This is the sixth post of my Mastering Mastery-Based Learning in NYC tour. Start with the first post on NYC Big Takeaways and then read about NYC’s Mastery CollaborativeThe Young Woman’s Leadership School of AstoriaFlushing International, and KAPPA International.

Imagine my surprise as Lew Gitelman greeted me when we arrived at North Queens Community High School. Pure delight. Twenty years ago, Lew Gitelman, co-founder of Diploma Plus, which has been replicated in many schools across the country, was the first person to patiently walk me through what competency-based education looked like in a school and classroom. After lots of hugs and ear-to-ear grins, we got down to talking about mastery-based education at North Queens, a transfer school serving students who are over-aged and under-credited.

Spanish teacher Martin Howfield opened the conversation with, “We don’t frame learning in terms of passing and failing. We do growth. So mastery-based grading makes sense for our school and our students.” After piloting in two classrooms in the Spring of 2011, they decided to take the whole school to mastery-based learning the next fall. Gitelman, Co-Director of reDesign, has been working with the team to create a system that is aligned to Bloom’s Taxonomy. Principal Winston McCarthy explained, “We use a trajectory of learning based on Bloom’s to move kids to HOTS – higher order thinking skills.”

Blooming the Standards

“You can Bloom the standards. You can Bloom the learning outcomes,” enthused McCarthy. Gitelman expanded on this. “If we want students to be thinking about big ideas and using HOTS, how do we operationalize it?” he asked. “Bloom’s Taxonomy captures the thinking skills students would need and a path to move from lower level to higher level skills. This isn’t just about meeting or exceeding a standard. We want our students to be able to understand the level of thinking they are applying to a problem.”

By aligning around Bloom’s Taxonomy, North Queens is prioritizing students’ development of skills and strategies to solve problems, rather than prioritizing content. The content in each discipline is integrated into skill-building. However, operating in the archaic Regents system that requires students to know about the Byzantine Empire in order to graduate means there are times this doesn’t lead to the voice and choice that is so helpful in motivating and engaging students. (Shame, shame on the New York Regents. It’s time they upgrade their high-stakes assessments to be aligned with learning sciences and adolescent development.)

The grading system at North Queens is aligned with Bloom’s.

Synthesis/Evaluation = Advanced/Mastery

Analysis = Proficient

Application = Capable

Comprehension = Developing

Remember = Emerging

The levels are described in terms of what students can do:

Synthesis is The student solves a problem by putting information together that requires original, creative thinking. The performance tasks might use verbs use as compose, propose, formulate, assemble, construct, or design.

Evaluation is The student makes qualitative and quantitative judgments according to set standards.Performance tasks might use verbs such as estimate, measure, assess, and predict.

Analysis is The student separates information into component parts. The performance tasks include debate, compare, calculate, solve, experiment, and question.

Application is The student solves a problem by using knowledge and appropriate generalization. The performance tasks include illustrate, demonstrate, dramatize, and use.

North Queens Community High School Principal Winston McCarthy talking shop with Jeremy Kraushar of NYC’s Mastery Collaborative

Gitelman reminded us, “When we think about helping students build their skills, we take into consideration their grade level expectations and the level of skills students have reached. You need to meet students where they are.” This doesn’t always mean a student’s lowest performance level, either. Teachers have to make a judgment about where students are academically, how much support they will need and is available, and their ability to tackle challenging material. If they are still recovering from years of failure, bite-sized tasks will help them rebuild their belief in themselves and seed a growth mindset.

Gitelman explained, “Using Bloom’s to focus on the skills is going to lead to better teaching. As they organize units and lessons around learning targets, teachers are able to plan for the different skills they will need to model and how to provide feedback. He continued, “The design of tasks is very important. Ask yourself, within the task itself, is there a path from remember up to synthesis and evaluation?”

It’s very different to help students learn how to critique, synthesize, or evaluate using the content as compared to understanding and remembering content. Many of the schools I visited have described this process of shifting from a stronger focus on content to a focus on skills as teachers having deep conversations about what they expect students to learn how to do and know in each discipline.

Keeping Students Visible

A teacher explained, “In NYC, 55 is a code that tells a student they are failing. When the conversation focuses on how many failures a student is accumulating, they disengage. They disappear.” I was struck by the phrase “disappear” as one of the turning points in the effort to build a policy for multiple pathways to graduation (see Too Big to Be Seen: The Invisible Dropout Problem in Boston and America). When we think about transparency, should we also be thinking about what transparency means for how much we can “see” in our children and teens in school? Can competency-based education help us have a better view of their learning and development?

Teacher Erick Delcham discussing math concepts with a student at North Queens Community High School

McCarthy continued, “Our students are coming from years and years of getting 55 or 65. That’s why at North Queens, we focus on growth. We change the conversation. I’m not passing or failing you. I’m giving you opportunities and support to learn. This shifts the responsibility to the students. It’s their education. We talk about growth and next steps. These conversations help us to understand how students are growing and developing.” North Queens uses a framework of emerging, developing, and capable. Students earn credits when they reach capable on seven out of ten learning outcomes in a course.

We saw North Queens’ vision for a highly personalized, highly rigorous model in ELA teacher Joi Walker’s classroom. The walls were covered with inspiration, prompts, learning outcomes, and of course a reference to Bloom’s Taxonomy. Students were all highly engaged, with Walker working closely with students as they needed help.

Meeting kids where they are

“The gap between persistence and resilience is the lack of academic skills.”

Those were more words of wisdom from Lew, “You can’t persist with skills you don’t have yet.” He was describing the absurdity of asking a student in algebra who lacks understanding of numeracy or fractions to persist in solving more advanced problems. “We found that kids will persist if they are actively working on a specific skill that is central or high leverage to moving their learning to the next level,” McCarthy agreed. Gitelman expanded on his point. “We talk about content, but we need to keep the focus on skills,” he said. “It’s easier to ask if a student comprehends the content rather than keep the laser-like focus on skills. They are learning the content through learning the skill. Students should be able to provide evidence that they are building their skills.” Gitelman also added, “The discussion about helping students to build a growth mindset is often framed around soft skills and the emotional side of learning without thinking about the context of academic skills. We think about the growth mindset and building the academic skills together.”

A bulletin board at North Queens Community High School focuses on the power of growth mindset

North Queens doesn’t organize around grade levels, especially given that students all have very different credit histories and skills. As McCarthy explained, “There’s a constant tension regarding how heterogeneous or homogenous the groups should be. There is no right answer. We group based on our students’ needs.” Given the focus on skills, North Queens will provide differentiated text for different levels of readers. However, Gitelman warns, “When students are reading at second or third grade, it isn’t possible to master the outcomes. They need to have a basic level of literacy. Similarly, if you don’t teach math conceptually, the students are never going to get traction. We include competencies about building number sense to make sure students have the basics.”

Insights and Inquiry: In creating a competency-based set of policies, we might want to consider additional programming (and funding) for schools to draw on the expertise of literacy and math specialists to help students strengthen their foundational skills. It’s so tragic that a situation has developed where we allow students to just be passed on year after year without helping them learn to read. In a competency-based world, we don’t pass on. We respond. That’s really what accountability is all about.

Reading and Resource List

Stacked on McCarthy’s desk were books quite different from those that competency-based education leaders usually recommend to me as must-reads. Described as “Lew’s reading list” I’m sharing the list with you:


Math and ELA


McCarthy emphasized that he wished he had read Learning Targets earlier in the journey to mastery-based learning.


This post originally appeared on CompetencyWorks, August 2nd, 2016.

——————————————————-Chris Sturgis is one of the leading thinkers and writers about competency-based education. As the Principal at MetisNet, she facilitates the CompetencyWorks Blog, and works with foundations, government, non-profits and individuals to identify the most effective ways to shape investments to catalyze social change.SHAREInstructional Coaching and Professional Development

“Creativity follows mastery.” These are the words of Benjamin Bloom, who believed that learners are capable of incredible things if they have access to powerful learning environments. This is why we’ve chosen the name “Bloom” for our knowledge-sharing initiative. Bloom is all about our stake in helping to build the capacity of practitioners and leaders who work with our most marginalized youth to reimagine, recreate, redesign our models for learning–within schools and beyond. For us, this is fundamentally a matter of social justice. Reach out if you’d like to submit a guest post, or sign up for our monthly newsletter: [email protected].