Could a ‘Mastery’ Focused Teaching Approach Save Our Schools?

First of all, what do I mean by ‘mastery’ focused? In my experience, I have seen an unusual number of students who do well during the school year only to fail or nearly fail the final exam.  If learning means retention, I would say that we are not every good at it.  In 2007 I wrote a paper that was well received by the USAID discussing teaching approaches that would benefit emerging education systems in poor nations.  I would like to share some of those thoughts with all of you and see where it takes us. Be gentle. Remember many of the goals I outlined back then may not apply to an American education approach, but it may be worth considering some of these alternatives.

The approach focuses on content mastery.  The basic components of the approach are:

  • Measuring student performance based on skill mastery, and not on a sliding grade scale that permits promotion without complete knowledge retention.
  • De-bundling of classrooms from age based placement in favor of performance based placement.
  • De-bundling of academic content. Curriculum is no longer paired with grade level grouping.
  • Student assessment places students in the right academic level by subject. Promotion is by subject mastery and is unrelated to other subjects.



The problems with today’s education system are more systemic than most people realize. The fundamental reason that almost all education reforms end in failure is because the basic premise of education reform ignores certain common systemic issues. For example, it takes 13 years (K-12) to educate most people to a 12th grade academic level by current standards. If it did not take 13 years, then there would not be 13 years of education offered. Most education reform approaches go on the premise that with enough money and training, a school system can take a child in the 10th grade with a 5th grade reading level, and somehow get him to traverse reading levels 6 through 12 in a 3 year time span. There may be exceptions, but in most cases, this cannot be done. And, the expectation is unfair to teachers.

Another flaw in most education reform approaches is the belief that given enough money, a system can be reformed in a relatively short period of time by improving the overall quality of the school with new buildings, better teacher pay, and new books. The problem with this holistic approach to education reform is that we must understand that if we want a world class 12th grade class, we have to promote world class 11th graders into that curriculum. To have a world class 11th grade class, we have to promote world class 10th graders into that world class 11th grade program. If we carry this thinking to its logical conclusion, reform must start in kindergarten and will take 14 years minimum to create a world class and completely reformed educational system. I say 14 years, because there must be lead time in retraining teachers at each level before new students are placed in that grade level.

There are other systemic problems that lead to challenges to our educational system. Peer based education is one of the primary approaches that has negatively affected education. Peer based education is a system that emphasis promotion of students as an age block. Along with peer based education comes the bundling of educational material by peer groups as well. 5th grade math is bundled with 5th grade English without consideration of actual student performance. This bundling and peer based promotion puts an undue burden on teachers to promote children in step with their peers. The result is unqualified students being placed in classes beyond their academic performance levels as parents and teachers feel pressured to keep age peers together. Because of bundling of subjects by grade level, students are often moved to a set of more advanced work based on blanket promotion rather than achievement by subject. Combined with the external dependence on book publisher cycles, these systemic issues can deteriorate the very fabric of our public educational system. This has been an issue for inner city schools more than more suburban schools.  A mastery approach would address some of these challenges.

Mastering Knowledge

The current grading approach in today’s schools focus on familiarity with material, and not academic mastery of the material being taught. The letter grading system ranks what a student understands on a sliding scale. What the system fails to recognize is that over time, the letter grading system creates its own set of problems. A math student who advances to the next math level with a C grade is being promoted to a higher learning level lacking 25% to 30% of the background knowledge needed to understand the higher level of math. I use math as an example because most people believe they are not good at math, when in fact, the issue is most likely they are suffering from cumulative math learning deficiencies that began in junior high. By the time they enter 12th grade math, the knowledge deficit over 6 years is substantial. Teachers must teach to a wide range of differing skill levels in a single classroom. This complicates the teaching experience by making it more time consuming to assess and teach to individual learning levels.

If the goal of education is to help students master a body of material to be considered educated, then clearly the letter grading system is failing in doing so. A mastery approach creates a better academic experience and outcome for both educator and student. The mastery approach identifies the core material that a student must learn to be considered educated at a given level, and then teaches the student to master that body of material. The student does not advance to the next level of learning until the current level of learning is mastered by achieving test scores in the 90% or above range.

Another part of the mastery approach eliminates progress grading. Progress grading is the practice of averaging a student’s final grade based on tests and quizzes given during the academic cycle. Most students perform poorly on the final exam and are promoted based on this approach. The problem is the students who perform poorly on final exams clearly demonstrate that they have not mastered the material. That means that previous grades on quizzes and tests are of questionable value.

Progress tests and quizzes should only be used to assess student progress. They are teaching tools to inform the educator on where more emphasis should be directed in the teaching process. As tools of true student retention, they are of little value. I say student retention, because the tests and quizzes do inform the teacher about what the student understands in the short term, but little reflects what the student will retain in the longer term. Implementing a mastery approach to learning forces other changes in educational approaches as well. One of the first that must be abolished is peer based education. If students are promoted by their demonstration of knowledge, then there is no longer a need to take age into consideration when evaluating a student’s performance on academic subject matter.


Eliminating Peer Based Education

Peer based education is another practice that has negatively affected academic achievement. Peer based education is the practice of teaching and promoting students according to age group. 1st grade students are promoted to the 2nd grade together, and so on. There is serious social stigma associate with not being promoted with one’s peers, and it is this stigma that makes parents lobby schools and educators to promote children, even when academic performance determines they are unqualified. Being left behind can dramatically affect the self-esteem of a young person and educators understand this. Because educators feel a great burden to promote students in lockstep, they create loopholes in the system to allow student to avoid parental pressure and peer stigma.

The bundling of educational content by peer groups also causes further negative pressures on educators. We have 5th grade math bundled with 10th grade English and 5th grade history, etc. When a student is at jeopardy in one class because of poor academic performance, pressure is applied to the educator by parents and the student to move that child ahead with a deficient education in one or more peer bundled courses to keep that child advancing with his/her peers.

The academic effect of peer based education creates classrooms where students who are academically qualified to be in a class must share classroom resources with students who are not, or just barely qualified to occupy a seat. Educators must then “right size” their teaching to address this reality, and so the more qualified students are forced to receive a deficient education because scarce class resources are being diverted from the qualified students to the less qualified students. Additionally, many of the unqualified students fall further behind because they lack the prerequisite skills to effectively learn the new material. Over time, peer based education undermines the overall quality of education for all. Peer based education is one of the primary reasons our education system finds itself under serving or failing our young people in a new world where so many other distractions compete for their hearts and minds.

A mastery approach calls for academic subjects to be de-bundled and for students to be promoted to the next academic level by subject. A school system would have 12 levels of math identified. When a student has passed the mastery qualification for a given math level, that student is advanced to the next math level. In this approach, teaching becomes more simplified because every student in a given class has demonstrated they are qualified for the given level of academic learning. Educators no longer have to “right size” their teaching and more time is available to teach to the correct academic level.

Obviously, there are some classes that must be peer based because they are based on a child’s physical development. Subjects like health and physical education would still need a peer based curriculum. Overall, however, peer based education has out lived its effectiveness in the modern age.  Computer technology now make it possible to right pace the American classroom.

Your thoughts? Leave your comments below or write me at


Paul K. Lott, Sr. is the CEO of osBLUE Corporation and creator of SchoolBoogy, an innovative learning management system that combines a world class learning management system with social media technology to get kids engaged in education and keep them engaged.

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