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Mastery 3.0: Moving beyond turnarounds

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

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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