Some school administrators, politicians, most unions have a labor perspective on why schools exist.  Despite their beliefs, schools are not foremost a government jobs program.  Taxpayers, parents and students, generally feel that schools exist to prepare students for meaningful employment and for competent citizenship and parenting.  All sides bear culpability for the disappointing performance of many students – such as high school “graduates” who cannot read. 

Too often, discussions of K-12 are a depressing exercise of name-calling, but once in a while we hear of performance that yields real improvements in K-12 instruction in real classrooms.  Two such developments were in recent news.  First, more schools are using a “mastery of material” approach to building student progress.  Second, the College Board has allied with the Kahn Academy for free SAT preparation materials.

The Khan Academy has been an inspiration for students, parents and many teachers.  Khan started with free online Algebra, Geometry and Trigonometry courses, but it now covers more topics (e.g., Science, Humanities and Computer Programming).  The courses present subject matter a little at a time followed by graded practices for the student.  The student’s success with practices triggers either review and more practices or progress to the next logical subject matter segment.  In effect, Khan coaches the student until the material is mastered.  To use Khan courseware, a student needs a computer, an internet connection, and the ability to read.

Competency-based learning (also referred to as “mastery learning”) expects students to learn at their own pace and earn credits and advancement only after they master the material.  This prevents promotion based on mere age and classroom time.  “Time in chair” promotion continues failing many of today’s students (such as non-reading graduates).  Mastery learning not only makes more sense, it improves student performance on tests and is especially helpful to weaker students.

This week, the College Board announced a revamp for the SAT test.  Henceforth, students are not penalized for wrong answers, the essay is graded separately, and vocabulary words will be less arcane.  The academic cherry atop the SAT revamp is inclusion of Khan Academy online test preparation materials at no-charge.  

Khan test preparation will be especially helpful for students in limited-income families.  Furthermore, Khan’s approach to learning is remarkably similar to mastery learning, which we know to be effective.  As more classroom teachers experience Khan’s mastery of material approach, we can expect more of them to use it in the regular classroom.  That’d be very encouraging.

Alan Daley is a retired businessman who writes for the American Consumer Institute Center for Citizen Research