A master?

Did you read last week’s posts- Spiraling to assess learning  and Don’t be MEAN ?If not, you may want to start there, but if you insist on plowing ahead with this week’s post, I’ll do my best to close as many gaps as possible.

I recently ran in the Chicago Marathon, 26.2 miles around the city, and 18 of its amazing neighborhoods. I am not fast by any stretch of the imagination, but I am proud to say, “I beat more than 3,000 Masters Runners”. Yup. Sure, I got beat by 21,000 other runners. I also finished ahead of 25,000 “regular” runners, but the real bragging rights are that I beat some Masters….well, not really. You see, in the running world, a master’s runner is just someone over the age of 40. It isn’t an indication of talent, stamina, or speed. It’s all about age. So even though I finished in the middle of the pack, thanks to semantics, at least among runners, I am a master.

Running may be the only place on the planet where I would earn the title “master”. Watching popular primetime TV we can see what it takes to be a Master Chef…nope, not me. I am not a chess Grand Master. I have to really focus to even remember the difference between a rook and a bishop. I have never been in the military so I am not a Master Chief. Aside from my running experiences, the closest I have ever come to being considered a master was when I earned my MA in Educational Leadership a few years after acquiring my bachelor’s degree. But, owning a master’s degree is not quite the same thing as being a master.


In schools today, we are seemingly obsessed with labels. We call teachers distinguished, effective, and highly effective. We call students advanced, at-risk and sped. We throw labels around like they are badges of honor, when in reality all they do is hold us back.

Lately, I have heard a lot of conversation around the idea of mastery teaching, a conversation that I love and believe in passionately. It is the belief that we identify a standard target for students, we assess regularly, and differentiate as needed to help each student reach the goal. In essence, we teach to mastery. We teach so that students can be considered a master of the skills and content, but what does that really mean? What does it mean to earn the label of a master in a classroom? Does it mean we teach until students reach a designated age? Does it mean students have to outperform their peers? How do we determine if a student is a master? It’s really as easy as playing Tic Tac Toe.

In prior posts I wrote about the dangers of using the MEAN and how it is simply MEAN. I have written about identifying the essential learning targets and spiraling assessments. All of these topics come into play when we are working to determine mastery. Let me also state emphatically that teaching to mastery has nothing to do with simply trying to slap another label on a student. The goal is to make sure students have endurance of education. We want to make sure students don’t just cram for a test and then forget. We want to make sure students hold onto what they learn, that they can apply it in a variety of settings and that they find value in their new-found knowledge.

I like to use examples we can all relate to in my posts so as to not isolate any particular subgroup of educators, so let me use the standard teacher observation process as a simple example. It is a topic many of us can relate to as we live it on a regular basis.


Assume that this year you were observed twelve times by your administrator. This is your assessment of job performance. The first nine times you were observed you were scored “effective” (this is like a 3 out of 4 on a rubric). After each observation, you were given feedback and coaching so that by the end of the year, your last three observations consistently resulted in “highly effective” ( 4 out of 4)ratings.   If you were my teacher, and I were your administrator, at the end of the year, your designation would be “HIGHLY EFFECTIVE”. My job is to help grow teachers, to help each improve his/her practice. By the end of the year you have shown consistency in responding to that feedback/teaching, so using observations from the beginning of the year, before my incredible coaching and teaching were provided, against you, just wouldn’t be fair. I would never advocate that I needed to use the mean and just “average” your scores.


Now, take a look at the image above. Using the same premise, this time you still have three observations identified as Highly Effective and nine as Effective, should I draw the same conclusions about your final designation? Have you mastered teaching this year? I would argue, no. There is no consistent pattern. There is no frequency to the results. There is no evidence that what was taught actually endured.

This same mindset can be used when evaluating student evidence. I am a huge proponent of using rubrics and grids to guide student evidence collection. I believe doing so allows each assessment/assignment to be used as a diagnostic to help with future planning and instruction. Check out my last book: It’s Like Riding a Bike, for more information on that. The question always comes up though, how many times should a student have to prove he/she can do something to get credit. I say three.

A lot of us have heard about the “triangulation of data”. This means we should always use three data points to confirm the evidence. State assessment scores should match local assessment scores, should match classroom assessment scores. We should look at three samples, three score collection processes, etc…before drawing firm conclusions. I believe the same is true with student evidence of learning. I call it Tic Tac Toe grading. It’s all about getting three in a row.

If in your classroom you are not comfortable using rubric driven assessment, so you give a more traditional paper-pencil assessment/assignment to measure student learning, how many questions must a student answer to prove they understand a concept? Should they answer ten questions? One hundred? All the odd numbered questions? How about all the even? How many do they need to get correct? Is it 60%, 80%, 100%? If a child can answer nine out of ten, why did they miss one? Does that one matter? When we try to use percentages, we lose out on amazing opportunities.

I believe that when it comes to grading, frequency and recency matter. I believe it is our responsibility to represent through our feedback mechanisms (typically grading) what we believe with relative certainty is our assessment of student understanding and mastery. To do so, I believe using the power of 3, gives us a fair amount of certainty.

If you give students problems to do in a math class, I would tell my students, “As soon as you answer three in a row correctly, you are done”. For some students, this may be the first three questions they answer. For others, they may need more feedback, guidance, and practice. These students may need twenty or thirty attempts before getting three in a row. Both are great as they show consistency, and recency. Both sets of students are masters.

If you embrace the concept of spiraled assessment, perhaps you believe that a student must show 80% accuracy on any given assessment to show understanding. When you give future assessments, bringing in historical assessment items (again…go read this post for more information), and asking them to demonstrate that they have maintained this knowledge, three more times, would be great evidence.

Perhaps you are assessing using multiple methods and tools. Students may present their evidence through a project, a test, a debate, a paper, a collage, etc… To help increase your trust in the assessment and to bring about more validity to your inferences, asking students to use three different methodologies during any given unit, marking period, or lesson may give you greater confidence that students understand the topic.

I have shared this methodology with literally thousands of educators. The vast majority think it makes so much sense. The greatest barrier is always, the question: “But how does this get translated into a letter grade?”

Trust me, I get the reason behind the question, and I have written a lot about this topic. As a matter of fact, feel free to give me a call or shoot me an email and I will talk to you about it…that’s my actual cell number at the top of my website.

For now, though, a great starting point is to simply get a sheet of paper for each student you teach (this may be an entire notebook in high school). Put a child’s name at the top of the page. Down the left-hand column, simply list the essential standards you are going to teach this year. Make a grid. Each time you assess a student on the standard, identify whether or not the student was a master. You can do this with a score of 1,2,3,4. You can do this with a checkmark. You can do it with a percentage. Once you get three in a row…you’re done. That child is now a master. Move on. Teach something new. Focus on advancement. Celebrate success.





Want to learn more? Visit my website for links to other posts, information on my books, or to access my contact information. https://schmittou.net

On the 15th of each month, I will send out my 2 Cents to The Lasting Learners e-mail group. Sign up today and get my latest thoughts on leadership and assessment…and honest, it’s only ONE e-mail a month: http://eepurl.com/cQwHA1




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