Teaching Mastery vs Teaching Grade Levels
Education is more than test scores, job preparation, or getting into college.
An in-depth introduction into how to "do" out-of-the-box philosophies with an accountable mastery approach
We’ve seen and perhaps been inspired by the philosophies which state that children should be educated in a way that instills a life-long love of learning.
“Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life” – Charlotte Mason
“The myth is that it is possible for one human being to educate another.” – Oliver DeMille
"You cannot teach a person anything; you can only help him find it within himself." – Galileo
“Our care of the child should be governed, not by the desire to make him learn things, but by the endeavor always to keep burning within him that light which is called intelligence.” – Maria Montessori
How does a home educating parent actually implement such powerful ideas?
When parents struggle to implement any of the well-known out-of-the box philosophies, it isn’t because their kids don’t want to learn or that the philosophy can’t work. Typically, it is because parents are fighting to let go of the conventional educational systems they have been trained on themselves – and the very thought of letting these systems go can be absolutely frightening!
“When we really delve into the reasons for why we can’t let something go, there are only two: an attachment to the past or a fear for the future.” — Marie Kondo
“Ignorance is the parent of fear.” — Herman Melville, Moby-Dick
“Men go to far greater lengths to avoid what they fear than to obtain what they desire.” — Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code
“A man that flies from his fear may find that he has only taken a shortcut to meet it.” — J.R.R. Tolkien, The Children of Húrin
"The public school model is inefficient and ineffective in every way, yet evokes a fear in people which controls every decision about personal compliance to that model" - Dianne Kelley
Taking time to examine the history of why and how the federal government became involved in public schools in the early 1900’s will show that the intention was not, for the better part, to educate a life-long love of learning. Rather, the system was specifically designed to train ready-workers for the industrial movement. Unfortunately, nothing about that intention has changed in over 120 years.
What this system has repeatedly implemented, unsuccessfully, is creating segments of a population which has the same level of general knowledge as everyone else in any particular segment. For example, the expectation is that every 8 year old “should be” performing at the 3rd grade level in math and reading.
A short digression: math and language arts are the essential milestones of state and federal testing. Students are not evaluated on their level of knowledge for any other subject. Even with the ACT and SAT exams, history and science are only present as critical thinking entries, and do not test knowledge. The student reads a passage or examines data, and determines the best answer from 3-4 choices. Students are not expected to have memorized historical events, names, or dates, nor do they need to know physics or chemistry to get a high score on the SAT or ACT.
Armed with that knowledge, why would parents want to replicate that same system in their home? There isn’t any state in the U.S., or province in any other country that this writer is aware of, which requires a homeschool parent to create a classroom environment and sit their children at desks and watch a clock.
With that, how do homeschool parents “get it all done” without the only type of structure they have ever known?
The answer to this question, is a question: What are they trying to “get done”?
New homeschool parents will generally purchase grade level curriculum which models the primary education that parents are familiar with. These curricula are aligned to public schools and packed with excessive “busy work” to keeps seats in chairs in a classroom environment. With students in more than one grade level, home educating parents can quickly become overwhelmed. Even more so when it comes to enrolling in online charter schools, even though these are marketed to be student-led with a supervisory teacher who can answer questions or provide guidance over video conference.
Short digression: Charter schools are federally funded public schools, and are not protected via homeschool laws. They are not homeschool programs, they are “school at home” programs. Regulations and structure are decided by each state, however there are federal guidelines they must follow to qualify for funds each year. Funds are received from the federal government at a state level and then trickled down through whatever system each individual state chooses to implement. Money aside, the educational part is insufficient for actual home-based learning and the retention rates of families is a constant revolving door. Some have enlisted outside recruiters to implement “reimbursement” programs for families in order to entice and retain enrollment, which is technically against the federal guidelines.
In reality, students are not equipped to be independent, particularly if they are entering into a distance learning program from a public or private institution. Parents and students in distance learning programs end up, for the most part, arguing most of the day about why work isn’t getting done.
The number one question which distance learning parents often ask in their first year:
“How do I get my child to do their work?”
While most responses to this question will be in the form of other parents talking about rewards, punishments, and consequences, this is generally not a parenting issue. It is an issue with the system which parents are trying to replicate. They were promised something miraculous, and have instead received boxes of “stuff to get done” in a particular amount of time.
The easiest solution would be to withdraw from the public school model, however, this puts parents at the helm of deciding what to teach and how to teach it and honestly, most feel inadequate. The fear and inadequacy, again, is not based on reality but rather on the false conditioning that only certified teachers can properly educate a child.
To be clear, certified teachers are trained to implement and comply with the public school model and requirements. If parents want to move away from that ineffective system, then they must take the helm.
At this point in discussion or enlightenment, the next question almost all new homeschool parents ask is:
“Where do I find a curriculum or program that my child can do independently that isn’t a public online school?”
There isn’t a curriculum that any child can do independently, unless they have mastered self-motivation, self-directed learning, and have a genuine interest in the subject. These skills are not taught or commanded, they are instilled through example, over time. They can’t be mastered in 2 weeks or 2 months or any time expectation. They are lifelong skills.
The individuals who must model these skills are the parents or educational mentor. If parents are not willing to learn and model the appropriate skills for love of learning, then they can’t expect their children to simply materialize a love of learning.
Some of the philosophies say this is not true. For example, the TJed philosophy leans that if you leave a child to their own curiosity, they will learn whatever they want to learn. While this is an incredibly powerful point, it is probably the most frightening gamble of all the “out of the box” philosophies for parents to embrace.
The issue is not with the philosophy itself, because that statement is only one part of the whole concept of leadership education which TJed embraces. A key part of this philosophy is that parents must be willing to be the role model or help their child find a suitable mentor.
Children emulate the people they trust and are closest to. If a child sees their parent grumbling about learning new things, the child will learn to grumble about learning new things. The same concept applies when a child repeatedly sees their parent get excited about something new they are learning. That child will be more eager to learn new things because this behavior has been modeled to them. Parents cannot be impatient about this, it takes time.
The most prevalent challenge in learning and modeling new behaviors, is that most often when a parent gets to the point of frustration and is considering one of these out of the box philosophies, there is justifiable fear that if they stop doing any formal learning, their child will fall behind. Or, the child will not embrace the style, or perhaps fear that a spouse or relative will be in opposition. And many parents state frankly, that they are simply not interested or not willing to invest time in reading or gaining knowledge for themselves. They just want something that will provide success that can be measured, ironically, against the same ineffective public school system they are trying to avoid.
Thus, we circle back to the reality that children who have not mastered self-led learning, will not self-lead. Love of learning is not taught, it is modeled and mentored. It is irrelevant how easy the curriculum is to implement without supervision, or how many worksheets are included to keep the child busy, or how much the parent spends on it. No such curriculum exists to accomplish love of learning without someone to mentor and model the behavior for the student and for the student to embrace it.
So where do parents get the training to learn how to model lifelong love of learning? Mentors and coaches can be expensive, particularly if they are enlisted in a one-on-one format. There are many options, however, the best training a parent can get is to understand the entire picture of what conventional education is, what it was, and how to create the perfect education for each individual child.
We have discussed briefly what education is today, but what it was before the federal government got involved in the early 1900’s is equally, if not more important, to evaluate.
Prior to 1906, public schools in the U.S. were solely organized and funded by their local community. They had grade levels, but not in the same structure as we see today. Students moved forward in grade levels by way of mastery, not age or time. Someone could begin formal schooling at age 12, and by the age of 15 they have mastered everything required to finish a general education, which was 5th grade. Keep in mind that 5th grade in 1880, was equivalent to what we consider a general high school education in 2023. A 5th grade graduate was proficient enough in reading, writing, and arithmetic to run their own farm or business and balance a bank account.
The next three grade levels were, for most states, completely optional. For a student to graduate from 6th grade, they needed to understand basic history and geography. To graduate at the 8th grade level required much deeper knowledge in mathematics and science, and the 8th grade graduation exam was not the multiple choice exams we see today. The questions required specific essay type answers, and if the student could not convey the correct answer in written form, they simply did not pass. Most people today in the U.S. with Master’s Degrees cannot pass the same exam which 8th graders took prior to the 1900’s.
The psychological conditioning which began at the turn of that century and continues through this day, leads us to believe that education somehow improved by adding 4 years to school and forcing compulsory attendance through the 12th grade. A simple comparison of the 8th grade exam from 1890 to the SAT exams today, makes clear the dumbing down of general knowledge.
Comparing curriculum content across the current grade levels from about 5th grade through 12th, shows that nothing new was added to education with the reorganization in 1906. Rather, curriculum was rinsed and repeated simply for the sake of keeping children in their seats for 12 years.
Most children have difficulty loving learning when it is approached as a list of checkbox requirements, and most parents get overwhelmed in checking off those boxes. It is not an exciting or inspiring way to teach or learn.
When effort is made to strip out all of the redundancy across grade levels, and reorganize content back to the way it was organized before 1900, we can see more clearly how a mastery approach to education versus a grade level approach can be more successful.
Once parents understand how mastery versus passing grades is more efficient and effective, then they gain more clarity on how the out of the box philosophies of teaching love of learning can actually work. Mastery worked for thousands of years and was only replaced less than 120 years ago with the current ineffective systems.
Parents don’t have to spend years pulling curriculum apart and putting it back together, if they can find a mentor or coach who has already done that. The challenge is finding a mentor or coach who has also taken out the time factor, when most have marketed their materials as “a complete 180-day program.” The mindset that you must take 180 days to complete a grade level is the same mindset that was instilled in the reorganization of public schools.
That said, most state homeschool laws mention 180 days of attendance, or 180 hours per subject. Parents should examine their state homeschool laws more closely, as every state requiring “180” anything, uses the word “equivalent” because it is impossible to regulate content and time. Thus, the verbiage goes something like, “parents must teach the equivalent of 180 hours of math…” or “parents must report the equivalency of 180 days of attendance…”
Equivalency is a relative term, however the interpretation is skewed more often than is reasonable or necessary. If a particular lesson is stated in a curriculum guide as the equivalent of one hour of language arts, and it takes a child two hours to complete the lesson, it is still only equivalent to one hour. Likewise, if it takes a child 10 minutes to complete the lesson, it is also equivalent to one hour.
Next, if we actually remove the checkbox of completing “lesson content” and focus on mastering “concepts”, we then begin to interpret equivalency in a much more efficient and effective way.
Let us pull 8-10 years of curriculum apart and examine the concepts taught, and leverage the example that language arts lessons at the 5th grade level are nothing more than busy work to keep children who are approximately 10 years old at the same 5th grade level. While they might be learning to develop writing skills, there is no reason why writing skills at the 9th grade level should not be taught to a 10 year old.
Even if that student is considered “behind” or has cognitive issues, parents should note that if they completely ditch the 5th through 8th grade level language arts curriculum, their 10 year old is actually working “ahead” of same-age peers.
This should not be frightening, but refreshing to know that your child now has five years to master one year of language arts. Simply put, they have 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th, and 9th “grade years” to master the 9th grade level language arts concepts and skills. This includes reading, writing, and communication skills.
As far as reading material, parents do not have to use the exact same books that public schools use to teach the concepts. They can use classic literature that is appropriate to whatever their belief is, and accomplish the same goals. However, when it comes to writing and communication, a 10 year old can begin learning the same terminology, grammar, and conventions as a 14 year old and do quite well.
So when applying this type of mastery teaching and learning to 180 hours per year of language arts, a child is actually doing the equivalent of 180 hours for the years their parent is required to report. They are just not in the public school redundancy process, they are in a mastery process and working at a higher level.
To assess mastery is a completely different approach than assessing grade levels. This can be tricky when parents are required to report in a system that is looking for specific alignment, but it is a simple process. Mastery means that the student has mastered the concept with 100 percent accuracy and comprehension.
When we see conventional report cards or school transcripts, the grades are either letter grades or percentage grades or both. In that conventional system, a “D” or a 60 percent is considered a passing grade. When children bring home report cards with A’s and B’s, parents rarely see this as a red flag. Even a “C” grade is often considered by parents to simply warn their child to try better next time.
The problem with grades that are 75 percent, 85 percent, or even 95 percent, is that this is a clear indication that the student did not understand 100 percent of the concepts in a particular subject. Rarely, if ever, do parents, teachers, or administrators address this. If a student passes, it is sufficient to move them to the next grade level.
Shuffling students through grade levels is an ineffective system and does not constitute an actual education or love of learning methodology. It leaves the door open for that 10, 15, or 20 percent of missed concepts to lead to academic failure and academic self-esteem issues.
A student who gets all “B’s” considers themselves an average student, and it is expected that this student can get by in most things in life, and parents generally are okay with it. The student who has all “A’s” doesn’t necessarily consider themselves an exceptional student, and generally that student isn’t as confident as parents or teachers presume. Few straight “A” students consider themselves “smart”, but rather “lucky” in test taking. The reality pierces through when these “exceptional” students are placed into higher level classes and expected to perform well.
So when we examine these psychological factors in conventional grading and grade levels, we can see that there must be a better way to learn and teach than simply testing for a score. However, parents see the word “mastery” and immediately go to a psychological mindset that their children must already be exceptional in order to implement such an approach. This is untrue.
Take for example, children on the Autism Spectrum who tend to light up with excitement when asked to share what they know and love. Likewise, Spectrum children tend to withdraw when quizzed on what they don’t know. An exceptional student is one who thrives on learning, not one who knows everything. Spectrum kids are exceptional students.
In mastery, the approach is deep and wide and models the various styles of leadership education. If a student has mastered a concept (not an entire year of lessons, but an individual concept), they will be able to confidently and successfully teach it back to their mentor (usually the parent), or to a younger student. A student who has mastered the skill of writing narrative essays, will be able to effectively edit a narrative essay from another student and confidently mentor them to polish their writing skills through leadership.
A short digression: Writing narrative essays is one of four essay writing skills for students to master in order to be ready for first year college writing. If a parent begins teaching high school level essay writing younger than high school and rotates them regularly, the essay writing skills will be mastered more effectively than the dumbed down public school curriculum allows.
Of course, there are many facets to language arts besides reading and writing. Grammar and conventions are essential, as well as a variety of communications in both written and spoken form. Every concept can be taught and assessed to mastery. Every assessment of mastery can invoke a lifelong love of learning where leadership can naturally take form. Parents just need to know what concepts need to be mastered, and model them or find models that exhibit them.
To report mastery in a state or province where conventional reporting is required, a homeschool parent simply needs to master the skill of how to interpret what was done to what is required, the equivalency factor. For some parents, this is mastered in a few moment of understanding. Other parents need to return again and again each time they have to report, so they feel confident in their reporting. When it comes to higher goals such as getting into college, parents need accurate information. A good mentor or coach should be able to assist with easing any fears as well as reviewing plans and goals.
Embracing the idea that one needs to get fit is one thing, but implementing fitness is an entirely different mindset. Books and online apps don’t motivate people. If someone wants to get fit and needs someone to motivate and guide them, they hire a fitness coach. If a business owner needs to bounce ideas off someone to grow their business, they hire a business mentor or a business coach. Certified teachers go through 4-6 years of college and certification programs. We could cite numerous examples of why people hire mentors and coaches.
Most homeschool mentors are one-dimensional in their approach. Generally, they either don’t care to understand the how or why of curriculum or reporting, or they don’t have the experience to step outside the box in a realistic way. Organizational time charts, chore and consequence charts, and the like, are not going to resolve the real challenges that exist in education. Many bloggers are in the business of promoting curriculum or educational products for vendors who pay them affiliate commissions, not that there’s anything wrong with affiliate marketing. It does muddy the waters though, as far as the legitimacy of recommendations and reviews.
In summary, the mastery approach is an effective way to teach outside the conventional box of education, and completely eliminates the many frustrations of grade level academics. It provides freedom and flexibility to challenged students, and allows them to advance or slow down at will, while accomplishing much more depth and breadth of knowledge.
Homeschool parents should consider a mentor or a coach, particularly if they are wanting to implement and navigate the love of learning process and they have never had anyone model this type of learning or teaching for them. Embracing a philosophy and desiring it for your family is one thing, implementing that philosophy is a different mindset.
To implement, it takes understanding of all the back story points in this article, but it also takes guidance from someone who has worked with a variety of families and situations. Parents should look for someone who has a deep understanding of curriculum and academic content, and who is willing to assist the parent in real time at an individualized level.
How The Simple Scholar Can Help:
The Simple Scholar is a powerful resource to take parents by the hand and walk them through the multi-dimensional processes of implementing out of the box philosophies. Dianne Kelley has studied, dismantled, and reassembled 12 years of public education into a simplified process that can be implemented in less than half the time, and to a mastery approach. She specializes in helping parents make the transition from conventional education to any out of the box philosophy with ease. She has worked with thousands of homeschool families involving everything from special needs, as well as preparing for high school to university goals.
Her programs are intended to be parent-led and parents find the teaching easy to implement which relieves all the pressure they may have had previously with juggling multiple grade levels and long days of checking off boxes. Students who were labeled behind, begin excelling in areas they didn’t think were possible.
Families who switch to The Simple Scholar mastery approach tend to have more time on their hands to get out of the house and enhance the love of learning journey, without the overwhelming feeling that they aren’t doing enough. The entire process of searching out lists of concepts has already been simplified and is in a ready to go format for her members to learn with confidence that they are being thorough in this approach. Yet, the process is entirely individualized for each child based on their skill, not their age or grade.
The Simple Scholar offers a hybrid service where premium members have 24/7/365 access to recorded courses, workshops, and resources, but also receive unlimited one-on-one assistance in live monthly mentoring sessions, all at an accessible rate. Her live high school transcript preparation service is unsurpassed and she provides this at no additional cost to her premium members.
For unlimited access to all workshops, courses, and mastery training as well as monthly live mentoring, choose the Premium membership by CLICKING HERE.