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Mastery, Compliance, and Efficiency in Education.

Updated: Apr 21, 2020

There are a lot of words that describe school, what it is, what it does, and what it ought to be. Two words often brought up are mastery and compliance but rarely in the same conversation. I believe these two words are two sides of the same coin – the image on one side different than the other, but both sharing the same value and purpose, particularly in public education - efficiency.

Two Sides of the Same Coin.

On one side is mastery – the demonstration of skill and knowledge. Schools often refer to standards of academic achievement as their rubric for mastery. Schools celebrate those high standards and design policies to motivate students to reach those high academic standards on an efficient schedule of annual academic development.

On the other side is compliance - to act according to an order, a set of rules, or a request. School administrators might think of federal and state regulations or various HR requirements they must follow. Classroom teachers might think about emergency safety procedures or how they must submit lesson plans, gradebooks, and post rules and standards in their classrooms.

For students, compliance is the minimum expectation for what is designed to be an efficient scheduling of academic expectations for large populations.

Students that meet academic compliance measures are often rewarded with access to sports or clubs which students might enjoy.

“Academic Compliance.”

Parents are more likely to hear the phrase "out of compliance" while at the DMV or perhaps in a military or government setting. However, teachers that set a minimum academic expectation less than what is expected for full mastery and then reward students who achieve that minimum with a “passing grade” are instilling much the same measure of compliance similar to any bureaucratic process.

For example, educators have likely experienced, or at least heard about, students who receive a mark of 67% (or a “D Plus”) and asks their teacher what they can do to bump that up to a mark of 72% (or a “C Minus”). Students who make such requests are generally looking to avoid mandatory tutoring or summer school. Students that meet academic compliance measures are often rewarded with access to sports or clubs which students might enjoy. It is important for schools to consider how this kind of compliance-focused approach to academic mastery comes to be. Students do not enter Kindergarten thinking about meeting academic expectations because parents and teachers do not require it. So how and when do students begin to shift toward such a compliance-based mindset?

From Mastery to Compliance.

Whether referring to reading or math, it is well known that students experience a slump in the upper elementary grade levels. This is not some mystery that has escaped us; we have long known about this phenomenon. Typically, third Grade is the year students shift from “learning to read” to “reading to learn”. That same year also introduces, often for the very first time, math concepts such as multiplication, division, and fractions.

Is the demand for increasing complexity across grade levels irrational or unfair?

For students that struggle to demonstrate mastery of third-grade academic expectations, it is no surprise that the expectations in Fourth Grade increase in difficulty and is where we see the “slump” in academic achievement begin to take shape. The trouble is, students that submit all of their assignments and correctly answer enough questions on assessments will promote from Third, to Fourth, to Fifth Grade – regardless of their mastery in various different academic expectations. As mastery degrades, compliance takes root.

How Mastery Turns to Compliance
As mastery becomes challenged, compliance becomes the focus.

As an educator, it is tough to know students who do not attain mastery of fractions in Fourth Grade will struggle with interpretation of fractions as division in Fifth Grade. What makes it worse is when a student receives prior grade level work and masters it, they will still receive a low mark because it doesn't represent a "fifth-grade" level of fraction mastery.

During these upper-elementary grade levels, student questions like what do I do? replace questions like how does this work? These two questions highlight a subtle difference within that meaning of mastery:

what do I do represents a desire to demonstrate a skill or knowledge, while

how does this work? reflects a process for developing capacity in order to demonstrate.

This might seem like just a matter of semantics but it is a very important distinction. Teachers aren't explicitly coaching students to ask what do I do? or how does this work? - these questions are symptoms, signs, of the kind of system that is in place.

During these elementary years, students learn what school is and their role in it. We can tell students all we want about how they can work hard to "catch up", work hard to "move ahead", but essentially we are telling students to work harder in relation to an arbitrary "line of best fit" which is not reflective of the ebb and flow of human learning. As students promote through grade levels faster than they can develop mastery of the skills and knowledge in each grade level, they are rated against an average line which has placed them either above of below that line, serving to motivate the student's extrinsic response to academic mastery. This is when we see gaps in learning inevitably form and result in a focus on compliance-based learning.

Students seeking a "C" (or other equivalent mark) and achieving just enough mastery to meet the minimum academic requirement are not focused on mastery-based learning and this perspective is not one the student chose to embrace. It is a result of a system in need of adjustments.

Impact of Efficiency on Mastery and Compliance
Students demonstrating minimum academic expectations are not necessarily demonstrating mastery.

Again, it is not the demand of increasing complexity across grade levels that is irrational or illogical - skills themselves naturally increase in difficulty and grade level standards simply state the developmental paths of those skills. The problem is not how skills develop over time - the problem is much more deep-rooted and insidious.

Impact of Efficiency on Mastery and Compliance.

It might seem silly to consider what would happen if a school only had one student. All of the resources of a school's community are not pooled to educate a single child. Schools enroll hundreds of children. Managing a community's resources to educate so many children requires a system of oversight and accountability to ensure students are receiving the high quality education desired by that community.

With so many students showing up to schools each day, it's not enough to ensure they're safe and protected - they must also be taught and demonstrate learning. If learning is not being demonstrated, then mastery cannot be observed and reported. Therefore, the efficiency for which a school can teach, assess, grade, and report student mastery becomes a primary goal for a community that is pooling their resources to fund schools and maximize student learning.

However, that efficiency is resulting in manufactured problems. The more efficient a program can provide opportunities to demonstrate mastery, the more students will be placed in that program to test the tipping point of its quality to quantity ratio. This creates a demand for programs that may be relying on a compliance-based approach to learning in order to maximize efficiency in learning - complete the task, get a sticker, and move on. This creates data of student engagement that shows learning is taking place because students are completing those tasks. However, this is further instilling the idea that task completion, or demonstration, is the goal of academic mastery. The process by which a student learns how to learn is not the focus of such programs.

Again, if a school is seeking to shift away from mastery being strictly a demonstration of skill and knowledge and become more about student reflection of the process by which the capacity for demonstrating skill and knowledge can develop, then compliance-based minimum expectations will not, are not, and have not been effective; and we see this in the gaps being formed in upper-elementary and middle-school.

This is the point at which leaders in education will benefit from reflecting on their school's range of student academic achievement, given the parameters of defined mastery (maximum) and compliance (minimum) set at each grade level. Classes at each grade level will likely have defined grade-level standards (academic mastery as the maximum) and a basic minimum of "enough" grade-level expectations in order to consider promoting students to the next grade level. Even classes that are mastery-focused but have students enrolled who are asking questions focused on compliance will not be enough to rewire the student perspective toward learning. In order to close those learning gaps, it may be time for schools to consider removing those gaps altogether and shifting the philosophy of school.

Removing the Gaps.

The following are 3 suggestions that can help districts address the systemic changes necessary to not just close, but remove, learning gaps in schools. Larger districts may struggle with these suggestions while smaller districts and independent schools may have more flexibility in adapting such changes over time.

(1) Remove age-based grade level class rosters. The system that keeps a student promoting socially without academic mastery is resulting in learning gaps that students can't keep up with. Create class rosters based on mastery and design teachers' classrooms to focus on developmentally appropriate coaching techniques for students to learn how to learn. Make what students learn a symptomatic effect of them learning how to learn. This also develops in students a partnership that balances the responsibility of learning between teachers and students. Remove the arbitrary line of average academic expectation and replace it with an individualized system that celebrates each individual's growth in separate academic skills and knowledge. Knowing exactly where students are in each skill's development allows both teacher and student to address how each skill can be developed as the student reflects on their own process for learning.

(2) If state assessments must be kept, shift their focus toward measuring how well students know how to solve problems at different levels of different skills. This will replace current testing of specific levels of a skill's development, measuring students against that particular level. Instead, testing will determine what particular level of a skill's development a student has mastered. The sliding scale of skill development can then be reported and reflected upon by the students and their families.

(3) In order to support that balance of responsibility for learning, all teachers will need to develop skills and knowledge for coaching students on the specific competencies responsible for learning how to learn - beyond compliance. Even if a school retains their system of minimum academic compliance, it will be important to incorporate social and emotional learning as part of that minimum academic expectation. Educators today are not required to know how to coach students on how to develop and manage their emotional intelligence, maintain relationships, utilize conflict resolution strategies, or formulate a perspective toward societal responsibility and community building. To infuse this into that minimum academic expectation is to first infuse this into the culture and climate of the school and its staff.

Institutionalizing a Self-Directed Learning Philosophy.

There is a way to coach students to be self-directed within a framework of academic expectations where educators recognize through student interest the sliding scales of skill development. Knowing that colleges and universities as well as certain professions require a specific level of academic mastery, students that learn how to learn will be better prepared to tackle those classes and academic expectations as they find interest in careers and colleges.

As educators, let us use this time of COVID-19 school closures to reconsider what school is, what school does, and what school ought to be. There are aspects of the school system that must exist, but we can shift the compulsory compliance measures for academic mastery to improve student ownership of learning. There is one other big obstacle in closing these gaps: the issue of equity among a city's communities, but that will need to be another post for another day.

April 19, 2020

Greg Mullen

Exploring the Core LLC

To learn more about balancing this ownership of learning between teachers and students and begin shifting to a more student-directed learning environment, I've written about my own experiences in shifting towards a standards-based approach to academic and social-emotional learning in my book, Creating a Self-Directed Learning Environment: Standards-Based and Social-Emotional Learning, from Corwin Press (2019.

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