This column originally appeared in Bridge.
Remember building towers out of blocks with your kids? Like any other construction project, you start with a wide, sturdy base and you move skyward one step at a time. Carefully, you layer one block on top of the next, being sure they balance along the way.
Parents know, though, that children aren’t often as patient as they need to be when they’re building towers and castles and playhouses for their knights and soldiers and dolls. Sometimes they start to add a block without as firm a layer beneath it as they need. Sometimes the absence of a big enough foundation beneath it causes the new block to fall. Sometimes the missing foundation makes the tower collapse and the castle crash to the ground.
Michigan’s public education system will be asked this fall to begin placing new blocks to push our students skyward, toward graduation, toward a devastated – maybe even crippled – job market. The question every parent, educator and reformer needs to be asking right now is whether or not as a state we’ve adequately built the previous layer.
The ongoing COVID-19 public health crisis and the decision from Governor Gretchen Whitmer spinning out of it to close the state’s schools and cancel three months of in-person learning has and will, inevitably, create devastating learning gaps for tens of thousands – maybe more – Michigan students, especially in districts where administrators remain more worried about adult problems than creative solutions to meet the needs of their kids.
A pandemic in 2020 and a historically frigid 2019 have taught us the old model no longer works. It’s not good enough for our kids. They deserve better than a system that’s built around arbitrary calendars and unscientific seat time requirements. They deserve a system that’s built around them.
Now’s the time — this spring and summer — to explore, to develop, and to deploy a new way of doing things in Michigan schools. It’s time for a switch to mastery-based learning.
Mastery education is a new concept for a lot of us. It’s pretty straightforward, though. In a mastery-based education model, students learn, they grow, they develop skills and not until they’ve demonstrated a sufficient comprehension of one level of learning in a subject do they move to the next.
In other words, that tower of blocks gets built carefully, and the next layer isn’t applied until the layer beneath it is sound. No rushing. No avalanche. No crash.
Making the switch now would help districts identify education gaps created during the COVID-19 crisis and address them to ensure students learn the material, content, or skills needed before moving to the next subject.
From there, we set Michigan’s kids loose in the classroom and empower their teachers to do what they do best.
It’s a model that allows those who are ready for more to tackle more without being constrained by a one-size-fits-all schedule, and it empowers those who are struggling with a topic or a subject to get extra and personalized help from certified public school teachers.
It’s where students are embraced and celebrated for their differences. They’re encouraged to pursue their talents and passions. Our state’s brilliant and committed teachers are unleashed to educate their students, not merely comply with failed one-size-fits-all requirements that have nothing actually to do with classroom learning.
It’s a system that would require a change in the way our schools operate. With the public schools already in a state of systemwide upheaval caused by the fight against the coronavirus, now’s the perfect time to make sure schools are ready to build a sturdier tower, one kid at a time.
Beth DeShone is Executive Director of the Great Lakes Education Project.