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Mastery, Compliance, and Efficiency in Education.

Updated: Apr 22, 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