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Can Mastery-Based Learning Replace Seat Time? (Opinion)

On Tuesday, I talked with Tim Knowles, the CEO of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, about replacing the century-old Carnegie unit of seat time with a mastery-based measurement of learning. It was a fascinating conversation that left me with more questions than answers. The thing I was most curious to ask Tim about was how he plans to put this shift into practice. Well, Tim was generous enough to agree to a second interview to answer some of these vexing questions. Here’s what he had to say.

—Rick

Rick: OK, we’ve been talking about doing away with the Carnegie unit and broadening the definition of learning. I can’t help but wonder whether doing so risks reducing attention to academic content and mastery. What do you think?

Tim: There is a tendency to fall victim to binary thinking in K–12 education. Much of the criticism associated with our work is grounded in a false dichotomy that suggests that a focus on student well-being will reduce focus on and time for academics or that an emphasis on skills will reduce academic rigor. Our work is rooted in a belief that paying more attention to learning experiences that happen beyond the four walls of a classroom doesn’t need to come at the expense of core academics. Providing students with experiential learning opportunities helps them connect the abstract to the concrete, which makes learning more relevant and meaningful. This isn’t new. Laboratory experiments and digital simulations have always played a key role in education as a way to reinforce underlying concepts and equations.

Rick: That sounds intriguing. Can you go a bit deeper on that?

Tim: Of course. In the corporate context, we might care whether someone has a certain academic pedigree, but their ability to translate that academic work into commercial outcomes is what unlocks mobility and success within the enterprise. Adopting a broader frame for learning will complement and reinforce academic content and mastery. Within this framework, algebra still matters. The ability to read and analyze complex texts still matters. There are foundational elements, in terms of disciplinary knowledge, that we can agree upon and establish as universal expectations within our public K–12 schools. Building on this belief—and a significant body of academic research—the Carnegie Foundation has partnered with the XQ Institute to incentivize the creation of powerful, project-based-learning experiences that blend academic content and skills development in more seamless and compelling ways than traditional curricula. We will be testing these “unit-sized” learning experiences this year, with the goal of developing more comprehensive “course-sized” offerings in later years. Core to this is our commitment to giving teachers the resources they need to help students fall in love with learning, which will only improve their academic outcomes. They may even look away from their phones.

Rick: One big concern I have about mastery-based grading or assessments is the translation into practice. How have you approached the issue of implementation?

Tim: I’m not sure parents, educators, and leaders actually prefer the status quo. They want assurance that a different model of schooling will serve children better than the current model. The education sector is awash with ineffective silver bullets and failed efforts at transformation. But, as Disney CEO Bob Iger noted, “The riskiest thing we can do is maintain the status quo.” Overcoming the urge to maintain the status quo—whether out of fear or preference—requires thoughtful change management, patience, humility, and evidence of success. It starts with embracing and supporting the early adopters who are clamoring for change. These educators, leaders, and communities become champions and attract the next generation of adopters. But they must provide evidence of effectiveness, because that must rule the day. We aren’t approaching state or system leaders with a prescribed solution; we are approaching those that want change with an invitation to co-develop solutions. Demonstrating success with these early adopters is a critical step toward both persuading skeptics and building momentum for more effective modalities of teaching and learning.

Rick: You’ve said that what you’re trying to do will be tough to do with our current assessments. Can you talk a bit about some of what it would take to address that?

Tim: We can’t discard the Carnegie unit without developing an alternative, standard measure for student learning: a way to recognize student learning that has meaning for parents, educators, institutions of higher education, and employers. Advances in how we can assess students, along with the development of new portraits of graduates, present a path forward to address the assessment challenge. Over the past decade, nearly 20 states and countless schools and systems have engaged families, employers, and community members to develop profiles or portraits of what their graduates should know and be able to do when they leave high school. Across geographic and partisan divides, these profiles look similar and include traditional academic outcomes alongside durable skills that predict success and that employers, students, families, and educators value. However, state and district leaders have expressed frustration that they don’t have any good ways to measure students’ progress toward these graduate profiles, and the profiles themselves don’t shape practice.

Rick: What kind of changes does all this mean for Carnegie?

Tim: Last year, the Carnegie Foundation partnered with the Education Testing Service to begin developing assessments that can measure academic knowledge and skills like collaboration, communication, and critical thinking. The goal isn’t to create a new raft of standardized tests but rather to gather insights from authentic student tasks and capture evidence of learning, whether that learning occurs inside or outside the classroom. We are still in the early days of this effort, but we are heartened by the number of states and districts that want to work with us to co-develop and pilot such approaches. We anticipate partnering with four or five states to initiate this work and using that pilot to inform us as we work toward developing and scaling these assessments. Similarly, as part of the math badging pilot I mentioned in our first conversation, schools in three states are co-developing and implementing new competency-based math assessments. Big picture, we need more innovation, more initiatives like these, and more flexibility from policymakers to give schools the freedom to explore these new approaches to assess student learning, wherever that learning occurs.

Rick: Last question. You and I have seen a lot of reform efforts come and go. What can you say to reassure educators out there who may be intrigued but leery of another grand effort that amounts to just another turn of the wheel?

Tim: Educators have every reason to be leery. Many have had their schools and classrooms disrupted—sometimes in not-so-good ways—by past grand efforts that didn’t achieve their promised outcomes, only to be replaced by other such schemes. I also can’t tell educators that this will be easy work—it will be difficult and disruptive. At its core, we are talking about moving from a system designed around time to one designed around the actual knowledge, skills, and dispositions young people develop over time. The alternative is to maintain a system that continues to fail students and educators and systematically undervalues what we know about how people learn. When I talk to leaders and educators in schools that are leading the work to replace the Carnegie unit, I hear the hope in their voices as they talk about their triumphs. This work is getting to the root of the problem—not just tinkering around the edges—so while there is reason to be skeptical, there is also the potential for extraordinary success, reason to be hopeful, and reason to think that we could create schools where learning is rigorous, engaging, joyful, and effective at preparing millions more young people for success.

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