Mastery Collaborative on Vimeo.

This video highlights the voices of students, teachers, administrators, and experts from the field in hopes of connecting these dots for a wider audience. Students and teachers reflecting on past experiences in traditional settings and provides context for shifting to a more culturally responsive approach to mastery-based teaching and learning. 

The video lays out our organization’s vision through quotes from Chris Sturgis of CompetencyWorks and members of the Mastery Collaborative team. Constructing a short video to translate the urgency of the work was difficult work, and was possible only after our yearlong process of inviting co-creation of our mission stance across our community. We hope that the short video can assist in crystallizing our focus and mission for all stakeholders, and can be used to galvanize the urgency this work for the MC community and beyond.

Aligning your mission to your message

The shift to mastery-based education is complex. It requires shared commitment to “unlearn” old ideas, approaches, and systems—and to embark on a long-term, coordinated effort with a multitude of stakeholders. A mission that is clear and aspirational provides common context, clear direction, and justification for sustained effort across a school community and across several years of change management. A mission is a filter for everything your organization or school does or might do, and a rudder to keep the course set in the best direction. So how do you create a mission that will win hearts and minds, and stand the test of time?

Here are some things practitioners can keep in mind when creating or iterating on their school's mission statement:
  • Co-create your mission statement with valued stakeholders, inviting the input and expertise of everyone in the group, when engaging in any complex philosophical change. Hear out their reservations and concerns, as well as their enthusiasm and willingness.
  • Create a mission your whole community can buy into, but that can also be tailored to different audiences. Each member of your school community has a different role in pushing the work forward, and a strong shared mission will keep those efforts cohesive. 
  • Incorporate a range of voices and perspectives from across your organization as you communicate your mission to new or larger audiences. This helps to communicate the buyin your mission has, as well as how it matters to and affects various stakeholders. 
Across the MC community, there is a great urgency to our work—so the way that we talk about our mission is of utmost importance. Across our community, we seek to create to conditions for students to understand and own their trajectory as learners, and to experience the motivation and joy in learning for the thrill of learning itself. We want our students to feel that their identities are seen, understood, and valued within their schools. We need to be transparent with students in regards to what they need to improve on to achieve success in any given classroom. We need to build system capacity and write policies to support this work. We need to keep seeking new allies and partners in this work, to better serve those young people who stand to benefit most, to the extent that we get it right. Your organization may share some of these urgencies, or may have other important work to accomplish. How you message your mission will partly determine your degree of success.

The Power of Student Voice: Q&A with Students

posted Aug 16, 2017, 5:21 AM by Julianna Charles Brown

Mastery Collaborative (MC) works with 40+ mastery-based middle and high schools around New York City. In the 2016-17 school year, our community of practitioners focused on understanding and using culturally responsive education (CRE) together with mastery practices. CRE asks us to actively welcome young people’s identities, experiences, and interests into school, and to empower learners socially and academically. In striving for equitable and responsive learning environments for the children of NYC, we knew we needed models. And, we knew the students would be invaluable partners. How can we jk how successful we are in attempts to be responsive—unless the students themselves tell us?  

Student voice can be proof positive of effective change—and a powerful driver of new practices. When your school needs to know how well change is working, ask the experts, the students—they will tell you what is what! Learning what matters to young people can give us adults clarity and focus, and can help great work spread. So, as we from MC HQ make the rounds to schools, we are often ask students to reflect back what’s meaningful about their school experiences—and we find it useful to listen, and to share out what they say. The students make the case best for themselves.

The short interview below is an example. MS 250/West Side Collaborative Middle School has dedicated efforts to combining CRE and mastery-based learning. These students’ words illuminate the power of this work for educators from New York City and beyond—wherever adults are striving to create schools where learners feel they belong, can thrive, and are empowered to own and drive their own learning.

—Joy Nolan, MC Co-Director, August 15, 2017

WSC students in class with teacher Paul Kehoe, who helps to lead mastery/CRE work at the school

How would you describe the social community here at your school?

Sabrina, 8th grade

For us there's no discrimination, nothing against someone. We don't do that. We make friends based on everything we have in common; we don't discriminate about what you do. We all interact, no particular age, no grade—we don't care about any of that. Some of us have friends outside of school. We are all family.

Sakhr, 8th grade

Without school, you wouldn’t have as many friends as you have. We do community activities to help us make new friends. It's part of life. You need to interact with people to get places in life. Knowing people can help you reach your goals.

Every year is a different step. At first, I was not comfortable with anything. Then we did community activities and as soon as we started, I had new friends. Now it's 8th grade, and I know everyone, and we're cool. Academically, me and Sabrina sit next to each other every class. If I’m confused about my homework—like: what was it?—she will help me out.

Can you “be yourself” at your school, and why does that matter?

Ashley, 7th grade

In my classes, I get to really show myself and who I am, and my interests in school. This is what school is about—it's about being creative and collaborating with other people.

I wouldn't have what I have now, without coming here. I just came from my Readers and Writers class. We were sharing about how structure and word choice contribute to a poem. We were bringing ourselves into the class. We like to put ourselves into the work. We feel strongly that it’s important to put ourselves into it and really value the work we do, because it talks about the world and what is going on today. We are the next generation.

In my old school, I wasn't really able to be myself and show emotion. Here, I can go talk to a teacher about how I feel. I'm happy that I'm free to express myself to the people here. I would say to my teacher at my old school: I don't feel happy, I don't feel like I’m being myself. Here I can just be me. If I can't be me...I don't really know. If I can't be me then...what am I being? I think it's really important to be our true selves.

Sakhr, 8th grade

In my [previous school] kindergarten, we were coloring in dogs, and I wanted to make one purple because I really like purple, and the teacher got really mad. I know it sounds crazy but...Last year [here at WSC MS], this kid Tomas in 8th grade, he colored himself orange, and he had green hair, and I actually liked it, and we all liked it. The teacher said she liked it.

How does your school communicate to you about your learning?

Ashley, 7th grade

They have these little post-its and they write little things we need to work on and give it to us, one by one, so we know what to work on. We get those even before the progress report.

Last time I got my progress report I was confused by my math grade—I thought I did well on one subject. I emailed my teacher and said: Can I come up for lunch and talk about this? When I did, it was so much more clear. She actually told me how I could improve. It wasn't just: improve. It was: I'm going to talk with you and give you things so you can improve.

Mirea, 6th grade

We get draft report cards that let us know how we are doing while we can still change things. We have 3 things. We get draft report cards, and progress reports—a sheet that breaks down the standards you are learning—and then a final report card.

Sabrina, 8th grade

Like in math, I got a 4 in linear equations and 2.5 in something else. So it's kind of easy to see what we need help with. Then we have time to revise that and hand in work.

The draft report card averages grades. We get it and see at a glance what subject we need to work on. We can email the teacher, talk to them.

For the final report card, sometimes kids stumble with a subject or something, and it really helps to have the teachers there to help us get better at things.

How do teachers at your school build a relationship with students?

Sabrina, 8th grade

We have a lot of trust in the teachers and they will understand where we are coming from, they will help us out and communicate with us. If we couldn't be ourselves in this school, what would be the purpose? We couldn't choose a career without knowing who we are because it would be lost.

We can talk to any teacher; they are with us through thick and thin. You get to be yourself. We are all equal, all the same, and all different—[it’s] totally cool and amazing.

The teachers keep it real with us. They let you speak to them. They are open.

Ashley, 7th grade

The teachers can identify our work—they can say: This is so-and-so's, just from what we’ve said, because they know us.

Sakhr, 8th grade

They are talking our language so they understand what we are saying, and we understand what they say.

In math with Ms. Pierre, we were learning translations and she was joking and dancing, to the left, to the left.

We get to feel like: This is going to be fun! There's time to work and time to play around, and some teachers we are comfortable with and can understand the work even more.

Two types of learning: I want to learn this because and there is nothing after the because. Or I want to to learn this because it's fun and it's what I want to do.

In science class, we were learning about the atmosphere. We were focusing on eclipses and I was a little confused about why the angle of the earth affects that. Another teacher would say look it up but she took a globe and used a projector as a light and she actually showed me, so I understood it better.

Other times, it’s Okay, I need to work on my grammar, but the teacher will say: Thank you for saying it that way, instead of putting it in a negative way. When we revise, we do it all together.

West Side Collaborative Middle School Principal Novella Bailey
with math teacher Ms. Pierre (“To the left, to the left . . . “)

How do adults at your school work on behavior issues with students?

Ashley, 7th grade

In 6th grade, I was a little trouble maker. We have a guidance counselor, Ms. Perez, and she helps a lot. I used to misbehave a lot. In 7th grade, I get better grades and focus on my behavior. I went to Ms. Perez and she taught me and I went to my brother and asked him how he gets along in school—he's in high school now. He was like: I just listen to the teachers, and I started doing that.

Sabrina, 8th grade

A thing about this school [is that] you work harder and the teachers help you understand and they're easy to talk to. I think in 7th grade, there was one issue with a group of girls, a problem was going on. They do it one by one, you don't feel ganged up and pressured. The teachers are a role model to us.

A mural in the hall at West Side Collaborative Middle School, New York, NY

For more student voice from this wonderful school, here’s a 4-minute podcast on West Side Collaborative Middle School, focused on their mastery  assessment practices, from WNYC.org’s SchoolBook blog.

Q&A with Culturally Responsive Education Expert

posted Aug 16, 2017, 5:17 AM by Julianna Charles Brown

Jeremy Chan-Kraushar of NYCDOE's Mastery Collaborative interviews CRE expert Richard Haynes of NYCDOE's NYC Men Teach.

MCW Richard Haynes Interview from Mastery Collaborative on Vimeo.

Much Ado About Mastery-Based Transcripts: What Schools Need to Know and What They Can Do

posted Aug 15, 2017, 5:43 AM by Angela Duffy   [ updated Aug 15, 2017, 11:45 AM ]

This post originally appeared on Great Schools Partnership as part of Mastery Communications Week. See the original post here.

By Stephen Abbott

As more and more schools across the United States make the transition to proficiency-, competency-, or mastery-based systems* of instruction, assessment, grading, and academic reporting, one question often comes to dominate conversations in community after community: How will mastery-based grades and transcripts impact students when they apply to college? In fact, this question can become so emotionally urgent for some students and families that it can render all other issues—including all the many advantages and benefits of mastery-based learning—effectively invisible.

Over the past decade, the Great Schools Partnership and the New England Secondary School Consortium have worked with hundreds of districts, schools, colleges, and universities across New England and the country on a wide range of issues related to mastery-based education, grades, and transcripts. After thousands of hours of conversations, meetings, interviews, presentations, workshops, and working groups, we’re confident we’ve learned a thing or two about the topic. Here’s what you need to know about navigating the transition to mastery-based transcripts in your community.

The Facts
In the many conversations and meetings we’ve we had with colleges and universities, admissions officers have repeatedly told us—unequivocally—that mastery-based grades and transcripts will pose no problems whatsoever for applicants to their institutions. In fact, many of these institutions—including some of the most highly selective institutions in the world, such as Harvard and MIT—have provided public statements expressing this position. And the New England Board of Higher Education even published a position paper on mastery-based transcripts and college admissions that affirms what admission officers have been telling us for years: there is no cause for concern as long as sending schools provide some basic information and context explaining their systems.

Here’s what we’ve learned:

  • Concerns about mastery-based transcripts are largely unfounded. And more often than not, they are based on assumptions that are easily dispelled. In general, admissions offices will happily discuss any concerns that school leaders, guidance counselors, and prospective applicants and their families may have. If you have questions, pick up the phone. Or read this interview with Nancy Davis Griffin, Vice President for Enrollment Management and Student Affairs at the University of Southern Maine—she will tell you a lot of what you need to know.

  • College and university admissions offices receive—and always have—a huge variety of transcripts, school profiles, and other academic records, including transcripts from international institutions, foreign-language schools, home-schooled students, and countless non-traditional educational institutions and programs. In fact, it’s probably more accurate to say that there is actually no such thing as a “traditional” transcript, given that admissions offices have been receiving a huge variety of transcripts, and from every corner of the globe, for generations.

  • Colleges and universities simply do not discriminate against applicants based on the grading system or transcripts of their sending school, as long as the school’s documentation clearly presents and describes its policies, programs, and practices. If a postsecondary institution happens to have a specific admissions requirement that is not directly addressed in a school’s standard transcript or school profile, they typically contact the school to request the necessary information. If any information gaps emerge over time, schools can then modify their transcripts and profiles to include the required information.

  • As long as the school profile is comprehensive and understandable, and it clearly explains important information such as the content and rigor of the academic program, the technicalities of the assessment and grading systems, and the characteristics of the graduating class, admissions officers will have no problem understanding the transcript and properly evaluating the strength of a student’s academic record and accomplishments—after all, this is what they do, quite literally, thousands of times of every year.

  • Secondary schools use so many different systems for educating, categorizing, assessing, grading, ranking, and tracking students—and always have—that these many diverse systems can only be fully understood when a school clearly articulates how its policies work and submits a comprehensive school profile. A course title, grade, GPA, or class rank, for example, doesn’t mean much unless the admissions office also has the “key” (e.g., the school profile) it needs to understand how the system works and how the applicant performed in that system.

  •  The rigor and quality of the school’s academic program, and understanding how an applicant performed in that system, matters much more than class rank or artificial “rank-enhancers” such as weighted grades (in fact, many admissions offices will “unweight” weighted grades). An admissions office wants to know that applicants have been intellectually challenged, that the school’s courses and learning experiences are rigorous, that the applicant performed well in those courses, and that the applicant is prepared to thrive academically in their program. The irony: If well designed, a mastery-based transcript will actually satisfy all of these admissions needs far better than so-called “traditional” transcripts.

What Schools Can Do
Here’s the most important thing that school leaders, educators, or guidance counselors can do: Play offense, not defense. Here’s how:

  1. Anticipate questions and have a plan to address them. If your school is transitioning to a proficiency-, competency-, or mastery-based system of teaching, assessment, grading, and reporting, expect students, parents, and family members to express some level of concern or anxiety—it’s a natural, predictable, and perfectly understandable response to change. Parents will want to know that the system won’t disadvantage their children—and they should. Don’t be blindsided. Don’t get caught off guard. Put together a plan and execute it.

  2. Start by listening. When people become anxious, frustrated, or upset, they won’t be able to hear what you have to say until they first feel their concerns have been heard, considered, and acted on. Start by listening to your students, teachers, parents, and families. Don’t wait for them to come to you—invite them in. The simple act of listening is the first step toward understanding and reassurance. If you don’t know their concerns, and what’s motivating those concerns, you won’t know how to address them (and when concerns go unaddressed, they only tend to grow in magnitude). Once you know their questions, start addressing them one by one and point by point.

  3. Be prepared. When the concerns expressed by parents and families are met with reactions such as defensiveness, equivocation, and hesitation, or with unconvincing answers to simple questions, those reactions tend to amplify, not assuage, any anxieties they may have. If you want students and parents to have confidence in your plan or proposals, you first need to have confidence in them yourself. So do your research. Talk with other school leaders and educators about what they’ve done and why it’s worked. Copy or borrow from our exemplar transcript and school profile—both documents have received strong support from admissions professionals. Anticipate questions and prepare good answers. If you know that your mastery-based system is better than the old system it’s replacing, the worst way to sell your community on its benefits is to greet their skepticism with uncertainty, timidity, or self-doubt. Make your case with confidence.

  4. Be clear. Over and over, we see school leaders respond to questions from families with indecipherable jargon, vague abstractions, inscrutable professional references, and convoluted technical explanations. Terminology and phrases that may resonate with educators—such as seat time or learning is the constant and time is the variable—tend to be completely opaque or immensely frustrating to non-educators. Instead, speak plainly and persuasively. Don’t use jargon—ever. Instead, share compelling stories, specific examples, and personal narratives to make your case. And make sure you tell your students and families why mastery-based education is important. Why it will better prepare students for college. Why it will equip students with the knowledge, skills, and work habits they will need to succeed in every area of adult life.

  5. Foreground advantages. In some communities responding to questions about mastery-based transcripts can become so emotionally charged or time-consuming that school leaders will forget to highlight the many advantages that a mastery-based education can provide when it comes to the college-admissions process. For example, students who graduate at the top of their class, with high GPAs and transcripts full of Advanced Placement courses, are no longer standout applicants to selective colleges and universities. The applicants with a true competitive advantage in today’s admissions process don’t just have strong grades and test scores on their transcript—they have also accomplished impressive, "non-traditional" things. For example, they may have developed software programs and apps, worked in on a scientific study or in a research lab over the summer, started a student organization or led advocacy campaign, volunteered in their community or overseas, wrote a novel or got published in magazines, completed a challenging internship or independent project, or taken college or university courses while still in high school. And it just so happens that the very kinds of learning experiences that help applicants stand out from the crowd are precisely the kinds of learning experiences that a mastery-based approach to education can enable in any school and for every graduate.

  6. Create the best transcript and school profile possible. Instead of responding to concerns about mastery-based transcripts with evasiveness or uncertainty, why not just develop the strongest possible transcript instead? Find out what admissions offices need to know, and then deliver everything they need to know—and even a little more. Admissions offices have told us that the worst mistake schools tend to make is neglecting the school profile—it’s essential to understanding the transcript and the applicant. (They also want to know which colleges and universities have accepted a school’s graduates in the past, so include this list in the profile). Make your school’s academic records epitomize clarity, professionalism, and usefulness. Make the most compelling case possible for the strength of your academic program and the preparation of your students. Hire a designer and make your school profile stand out. After your materials have been created, share them with as many admissions offices as you can. Ask for their feedback, modify as needed, secure their endorsements, and then invite them to convey their support in letters, statements, interviews, videos, or community presentations.

  7. Recognize that transcripts are merely an information-display problem (or, more to the point, opportunity), not a curriculum, teaching, or learning problem. Over and over in debates about mastery-based transcripts, we see this fundamental fact get lost in weeds: Transcripts are merely the written record of a child’s education—they are not the education itself (and yet concerns about documentation, if left unaddressed, tend to call a school’s entire program into question). While it’s hard to overhaul your curriculum and fundamentally change teaching practice, it is far less difficult to create documents that clearly convey need-to-know information—particularly when admissions offices will happily tell you precisely what information they need to know. For example, if a college or university requires applicants to have completed a certain number of credits or certain courses (such as Algebra II), it’s important to keep in mind that these requirements are merely proxy measures that admissions professionals have historically used to evaluate, in the absence of other information, the academic preparation of applicants. What truly matters to an admission office is determining an applicant’s level of preparation and likelihood of succeeding in their institution (not counting up credits or seeing specific courses listed on a piece of paper). If your school has moved away from credits, or doesn’t offer a course called Algebra II, simply articulate on the transcript, or in the accompanying school profile, that all graduates have completed a course of study comparable to XX credits and so and so courses. If your student-information system limits what you can do with your transcripts, make sure everything an admissions office needs to know appears in the school profile and other documentation. Remember: The transcript is a presentation-of-information problem, not an education problem. And the sooner you solve this design problem, and move your school community beyond concerns and anxieties, the sooner you can get back to doing what truly matters: preparing the next generation of citizens, workers, and leaders.

Stephen Abbott is Director of Public Engagement for the Great Schools Partnership and editor of the Glossary of Education Reform.



*NOTE: For the purposes of this article, the terms proficiency-, competency-, or mastery-based should be considered synonymous and interchangeable. While different state agencies, districts, and schools may prefer one term over another, and any given district or school system may be unique in its technical features or practices, in general usage the terms tend to be more conceptually synonymous than not (even if those using the terms hold different definitions when it comes to certain technical minutia). Conceptually, one could say with a relatively high degree of confidence that the terms refer to educational institutions that articulate the most important knowledge, skills, and work habits that students need to know (i.e., standards), and then develop approaches to instruction, assessment, grading, and reporting that ensure students achieve those standards at a predetermined level of proficiency and achievement. For a more detailed discussion, see Understanding Standards, a guide to learning standards, proficiency, and related issues published by the Glossary of Education of Reform.

Q&A with Nancy Davis Griffin from the University of Southern Maine

posted Aug 15, 2017, 4:09 AM by Angela Duffy   [ updated Aug 16, 2017, 6:18 AM by Julianna Charles Brown ]

Mastery Communications Week, from August 14-18, will surface resources, tools, and best practices for communicating about mastery-based learning to parents, and other community members. Several national organizations will share their thoughts, and we will hear from practitioners in their own words through a Q&A series. Nancy Davis Griffin, VP of Enrollment Management & Student Affairs for the University of Southern Maine, has worked in higher education for over 35 years. She’s worked directly in admissions as a Dean and a Director, and now she oversees admissions, financial aid, and a variety of other student services. She connects with admissions and prospective students on a daily basis. 

1. How are applicants with non-traditional transcripts viewed by your institution and college admissions professionals generally? How do you handle non-traditional transcripts?

It’s important for parents and prospective students to understand that it is normal for transcripts to come in a variety of fashions. There isn’t really a “traditional” transcript any more. Every high schools or academy has developed and customized their own transcript. My admissions team knows this and are trained to read each unique transcript and all the information that’s presented. A lot of transcripts come to us with no [traditional letter] grades. They come to us with a variety of unique standards that schools are measuring their students on. So we are really used to and adapt well to a variety of different types of transcripts.

2. What are the most helpful things a mastery-based school can do to ensure its transcripts are clear, understandable, and helpful to admissions offices? What role do school profiles play in this process?

School profiles are great. They are one of the most important tools that we have in evaluating a transcript and looking at how the school is measuring their students. Profiles provide an intimate picture of the student population, the curriculum, the pedagogy and all components that go into good teaching and learning at a school. 

Another key to understanding the school is our relationship with guidance counselors who work with students to prepare them for post-secondary opportunities. Having a relationship allows us to pick up the phone and talk to our colleagues in college counseling at these high schools to get a better sense of what they are measuring. Our admissions staff prides themselves on their ability to build relationships.  

Another thing that can be helpful is when schools help us with correlation studies. For example, if we really want to understand where a student is coming from and they attend Portland High School here in Portland, Maine, we might do a correlation study and look at other students from that high school and cross-compare it with how they did in some of their USM classes to get a sense of how those students might perform at our institution. Often, we will work with high schools to do those kinds of studies to make sure we’re reading the data correctly, which helps us more deeply understand how they are teaching—the curriculum, the pedagogy—and what standards they are trying to measure.

3. What are the advantages of mastery-based transcripts, in your view? Are there any drawbacks?

The advantage is that, through a mastery transcript, we really get to know the students at a level that helps us make sure we’re admitting the student who is the best fit for our institution. It also helps us learn about each student and what courses they'd be best suited for at our institution. We get a lot more data from a mastery-based transcript than on a traditional transcript that just says, ‘oh, Johnny got an A in Freshmen English,’ for instance. We like to have more information—this helps us understand how the student learns and how we can help that student learn at our institution. 

On disadvantages, one might be if we don't know the school or how to read the transcript. It is also difficult if the profile is not strong. But, then we have tools if that’s the case: we would simply call the school. We might even visit, even if it is on the west coast—there is so much we can do electronically now. I Skyped in and talked to a class in Texas to understand what they are doing, just recently.

I personally do not see a disadvantage to going to a mastery-based transcript. As a parent, they are concerned because they think colleges deal with so many applications and transcripts and letters of recommendation, [they wonder] how are we going to be able to read that transcript and make a good admission decision? But I want them to know that even though the volume of applications has increased over the years, we pride ourselves in honoring each and every student, and being able to read that transcript fairly and justly, in a fairly quick process so we can get decisions rendered for students. So I really truly do not see any disadvantages of having a mastery-based transcript—I only see advantages.

4. What are some things that a mastery-based school or an applicant from that school should avoid?

Yesterday, I was at a program and we had a group of college counselors speaking to every admissions counselor in the state of Maine—it was an admissions summit. We asked them about mastery-based transcripts. And one thing they shared with us was there is information they’re not putting on the mastery-based transcripts because they didn’t feel they had space, or they didn't think we needed that information. And I would say that’s what they should avoid. I think the more information you provide about the student and how they learn and how the school measures students on standards—the better. The more information you give to me the better I can make sure that student is admissible and the better I can make sure that student is a good fit for an academic program. You need a different set of skills, for instance, for a STEM program versus a liberal arts one. So, the more I know about their interests, the better. I also recommend helping colleges and universities understand how to read transcripts.

College counselors have told us that a lot of high schools are going to mastery transcripts. Some are going to give colleges both transcripts. I’m not sure they need to do that but many of the schools have offered that as an option. But I don’t think this is something we need to be fearful of, I think it’s a great thing. The more you tell us about a learner, the better.

5. What advice would you give schools who are trying to talk to nervous families about non-traditional transcripts and college admissions?

I would want the nervous families to know that admissions professionals literally work with thousands of types of transcripts—we know how to read international transcripts, mastery-based transcripts, proficiency-based transcripts, regular graded transcripts. Really from any school. This is our job. We keep current with where each high school is and we know where students come from. It is part of our job to understand those schools, the curriculum, the rigor. 

And I would tell parents to trust us. But if they are really nervous, then they can help us by sending us more information about their child’s high school—what do they think we need to know about their son or daughter or the school. But most of the time, we are visiting the schools anyway. And that is not just meeting with students and conducting info sessions or college fair—it’s also sitting in on a chemistry class or an English class to understand the curriculum and the rigor. We also know students who come from that school previously and how those students have done at our institution. We have a lot of data to make really good decisions. 

But after all that, if they are still nervous, just come meet us. Visit the school and talk to us in the admissions office. We’re happy to meet with families answer any questions they might have. But really, we are excited by the move to mastery-based transcripts, we know there is an evolution and we’re not fearful, we’re excited about mastery-based transcripts. We think it’s going to help us in our job. 

Welcome to Mastery Communications Week!

posted Aug 14, 2017, 6:39 AM by Angela Duffy   [ updated Aug 15, 2017, 6:21 AM ]

This article originally appeared on Springpoint's blog The Launch Pad as part of Mastery Communications Week. See the original here.

Educators implementing mastery-based learning can enumerate a list of priorities to conquer. But all too often the strategy for communicating what mastery means for students, families, and community partners can be left until the end, or ignored altogether. Mastery-based learning—also known as competency-based education (CBE)—has the potential to transform how students learn content and acquire skills. Messaging this fundamental truth is key to building understanding, garnering buy in, and implementing a successful mastery-based system.

That’s why Springpoint has joined forces with national partners and schools to present Mastery Communications Week—five days devoted to exploring how to communicate about mastery that starts today.

We’ve partnered with Great Schools Partnership, Mastery Collaborative, Next Generation Learning Challenges, KnowledgeWorks, iNACOL, and CompetencyWorks to share expertise around some of the most common questions about mastery communications. Throughout this week, principals, teachers, students, district leaders, community partners, and parents will share their experiences with mastery and their role in ensuring that it supports and accelerates student learning. We hope this compilation of best practices, tools, tips, ideas, and open questions can spark an insightful conversation and prove useful for educators and school leaders as they prepare to engage key stakeholders on all things mastery in the coming school year.

Defining mastery-based education

To communicate effectively about mastery, educators first must get clear on their own working definition. While mastery can mean many things to different people, we generally cite CompetencyWorks’ five elements:

  1. Students advance upon demonstrated mastery.
  2. Competencies include explicit, measurable, transferable learning objectives that empower students.
  3.  Assessment is meaningful and a positive learning experience for students.
  4. Students receive timely, differentiated support based on their individual learning needs.
  5.  Learning outcomes emphasize competencies that include application and creation of knowledge, along with the development of important skills and dispositions.

At Springpoint, we’ve expanded this framework to include a sixth bucket: Empowering learners to take agency over their own progress, which in turn can give them the flexibility to move through content at an individualized pace. No matter which elements educators decide use, it’s equally important that they intentionally and strategically design and roll out a mastery-based system in a way that honors the needs and aspirations of their school community. Some schools might begin by implementing one or two elements of this framework, while others have moved towards implementing all five elements with fidelity. We encourage practitioners to design a system that works best in their own context and iterate on their practices to continuously build something that works well for all their students.

Learning by Example

Modeling is a powerful teaching device often used by effective educators. We believe in the power of sharing strong resources and tools in order to build out the collective knowledge of the CBE field. That’s why a major component of the Mastery Communications Week is devoted to finding and sharing some of the best communications resources out there.

In our work, we’ve seen how learning from great practice can help educators as they build strong school models that meet the needs of students. We encourage our partners to both learn from each other and to facilitate even more sharing and collaboration. During this week, we hope to highlight and share as many resources as possible in the hope that practitioners can find useful and applicable materials that will help aid their conversations around mastery-based learning.

To kick off the week, we’ve rounded up some communications artifacts from our school-based design partners that were created for different audiences. These resources may be helpful to those who are planning their own communications strategies.

  • Urban Assembly Maker Academy’s Mastery-based Grading Resource for Parents: Our partners at UA Maker value student voice and collaborated with a group of students to craft a deck that explains mastery to parents. The deck showcases each students’ perspective on mastery-based grading, an explanation of why it’s used, key definitions, and a side-by-side comparison of mastery to a traditional 100-point system. The deck also begins to introduce parents to UA Maker’s online grading platform. To learn more about UA Maker, visit their website.
  • Several resources from Denver School of Innovation and Sustainable Design (DSISD), including:
    • Student-led conference guiding outline supports students as they prepare to run a student-led conference, prompting them to talk about essential mastery elements, including advisory, academic classes, intensives, and their Personalized Learning Plan.
    • Mastery Night deck was used at DSISD to give parents an initial overview of the school’s mastery-based approach—what it is, the supporting grading policy, how cognitive skills support mastery, and more. The final slide sums up exactly how parents can be advocates for their children in the school’s mastery system. 
    • Launch Night deck helped the school’s leadership team walk parents through a thorough dive into the school’s mastery-based system. From graduation requirements, to grading policies, to cognitive skills, Personalized Learning Plans, college and career readiness, and even some neat parent hacks!
    • Additional structures: The school also runs a monthly coffee with the principal and Collaborative School Committee (CSC) which informs school governance. This year school administration is working to deepen their parent engagement with a monthly parent academy that focuses on building parent awareness and capacity for personalized learning and college readiness and planning. To learn more about DSISD, visit their website.
  • Lincoln-West School of Global Studies’ Community Partner Communications: A cornerstone of Lincoln-West School of Global Studies’ instructional model is an Exhibitions of Learning (EOL) event, which students do twice a year to demonstrate mastery. More than 25 partners from local businesses, colleges, nonprofits and other organizations attend the event and participate in the EOL assessment process. The school is committed to ensuring that partners—which include top thinkers from places like the NASA Glenn Research Center, Cleveland Council on World Affairs, and John Carroll University—have a shared understanding of the assessment process and a strong understanding of the school’s common rubric. This suite of external communications, paired with an in-person overview, contributes to a smooth EOL presentation and assessment experience for students, and invests community partners even more deeply in the school’s model. To learn more about Lincoln-West School of Global Studies, visit their website.

Participating in Mastery Communications Week

Everyone is invited to contribute to Mastery Communications Week by joining the conversation and sharing their best ideas, tools, questions, and resources on social media with the hashtag #masteryweek. We also encourage you to check out Masteryweek.org—the hub where we’ll collect great resources, tools, and articles. Here is what you can expect to see each day:

  • Monday, August 14 we’ll be sharing resources for communicating with diverse stakeholders, such as students, families, and community partners.
  • Tuesday, August 15th we’ll talk about how to communicate with colleges and universities about mastery-based transcripts.
  • Wednesday, August 16th we’ll dive deeply into mastery-based education and equity, particularly how to ensure your new system provides pathways to success for all learners.
  • Thursday, August 17th we’ll focus on how to be intentional when communicating about mastery with new staff.
  • Friday, August 18th we’ll close out with a big resource share that features some interesting multi-modal resources.

We’re so excited to hear stories from the field and answer questions that come up throughout the week. We hope you join us in sharing communication strategies that help make the case for mastery-based learning!

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