Opinion: Imagine a school without grade levels | PostIndependent.com

Opinion: Imagine a school without grade levels

Dan Dougherty
Free Press Opinion Columnist

As Mesa County Valley School District 51 strives to transform into a 21st century school district, we’re looking for ways to improve our instructional approach as well. Currently, there is a digital divide between how students learn outside of school compared to how they learn inside a classroom. Teachers are doing a remarkable job with engaging students in relatively low-tech environments, but our entire system has to transform to achieve goals our community has for its students.

To that end, School District 51 plans to pilot the most promising research-based instructional model in the 2015-16 school year. The model, known as “mastery-based learning,” “performance-based learning,” or “personalized learning,” focuses on the personalized learning needs of each student. All three names seem to fit.

Students advance by demonstrating “mastery” of a learning module. Students increase their “performance” on testing because they take ownership of their learning and advance at their unique pace. And, instruction is “personalized” to individual students by allowing them to advance at their own pace and demonstrate mastery of a concept through more ways than testing alone. The instructional model is based on leading-edge research that suggests the traditional “seat-time based” model of education is not as compatible with how native digital students learn.


It’s hard to imagine a school without age-based grade levels. How would it work? Content levels replace grade levels. At first, that doesn’t sound very different, does it? In reality, this adjustment is totally transformative. Rather than passing through time-defined grade levels, students pass through mastery-based content levels. Advanced students no longer experience boredom while waiting for others. Students who need extra time with a subject no longer experience frustration of being left out as the teacher sets a pace to work through a time-limited semester. Most students are right in the sweet spot and are able to progress at a steady pace. This means students of several ages may be studying together at the same content level. Once students master the content level, they move forward without having to wait for the school year to change.


Mastery-based learning updates the century-old time-based learning centered on the Carnegie Unit. The Carnegie Unit measured educational attainment based on contact time with an instructor in a classroom. The Carnegie Foundation created the Carnegie Unit in 1906. The foundation also underwrote “Academic and Industrial Efficiency” to standardize educational output. In a nutshell, a Carnegie Unit equals 120 hours of instruction. The hours divide into class time of roughly an hour and semester or quarter schedules. Today, for example, a semester of class time typically equals half a Carnegie Unit or credit hour. Students take two semesters of a subject to receive a full credit.

Born from the Industrial Age, the challenge with the Carnegie Unit is it treats all students the same, as if they are all machine-stamped from steel. Educators understand each child to be a unique miracle that is perfectly different from all others. Mastery-based learning recognizes this fundamental human quality and accommodates instructional pace accordingly. Mastery-based learning replaces the idea of “seat time” as a measure of academic attainment with demonstrable mastery of the material as the measure. The approach moves students through the curriculum at their own paces and eliminates social/age-based promotion.


The scope of change required to transition from the Carnegie Unit approach to the mastery-based approach amounts to a comprehensive overhaul of the educational system. The curriculum is segmented into modular units that still progress along a scaffolding timeline, but culminate in a level of study instead of a year of study. Students take ownership and are more engaged in their learning. Teachers provide instruction while serving as learning coaches guiding students through the curriculum levels. Classrooms have multiple learning centers where various levels of learning occur simultaneously. Data sessions track student performance, and demonstration of mastery occurs through exams, presentations, projects, portfolios, or other pre-determined options.


Though the curriculum complexity is a constant, the way a student approaches and progresses through the curriculum is highly personalized. Personalized learning seems to address the most elusive challenge in education — student motivation. Theoretically, students are fully and appropriately engaged at all times, resulting in natural motivation. Being engaged significantly reduces behavior problems because students are neither bored nor checked out from frustration. These improvements in the educational experience of students result in higher achievement.


For a district of our size — 22,000 students and 44 schools — it’s not possible or practical to simply flip the switch and convert to a new instructional model. We first have to create a small pilot to perfect the transition, create a working model, and study its impact on learning. If the pilot is successful, plans will be developed to expand the model gradually to other district schools. This process will unfold over several years.

Currently, the school district is working with schools to identify teams who may be interested in developing the pilot. School District 51 is also working with the Lindsay Unified School District in California to develop the pilot. The Lindsay School District is entirely mastery-based and received a Race to the Top grant to perfect the process.

To learn more about mastery-based learning, visit the Lindsay website, http://www.lindsay.k12.ca.us, and http://www.reinventingschools.org. Further information about the pilot will be shared as it develops.

Free Press columnist Dan Dougherty is director of communications for School District 51: Mesa County Valley Schools. Comments and feedback are welcome at dan.dougherty@d51schools.org.

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