In a compelling piece for the Washington City Paper, D.C. high school teacher Rob Barnett has confessed his anguish at passing students who haven’t mastered the content of his math courses and described his radical solution.
It’s called mastery learning. Barnett recorded all of his lessons, put them online and let each student move through them at his or her own pace. “They must show they understand one topic before advancing to the next,” he said. “I think of myself not so much as a teacher but as a facilitator of inquiry.”
This method is not new. I remember a Virginia high school that tried it 20 years ago. Barnett identified charter schools in Yuma, Ariz., and Chicago that are having success with it. It is a logical way to deepen the education of our children and, as Barnett discovered in his classes, inspire initiative. “They learn to assess their own understanding, to ask for help when they need it, and to teach themselves and their peers without my guidance,” he said.
But mastery learning is almost completely at odds with American school traditions. Barnett had difficulty, for instance, dealing with the required annual D.C. tests that assume everyone learns at the same pace.
A parent I know in Michigan found his public school system helpful at first, but it eventually reacted to his daughter’s fast pace under a makeshift mastery program as though the child had violated the dress code.