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Mastery Learning in Response to Intervention

I just finished watching a TED TALK by Sal Khan, founder of the Khan Academy. Sal was talking about mastery learning and the importance of building strong learning foundations before layering on additional information.

As I watched the video, I was thinking about why a stubborn 25% of most students in the upper elementary, middle, and high schools are reading two or more years below grade level.

Sal cites the example of a child who scores an average grade of 75% on a unit test. Most educators would accept 75% as an average score, and in fact most diagnostic assessments would accept 75—80% as mastery level; however, Sal points out the not knowing 25% of the test components is problematic. From the student's perspective: "I didn't know 25% of the foundational thing, and now I'm being pushed to the more advanced thing."

When students try to learn something new that builds upon these shaky foundations, "they hit a wall... and "become disengaged."

Sal likens the lack of mastery learning to shoddy home construction. What potential homeowner would be happy to buy a new home that has only 75% of its foundation completed (a C), or even 95% (an A)?

Of course, Sal is a math guy and math lends itself to sequential mastery learning more so than does my field of English-language arts and reading intervention. My content area tends to have a mix of sequential and cyclical teaching learning, as reflected in the structure of the Common Core State Standards. The author of the School Improvement Network site puts it nicely:

Many teachers view their work from a lens that acknowledges the cyclical nature of teaching and learning.  This teaching and learning cycle guides the definition of learning targets, the design of instructional delivery, the creation and administration of assessments and the selection of targeted interventions in response to individual student needs.

At this point, our article begins to beg the question: What if a shaky foundation is what we're dealing with now? We can't do anything about the past. Teachers can start playing the blame game and complain that we're stuck teaching reading to students who missed key foundational components, such as phonics. All-too-often, response to intervention teachers are ignoring shaky foundations and are trying to layer on survival skills without fixing the real problems.

Instead, teachers should re-build the foundation. Teachers can figure out what is missing in the individual student skill-sets and fill the gaps... this time with mastery learning.

Mark Pennington, MA Reading Specialist, is the author of the comprehensive reading intervention curriculum, Teaching Reading StrategiesA key component of the program is our 13 diagnostic reading assessments. These comprehensive and prescriptive assessments will help response to intervention reading teachers find out specifically which reading and spelling deficits have created a shaky foundation for each of your students. I gladly share these FREE Reading Assessments with teachers and welcome your comments and questions.

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Comment by Michelle A Erdt on July 10, 2019 at 1:48pm

Right on! No, I wouldn't buy a house where 75% of the foundation is solid. I was very fortunate at one time while working in an alternative middle school program to be able to revisit foundational skills at length. In fact, I took a group of 14 year olds back to basic phonics.They were not happy at first, but by the end  if the year several of the students exclaimed how  much it helped and they didn't even know they didn't know it. This was with a class of 12 kids in total. It is my hope that another teacher might step in for intervention prior to a student reaching high school lacking these skills because rebuilding such a necessary foundation is a lot more difficult with 100+ students. This is where the mind shift switch is so important.

Comment by Scott Habeeb on June 4, 2018 at 12:27pm

Thanks, Mark!  This is right in line with the philosophy of assessing FOR learning - rather than just assessment OF learning.  If we're FOR learning, then we have to make sure we build the foundation rather than move on to try and build the walls.

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