Focusing on Understanding and Mastery

We are excited to add a section to our monthly newsletter where we highlight research-based practices that are making a profound impact on student learning at 175 award-winning NCUST schools. We discovered 8 specific practices common in these schools. Central to our findings is the ability of teachers in these schools to lead students to feel valued, respected, and capable in ways which result in students achieving equity and excellence. In this newsletter, we shine a spotlight on the teaching practice of Focusing on Understanding and Mastery.

From Research to Practice

Teacher Focus Group Interview-Rigorous Curricula Focused on Assessment of Mastery is a tool designed with the intent to seek feedback from teachers regarding the current reality curricula focused on assessment of mastery. This document can be used as a template for a survey to administer to teachers. Results from the survey can be analyzed within and across grade-level teams to determine strengths and areas for improvement.


Teachers at the award-winning schools studied by NCUST reveal a subtle difference in the manner which they taught, ensuring that all students understood specific academic content and skills with sufficient depth that allowed students to utilize the content and skills to solve problems and better understand their world. Educational psychologist Benjamin Samuel Bloom (1971) considered a focus on understanding and mastery as an antidote of bell curve notions of student aptitude and achievement and one size fits all instruction. Bloom argued that we can get more students to master content if we teach in ways that address their learning needs. More recently, Educational Researcher and Professor of Educational Psychology Thomas Guskey (2007) describes the use of Bloom’s mastery approach as a tool for closing achievement gaps. Guskey explained that the positive effects of mastery of learning extends beyond cognitive or academic outcomes to improvements in students’ confidence as learners, school attendance rates, and attitudes toward engagement in learning. After forty-five years of research on teaching and learning in classrooms, educational researcher Graham Nuthall (2005) concluded that many teachers do not plan instruction with the purpose of ensuring that their students achieve mastery. Instead, teachers tend to plan lessons with focus more on keeping students busy and carrying out routines.

Teaching Practices from Americas Best Urban Schools

Authors of Teaching Practices From America’s Best Urban Schools (Johnson, Joseph F., Jr.; Cynthia L. Uline; Lynne G. Perez, 2019 pgs.24-25-) write, “In the schools we studied, lesson planning was not focused on creating busywork, complying with a principal’s mandates, or staying in step with a district’s pacing chart. Instead, we found teachers who planned strategically how they would lead specific students in their classrooms to understand and master specific concepts and skills. The goal of planning was not coverage. Instead the goal was to provide learning experiences that were likely to result in every student understanding and mastering specific concepts and skills.”

Authors of When Black Students Excel (Johnson, Joseph F., Jr.; Cynthia L. Uline; Stanley J. Munro, Jr., 2023 pgs. 53-54) write, “Principal Pegg and Principal Berry at Wynnebrook Elementary School in West Palm Beach, Florida were determined to stay focused on what they were doing to build the capacity of teachers to teach Wynnebrook students challenging academic standards. Marzano (2003) emphasized that leaders needed to help educators focus on a viable curriculum. The curriculum is not viable or teachable if there is more to teach than can be taught in the minutes, hours, and days available for instruction. While many state, district, and school administrators seem to be comfortable ignoring this logic, Principal Pegg refused to ignore the obvious. Principal Pegg convened the school’s teachers and said, ‘This is what the district provided, but I want you to look at it and map it out. I want to see what makes sense to you. You need to determine what will work for our students’. The teachers appreciated the trust and respect demonstrated by their school leaders, and they worked earnestly to refine the scope and sequence in ways they believed would result in Wynnebrook students mastering the most important academic standards.”

Leadership in America's Best Urban Schools

Authors of Leadership Practices in America’s Best Urban Schools (Johnson, Joseph F., Jr.; Cynthia L. Uline; Lynne G. Perez, 2017 pg. 54) also write, “A focus on mastery is quite different from a focus on coverage that may be observed in more typical urban schools. In many schools, teachers feel driven to cover their lesson associated with a pacing guide or scope and sequence chart. Teachers in high performing schools were more likely to focus on which students were demonstrating mastery of the concepts they were attempting to teach and what issues seemed to be inhibiting other students from achieving mastery. Teachers were continuously engaged in processes of inquiry as they considered what they could do to help students demonstrate mastery of academic concepts.”

Concourse Village Elementary School
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