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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Pass ’em along — or mastery learning?

Teachers can raise graduation rates — and their own performance ratings — by giving D’s instead of F’s to poorly prepared students, writes Rob Barnett, a D.C. high school math teacher, in Washington City Paper.  Instead, he’s experimenting with mastery learning , requiring student to master one topic before moving on the next.

Credit: Stephanie Rudig

In DC Public Schools, teachers must “develop, document, and communicate a written plan for grade improvement” for a failing student, Barnett writes. Effectively, it’s “the teacher’s job is to find a way for the student to pass.” Once the student is earning a D, no more attention is required.

Instead of lecturing, Barnett now records each less and puts the videos online. Students advance at their own pace. They have to learn to take “responsibility for their own learning,” he writes. Eventually, “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 envisions a school with no semester- or year-long classes.

Imagine if we divided each academic discipline into a series of topics and skills, arranged them in a logical sequence, and defined an end goal for each. . . . Next, we define the criteria for mastery. A student can show that he or she understands linear equations, or poetry, or chemical reactions, or the Civil War, in many different ways. Students can take rigorous tests, produce final projects, give oral presentations or anything in between—witness AP and IB courses that have both exam and project components. . . . Students would no longer have to worry about completion-based homework grades, or make-up work, or subjective participation grades that do little more than reflect teacher biases. . . . Students would only have to focus on demonstrating that they have actually learned.

Today, students who never mastered fundamental skills learn that helplessness pays, writes Barnett. “When it is a teacher’s responsibility to pass their students, it is no longer a student’s responsibility to learn.”

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