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80% is a B


Can you imagine flying with a pilot that only nails 80% of his landings? How about going under the knife with a surgeon that has a 75% success rate? Or having your house built by construction workers who measure lengths and angles with a confidence interval of 10%?


Absurd, isn’t it?!


We know the importance of mastery for success in the real world. So, why is it that we don’t value mastery as a foundational practice in our education systems? There are really only two possible answers. Either we don’t believe kids need to learn all the standards we have set before them and their teachers, or we don’t have the will to change our practices and be honest with parents and students about where students are really performing. Or both.


There is a growing consensus that not all students need to learn all the standards typically defined by state departments of education. More and more, we are recognizing that all students need a foundation of literacy: reading, writing, communicating, numeracy, scientific, and civic. And then their paths may take different trajectories depending on their aspirations, abilities, and opportunities.


Sadly, though, structures today prevent the kind of personal learning needed to support these notions. Instead, we continue to group students by age throughout their school careers and insist that they get instruction on the same thing in the same way on the same day, regardless of whether they learn it or not. Students (and teachers) get a specific amount of time for this content and then they must move on. Equally frustrating is the learner that needs to endure instruction related to content she has already mastered.


And, if the expected learning outcomes are organized the way the writers assert, then they are intended to build or scaffold on prior knowledge. With this assumption, the lagging student’s situation spirals quickly. Do the math. If a student only gets 80% of what he is to learn each year, in elementary school alone the learning can be calculated by:


K = 80%

1 = 80% of 80% of K = 64%

2 = 80% of 80% of 80% of 1 = 51.2%

3 = 80% of 80% of 80% of 80% of 2 = 41%

4 = 80% of 80% of 80% of 80% of 80% of 3 = 32.8%

5 = 80% of 80% of 80% of 80% of 80% of 80% of 4 = 13%


Is it any wonder that 1 out of 4 eighth graders in the United States is functionally illiterate? Functionally illiterate! While these numbers are certainly arguable, the concept is clear. Social promotion and our current model of schooling is failing the majority of our students. If you don’t believe me, just check out the percentage of students scoring below basic and basic on your state accountability exams. Basic is not on grade level. And, many of these students are many years below grade level. (See my first blog.)


It’s time that we get honest and real about what students know and are able to do. It is unfair to continue to communicate to students and parents false assurances in the form of satisfactory grades when in reality, students are not on track to be ready for college, career, or some other future goal. And, it’s time that we break the mold for class structures, schedules, and calendars. Let’s replace them with a model where students learn what they are ready to learn next, master it, and take as much or as little time as they need to do it.


As schools explore scenarios for bringing students back to school, it will be more important than ever to make sure we know where each student is and put a plan in place for each student to successfully move forward. Superintendents and staff need to be hard at work right now overhauling the system. Boards need to be setting expectations for systemic change and preparing to support the superintendent by communicating effectively with parents, the community, and the media about change and why it’s needed. Policy makers and state departments of education must remove any legislation or funding models that require seat time, that students attend school a specific number of days or hours, or any other practices that prevent schools from implementing flexible learning practices driven by individual student’s needs. Requirements to report rigid schedules and seat time in student information systems need to be eliminated. Carnegie unit courses need to be replaced by proficiency-based learning experiences and instead of discrete content domains, those experiences need to be based on real world learning where content domains are integrated and relational. Traditional grading practices need to be replaced by mastery-driven, competency-based reporting systems.


Yes, this is a huge undertaking. But, the adage “pay me now or pay me later” applies. Failing to prepare our children to be successful, productive members of society not only puts a financial burden on its citizens, but dooms the country to take business and industry abroad, devolve from leading with inventions and innovation to mass producing you-name-it, and destroying quality of life. It’s time to take an honest assessment of the situation and fix it.


Let’s do it!

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