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Mastery 3.0: Moving beyond turnarounds

By Dale Mezzacappa on Jun 26, 2014 03:20 PM
Photo: Harvey Finkle

A 10th-grade geometry class at Mastery Lenfest earlier this year.

Concerned that not enough students at Mastery charter schools are enrolling, persisting, and succeeding in college, the organization is revamping its curriculum and instructional methods, according to founder and CEO Scott Gordon.

The charter school network, which operates 15 schools in the city – most of them converted District schools – sent a notice to parents at the end of the school year and provided the Notebook with documents that outline some new teaching strategies and the philosophy behind the changes, dubbed Mastery 3.0.

Mastery prides itself in saying that virtually all of its graduating seniors, 98 percent, are accepted into two- or four-year-secondary institutions or join the military. Five of its schools go through 12th grade.

But of the college group, nearly a quarter, 22 percent, never actually show up. And among those who do enroll, only about 78 percent persist in college to a second year, Gordon said.

That adds up to just under 60 percent of high school graduates who stay in college at least into the second year.

“We’re speculating that our students are persevering at slightly below the national rate," Gordon said in an interview. “But we believe our students can exceed” that rate.

Many of Mastery’s secondary students, those in 7th grade and above, arrive with lagging literacy and math skills, according to Gordon. But traditional remediation was not addressing the need for more rigorous learning.

He said that even though students may be behind in skills, they are capable of higher-level work.

"The first thing is to readjust the curriculum. The second is to change the vision of instruction," Gordon said. 

The revamp is designed to move students beyond structured learning into more conceptual thinking, he said.

Among the teaching strategies is the so-called “flipped classroom” model, in which students watch traditional lectures at home and spend class time on hands-on, interactive activities, including labs.

“The bottom line is that we believe our students can achieve more and we can shift the focus of our model to students being really at the center,” he said. 

About 100 teachers piloted different teaching strategies in several schools during the past school year. Mastery 3.0 will be universally used starting in September, Gordon said.

Mastery produced a document on the different pilot strategies, citing the experiences of several teachers.

Among other things, it indicated that students take time to adjust, but then benefit from the new model.

A teacher who piloted the flipped-classroom strategy found that “her students initially struggled to manage their time and found it difficult to take responsibility for their own learning,” the report said. "But, as the weeks progressed, students came to class better prepared and more focused.”

In the earlier grades, teachers have begun “literature circles” as an alternative to silent, independent reading. These are much like book clubs -- students join small groups to discuss the books they’ve read. 

Another strategy to improve reading comprehension skills is called “structured struggle,” in which students are given challenging short excerpts to read and decipher without the benefit of any introduction or explanation from the teacher. They have to discuss and analyze the text for themselves, which eventually leads to deeper comprehension, according to the report.

There are also similar pilots designed to improve students’ conceptual understanding of math.

At the end of the school year, parents were sent a flyer of what to expect from the new approach.

“We are adjusting our curriculum so that students work on more complex and challenging material,” the flyer said. “We are also examining the books and materials we use to ensure they are engaging and relevant to our students.”

It adds that “teachers are changing the way they teach so that instruction is more active, frequently involving small group work and relying on students’ initiative. Ultimately, we want students to do the heavy thinking in class, so they learn to be critical thinkers who can persevere through difficult work.”

The changes are in line with bringing the schools up to standards demanded by the so-called Common Core, which was developed by states to increase rigor, vary instructional methods, and require students to think more deeply and solve problems.

Gordon said that the reboot is possible because the Mastery schools are moving beyond the initial “turnaround” phase, which emphasizes structure, remediation, orderliness and climate.

Most of Mastery’s schools being turned around under the Renaissance Schools initiative have shown significant increases in test scores. A report late last year on the Renaissance initiative said Mastery was the most successful of the turnaround providers.

Gordon said that most of the schools are at the stage where students have been acculturated to Mastery’s approach and expectations about climate, so it is possible to move on instructionally.

Mastery 3.0, Gordon said, will give students more “ownership” of their education.

“The purpose of Mastery even from day one was to create a school model where kids were prepared for the next stage of life,” Gordon said. “In the sense that we’ve now created the foundation, so we can take the next step and remove some of the structure."

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, about 72 percent of students who enter college persist into a second year. The numbers vary widely depending on whether they are in a nonprofit or for-profit institution, where the rates are much lower.

The rate for first-generation college students and those from the lowest income quartiles, which describe a high proportion of Mastery students, are much lower. A longitudinal study of high school sophomores from 2002 showed that by 2012, just 14 percent of students from the lowest income quartile had earned a bachelor’s degree, compared to 60 percent from the highest quartile. 

Only about 20 percent of Black and Latino students had earned bachelor’s degrees, compared to 40 percent of Whites and half of Asians.

Mastery did not offer data on what percentage of its students go on to four-year vs. two-year colleges, or for-profits vs. non-profits. And it said that it did not yet have good data on college graduation rates. Its high schools have started graduating students only in the last few years.

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Comments (16)

Submitted by Alexis Dewitt (not verified) on June 26, 2014 4:51 pm
As much backlash as they receive, I am a little surprised that their CEO is being transparent about their instructional shifts. At the end of the day, the students of Philadelphia (district or charter) deserve a world-class education, so I am glad Mastery is adjusting their instructional approach to meet the needs of our students. I am also very interested to read more about the “structured struggle” pilot. I can only imagine the critical thinking skills students are developing in such short time.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on June 26, 2014 6:29 pm
It's always tough, being whacked across the head with the harsh realities of contemporary education. I just returned from a national teachers conference wherein I learned that in the past decade, the number of college students enrolling in education coursework has decreased by more than two-thirds. I was flabbergasted. A 67% drop in prospective teachers in a single decade! How is this possible? The symposium's moderator expressed her belief that the decline has not yet touched bottom, either. I felt sick to my stomach but perhaps I should not have been so surprised. All three of my daughters followed my example and enrolled in college as education majors - and all three had switched majors by their sophomore year. The classroom teacher pipeline is now running dry and schools of education are frantically scouring the highways and byways for recruits. This truly frightens me. With certified teachers becoming increasingly scarce, how will an urban school district like Philadelphia - which offers the most challenging students and the worst working conditions for the least amount of pay - even hope to compete? Charter schools are NOT the answer. Their teacher turnover rate is scandalous. I wish I could foresee a bright future but things look pretty darn dismal.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on June 26, 2014 7:43 pm
Why do all of these responses result in an attack on charter schools? I've been teaching at a charter school in North Philadelphia for the past four years. I understand what you're saying about our profession, but bashing charter schools is not the answer. The district's turnover rate would be just as high if tenure was off the table. This article is not about teachers, it's about the students in our city, and I truly believe that they are better off in Mastery schools than in the district. Do you remember what Pickett, Gratz, and Cleveland were like with the district? To pretend that those students aren't receiving a higher quality education than they previously were is simply selfish and foolish.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on June 26, 2014 8:04 pm
No one is disputing the appearances being created with charters, that things are "better" for many students. What people resent is this being done by sleight of hand. The public schools have been drained of funding and resources (and yes, money does matter, which is why the wealthy send their children to private schools), since the state takeover. At the same time the charters have been giving every advantage including extra funding from corporate interests. That the starving of resources is being done in schools which have the biggest struggles due to many of their students coming from low income families is a real crime which history will judge this generation for.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on June 26, 2014 11:54 pm
This is not a charter school situation. The majority of charter schools are struggling financially in this environment, as well. They are being starved for funding just like neighborhood schools. Special admit (preferred district schools) are treated similarly to the preferred charter operators. If you're not one of the few to get into the special club (district or charter), you are out of luck. The more we continue to lump all charters in the same boat, the more we allow the special few to take over the education system.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on June 27, 2014 3:55 pm
Then your problem is with the School District of Philadelphia, not charters. I am not a fan of charters by no means. However, charters are a DIRECT result, or failure actually, of the School District to correct its problems in public schools that have persisted for more than three decades. The School District had its chance, and through several administrations, it blew it!!! Parents and communities got tired of waiting for the School District to take these problems and their complaints (i.e. low academic performance/expectations, safety, poor facilities, etc.) seriously, and the District NEVER did until it was plastered all over the news on a regular basis. And now that parents decided to vote with their feet, all of a sudden, charters are this supreme evil spectre "starving" the system. When, in fact, District management, past and present, has done more criminal harm to GENERATIONS of students. The District's "business as usual" practice and model was exposed years ago, and it opened the way for Charters and other alternatives. If the School District was in anyway serious, it could have created the same advantages for public schools as well, but did not. It's not that charters are better. However, compared to most public schools, they are at least providing the appearance of being better. For many families, that at least makes them feel better, feel comfortable enough to trust them with their children. That is good enough for them. Your problem is with the School District, and this will continue to be the case until we have a School District that truly caters to the needs of the children and communities it purports to serve.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on June 28, 2014 2:19 pm
Which is why we need an elected School Board which is directly responsible to the community, not business interests.
Submitted by Annony (not verified) on June 26, 2014 9:26 pm
How will Mastery students participate in the "flipped" classroom if they do not have a computer / internet access? Yes, "flipped" may mean a book but in general, it is watching a lecture, and then being prepared the next day to participate in a related experience / project / etc. The vast majority of my students in a public school do not have a computer / internet access and therefore "flipping" is not possible.
Submitted by Poogie (not verified) on June 26, 2014 9:47 pm
OMG. Simple the "Mastery App" While the parents of our students will not spend money on internet access, books or too much food; the kids seem to have better phone plans than I do. So move it to mobile.
Submitted by Mary Louise (not verified) on June 27, 2014 6:17 am
Totally agree with you. More and more kids are trying to use the "I don't have a computer" excuse with the "I don't have internet" excuse. It's called the 3G or 4G Network! Hmmm. You're on an online game site through your X-Box. No excuse. You have access! Hmmm. You're playing Candy Crush on your phone. No excuse. You have access! Hmmm. You're watching a downloaded Netflix movie on your pad. No excuse. You have access! And kids think teachers are clueless about technology! Kids may have all of the latest toys but they don't know any of the tricks!
Submitted by Dave (not verified) on June 27, 2014 8:00 pm
I would love to know how much Mastery Administrators in Philadelphia earn. Anyone in that position care to share?
Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on June 28, 2014 8:42 am
It is absolutely wonderful to read that Mastery is moving toward "authentic" reading instruction. I love to see and participate in "collegial discussions" about the best practices of teaching reading. The teaching of reading is my first love as that is what I did for 20 years of my life at UCHS and summer programs in elementary schools, and I "ate, slept and drank" reading instruction 24/7 for those years. I fully intend to spend much more of my time and much more of my life "talking reading instruction." This article presents the very same issues the reading teachers heatedly discussed and debated when we had our reading program at Uni and throughout our district from 1975 - 1993. Just for the record, at a recent SRC meeting I recommended to Dr. Hite that he and the SRC reinstitute reading programs in every school where the students score low on reading tests. Back in the day we had Reading programs in all such schools where certified reading teachers actually taught students. Our reading programs were always based on "authentic reading instruction." The most effective method of teaching reading comprehension I ever used was simply "Socratic Questioning" and "Probing Questions" done in small class settings where the teacher stands up and teaches and thinks on his or her feet. We always used challenging authentic reading materials, books, stories and articles, commensurate with our students' reading ability. It was known as a student's "immediate instructional level" which is just below the student's' "frustrational level." It is the level a student will "most benefit from instruction." But just "for the record" may I please give a history lesson here: "Traditional remedial instruction" was always based on the very same concepts that Mastery is now moving towards, not on what Mastery is moving from. Remedial instruction, in its history was never based on the trash that has been put out in the last decade. What has been done in the last decade, and obviously also at Mastery, is "not traditional remedial reading instruction" at all. Please do not denigrate the art and science of teaching remedial reading. Remedial reading instruction, traditionally, was designed to "teach students to think and comprehend" at higher levels, as well as to help students to overcome their disabilities, such as fluency in word recognition. My remedial reading students could always understand and discuss the higher level concepts that are used in the Great works of Literature and our Greatest authors.
Submitted by BJ Murphy (not verified) on June 29, 2014 7:09 pm
As a former teacher in SDP, I can safely say the schools DO NOT prepare them for the rigors of college. Even in honors classes, they are given ridiculously easy, mainly multiple choice tests with little or no writing involved. They have unqualified teachers on emergency certs teaching Literacy. It's true. Students have NO IDEA how to take apart an essay, determine the writer's argument because they DON'T READ, they lacked a father or mother to read to them early on and it has crippled them. I tried my best, but these kids are being done a disservice when admin and teachers pass them onto the next grade when they fail a major subject such as Literacy.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on June 29, 2014 8:12 pm
With standardized tests and Common Core things are even worse. They grade what is basically a rough draft in the writing section of the test. The students learn nothing about the process of writing.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on June 29, 2014 11:34 pm
Sadly, I have to agree with some of what you say, centering around reading. The children can't read and don't want to put the work in to learn how to read. I am 57. I have a Master's degree. I am a second career teacher. I did have both a mother and father in the home, but I do not recall my parents sitting and reading to me when I was little, I really don't. I had parents who sent us to school to learn, not act up in school, and my siblings and I learned to read and we learned to write and we went on to college and graduated. I believe that it is a different time in our society than when it was when I went to school. There were not the many negative influences on children when a was growing up as there are today. Parents have to take some of the responsibility for children not learning in school and they have to start demanding that their children behave in school and not be a disruption as many are today in our schools. If a child can't read why aren't the parents screaming, probably be cause they can't read either! Children should not be passed from grade to grade when they are not able to read and the entire process for identifying children with learning issues needs to be changed. A child should not be entering fourth grade, not being able to read and just being identified as needed some specialized service to help them in the fourth grade! That is crazy and it isn't working!
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on June 29, 2014 8:24 pm
For all the reform that has run its course over the last 15 years, we are t the very same place tonight with the Mayor of Philadelphia and the Superintendent in Harrisburg proclaiming that schools will not be safe to open in September if there is not more funding. When Hornbeck did that we got the SRC. NCLB, standardized testing, one size fits all standards and charter schools clearly have not made a damn bit of difference except in profits to publishers and education management companies. These are no longer pilot programs. They are failed initiatives. What now? The only thing that has not been tried is teacher leadership in individual schools. Imagine!

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