About Education: Essay #1, “Mastery Learning”

From my writings on a local journalist’s blog from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on January 12, 2012:


“All students do not master curriculum concepts at the same rate. This is the result of many factors. -Some students have higher IQs than others. -Some have dysfunctional family environments which may cause an inability to focus. -Some have learning disabilities. -Some have mental illness or emotional problems. -Some have physical impairments. -Generational poverty can effect the ability of some students to learn.

Students cannot master concepts unless they are taught on their correct instructional levels. The state’s curriculum requirements – although excellent in the ideal – do not address the myriad instructional levels of students within each grade level. Instead, a one-size-fits-all grade level excellent curriculum has been required of all students, irrespective of their varying functioning levels. This dichotomy has caused massive numbers of students, in Georgia, to fail grade level curriculum content. Eventually, students who are taught on their frustration levels will drop out of school.

Mastery learning requires that each student be taught on his or her precise instructional level, whatever his or her grade level. It also requires that each student be advanced through the curriculum continuum at a rate commensurate with his or her ability to actually master each concept within that continuum.

To be more specific, if a given student’s IQ is 90 and another student’s IQ is 140, they will never be able to learn the same grade level curriculum at the same rate although each can achieve mastery of the same curriculum, if their rates of learning are individually adjusted. When, however, ALL students are required to advance through grade level curriculum – at the SAME rate – some students will find themselves falling further and further behind others. (This example of IQ variation is only one factor, of many, which necessitates a variable learning rate for each student.) To achieve mastery of statewide curriculum for all students, educational leaders, and parents, must work together to ensure that mastery learning is occurring for each student throughout his or her educational career.

One reason many students have failed to master the state’s science curriculum tests is because their reading levels have not been adequate to handle the complex sentence structure, nor the specialized vocabulary, within either science curriculum tests or science grade level textbooks. Students’ reading skills should be one focus of all teachers as they instruct their students – from kindergarten through twelfth grade

Targeting pre k – 3rd grade for instruction will help to offset many variables in children. However, precise instructional placement and rate of learning for each student – from kindergarten through high school – must continuously be addressed in order to ensure the academic success of each student in Georgia. That includes curriculum areas as varied as mathematics and language arts.

The recently developed state-of-the-art computer access of each student’s standardized test scores (and academic developmental history) should help teachers pinpoint targeted individualized instruction for their students.

When I was in graduate school, I learned that there are 3 levels of learning: Frustration, Instructional, Independent. I learned that for any student to be successful in learning, he must continuously be taught on his Instructional level. Taught on his Frustration level, he will fail and give up. Taught on his Independent level, he will become bored and give up.

Precise Instructional Level placement (continually adjusted over time) is the answer for success for each student.

Instructional Level must be identified (continually over time) through testing.

Instructional Level must be maintained by adjusting Time/Rate of learning (individually)”

(1) A special “thank you” to “teacher&mom,” who also posted on this AJC blog, for the following video link regarding the excellent Finnish schools.

(2) Another special “thank you” to “Wascatlady” who posted the following comments on the AJC blog, “Get Schooled,” on August 3, 2015, and who gave me permission to post her idea, below, for scheduling in order to accommodate mastery learning relative to varied rates of learning by different students:


“What I am concerned about is late work that is just busywork–does not show mastery.  I suspect there is too much of this.  That a student might take longer than a semester to master a subject would not be incredible, but we need to set it up in advance so that that is a possibility.  In other words, move the class that is not mastered (where there is some hope of mastery) to a credit-recovery mode where the student restudies and retakes the appropriate tests (not watered down, make-work).  But we must also be willing to admit that some kids need two full semesters of regular instruction to master a skill if their preliminary skills are poor.”


For those who may wish to know my educational background:

I earned a B.A. in English from The City College of New York (CUNY), and a M.Ed. (Reading Specialist) from Georgia State University.  I began my 35 year educational career as an English teacher for 7th – 10th grade students.  A few years after I had earned my Masters degree, I became a reading specialist in a multiaged model school for the continuous progress of students, grades 1 – 7. Thereafter, I was promoted to the role of Instructional Lead Teacher in that same school. In the last half of my educational career, I was a reading teacher to college-bound juniors and seniors in a suburban public high school where I, also, served as the Reading Department Chair for the schoolwide reading program, and as the Student Support Team Chair for the school.  Below is more detailed information about my educational experiences, which I posted on the same journalist’s blog on January 12, 2012:

“My principal (of the model continuous progress, mastery learning school, 1st – 7th grades), from whom I learned much regarding Mastery Learning, was the former Associate Superintendent for Instruction for the school system in which I worked.

As an Instructional Lead Teacher of that 1st – 7th model school for almost a decade, I monitored the progress of thousands of students, in mathematics and reading, during their years in the school. I developed a chart for recording each student’s academic developmental history so that I could make wise suggestions to teachers regarding each student’s successful academic advancement. Today, that access is available through computer data systems throughout Georgia through Georgia’s Department of Education. Teachers no longer have to take many hours to gather that information from each student’s permanent folder, in main office vaults, as had been true for me, in my era.

Later, as a high school Reading Department Chair, I supervised the testing of all students in grades 9 – 11, yearly, for over a decade in order to help teachers better pinpoint instruction for their students. We tested thousands of students. In 9th grade, alone, the range of reading levels, each year, was, invariably, from grade level 3 to grade level 16, with half of the students testing on 6th grade reading level or below.

I cannot emphasize, enough, based on my experiences above, how important the principles that I have shared on this thread are to ensure that students’ academic outcomes in Georgia become as excellent as Georgia’s present curriculum standards are.

I hope that anyone, who is an educator, who reads this post, will share this information with other educators.”

It is also my hope that parents, and others, will find the educational information that I post on “Mary Elizabeth Sings” helpful in fostering the academic and emotional development of our young people.

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18 Responses to About Education: Essay #1, “Mastery Learning”

  1. Dr. Craig Spinks/ Georgians for Educational Excellence says:

    Mary Elizabeth,

    I’m finding your postings in the “Getting Schooled” blog on the AJC most useful in gathering information for a study of teacher- and parent-perceptions of problems facing PubEd in our state.

    Copies of this study will be hand-delivered to Maureen, John Barge, and legislators.

    Thanks for your continuing interest in your profession.


    • teacher and mom says:

      Dr. Craig,
      I hope you will find a way to publish a copy of the study for everyone to read. I appreciate your commitment to improving education in GA and I hope Dr. Barge is receptive to your research study.

    • Dr. Spinks,

      Thank you for your commitment to excellence in education in Georgia and for recognizing the value of the educational principles and techniques that I have tried to communicate with others.

      I am delighted to read that your study, which will incorporate some of those principles and techniques, will be delivered to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s educational columnist Maureen Downey, Georgia’s State School Superintendent Dr. John Barge, and Georgia’s legislators.

      If I can help to foster the advancement of students in reaching their full potential, my heart will be filled with both humility and joy. I will continue to post educational essays on “Mary Elizabeth Sings.” I hope that you will find my future essays beneficial to others, also.

      My best regards to you, as well as my appreciation, Mary Elizabeth

  2. Teacher and Mom says:

    Hi Mary Elizabeth. I enjoyed your post. At some point in the future, I would love to “pick your brain” about reading skills and tracking data. I fear that true reading specialist practitioners are becoming a thing of the past. An over reliance on computer programs and scripted reading programs is quickly and efficiently moving teachers away from true reading instruction and formative assessments that get to the heart of reading issues. I don’t think this is a deliberate transition, but the reliance on technology to “diagnose and treat” reading skills has created an unpleasant side effect of reading instruction atrophy.

    (It reminds me of a nurse who forgets how to use an old-fashioned sphygmometer after years of relying on an automated one and only having to read the nice data screen. )

    To add to the problem, you have an increase in teachers at the secondary level who have never had a single reading instruction course. Your excellent suggestion of using SQ3R to help struggling readers was spot on! However, I can guarantee you that many readers on the AJC blog and even in my school building would have no idea what the acronym represents or how to successfully implement it into their classroom. The “alternate certification” route is to blame. The idea that one only needs content knowledge to be successful at the secondary level is very damaging.

    I have bookmarked your site and I will be visiting again.

    Blessings – “teacher and mom”

  3. Teacher and Mom,

    Thank you for your interest in my ideas and in my blog. I will be posting additional instructional information in future posts. I hope you will find those essays helpful, as well. I try to post approximately twice a month.

    The “computer age” is helpful in that computers can compile data about each student’s progress and background quickly, but they can never replace a “flesh and blood” teacher. As a Reading Department Chair of a major suburban high school, I taught Advanced Reading classes to college-bound juniors and seniors, but I also worked closely with my peer reading teacher, who taught Personalized Reading to those students who were below grade level (and some who were above grade level).

    A particular 11th grade student tested on 6th grade level on the Nelson Reading Test, which we used for placement purposes. That would have placed him in Personalized Reading with other below-grade-level reading students. However, my intuition told me that I needed to work with this student after school, one-on-one, in order to obtain more precise diagnostic results. After I heard him read aloud, and after I had orally quizzed him on what he had read, I recognized why his standardized test results were misleading. He was reading so rapidly that he was not taking the time to process the information read. I told him to slow down, to stop at the end of each sentence, and to reflect upon what he had read. I used the essential part of SQ3R with him, which was to (1) Question him about what he had read after a sentence or two, and ask him to (2) Recite back to me what he had (3) Read. That simple technique improved his reading skills, tremendously. He learned how to help himself to read with greater comprehension. His was a unique diagnosis in which a standardized test score, alone, could not have provided the correct diagnosis because a standardized test could not have given the detailed analysis which I provided to him and his parents, after working with him one-on-one, using his standardized reading test score as a starting point. That is the art of teaching.

    The end result was that this student was placed in Advanced Reading, instead of in Personalized Reading, and he increased his verbal SAT score by 160 points through being in Advanced Reading. My simple diagnosis, and his strong improvement because the diagnosis was correct, not only helped him to improve his academic skills, but it changed his perception of himself, and helped him to attend the college of his choice; thus, probably changing his life.

    I look forward to exchanging more thoughts with you in the future, teacher and mom. Thank you for your kind words. Blessings to you, also, Mary Elizabeth

  4. Pingback: About Education: Essay # 5, “Assessing Teachers and Students” | maryelizabethsings

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  7. Bruce Kendall says:

    I found your blog today. Interesting.

  8. Pingback: Instructional Management of Many Classroom Groups through Hiring Instructional Lead Teachers | maryelizabethsings

  9. Mrs. Mary, thank you for sharing this post. But, I really need help to decide whether Instructional Level holds for all grades. In which level the eleventh grade students belong to? Is it instructional level?

    Hopefully you read and reply my comment 🙂

  10. Thank you for your question, Hera. Instructional Level does hold true for all grades. Students in the 11th grade will normally have a range of reading abilities by instructional grade levels, as determined by standardized testing within the 11th grade. I was taught in graduate school in which I earning an M.Ed. as a Reading Specialist for grades 1 – 12, that the higher the grade in school, the greater will be the range of students’ reading abilities for that grade in school. In a complete 11th grade class roll of 100 students, some may be reading on 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, etc. through college level reading skills. The only way to know for certain is to chart, through the students’ academic profiles or through a grade administered standardized reading test, such as the Nelson and Nelson-Denny Reading Tests, the vocabulary and comprehension reading scores for every student in the 11th grade. The instructional level for a given student will be the level on which he or she can perform successfully, whether that be on 5th grade reading level or 12th grade reading level, while the student is in the 11th grade in school.

    This same parallel will exist in every grade level in school. Students must be taught on their individual Instructional Levels in order to grow. However, if a student is reading within 2 years of his grade in school (or on 9th grade reading level in 11th grade), he should do okay academically in 11th grade, but he will not grow effectively if he is reading on 5th grade reading level and taught through 11th grade textbooks which have at least a 9th grade readability level. The only way that particular student will grow effectively in 11th grade is if he is taught on his own Instructional Level, which has been identified through testing as 5th grade level. Of course, teachers use discretion and can effectively group students together who are reading on 5 – 7th grade levels while they are in the 11th grade in subgroups from the norm. Please refer to this link entitled, “Cyndie’s Story,” which is a true story of one of my former 11th grade students.


    Please ask me further questions, if this answer has not clarified what Instructional Level means for you. Again, thank you for your question and for reading my blog.

    • Hera Fitra Lubis says:

      Thank you for responding my question, Mrs. Mary. The above explanation is very helpful 🙂 So, if the score of cloze test of 11th grade students’ get in instructional level, ca we say that the text are readable for them? I still cant find the theory about it yet

      • Hera Fitra Lubis says:

        Thank you for responding my question, Mrs. Mary. The above explanation is very helpful 🙂 So, if the score of cloze test of 11th grade students’ get in instructional level, can we say that the text are readable for them? I still cant find the theory about it yet

  11. Yes, Hera, if the CLOZE test administered to an 11th grade student for a specific 11th grade textbook indicates that that student is on instructional level for that textbook, then that would mean that that student’s 11th grade textbook would be readable for that student.

    In addition to the CLOZE test, I would recommend that you ask the individual 11th grade student to read aloud for you, privately, at least one paragraph, preferably two paragraphs, from that 11th grade textbook in order for you to ascertain, further, if he or she is able to read the textbook adequately, or if he or she is struggling with the words, or meanings of the paragraphs, after you have asked the student a comprehension question or two about each paragraph that the student had read aloud for you.

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