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Philanthropists interested in improving education and supporting school reform should think about it this way – when you boil down all the concerns we have about our schools into one question, it would be this: How do we know what a student has learned in school?

Think about the many ways this question plays out in education debates. Employers don’t really have any good gauges on what useful skills humanities majors possess. Colleges realize that grades are no longer a good indicator of anything, particularly in an era of rampant grade inflation and graduation ceremonies with multiple valedictorians.

The two major federal education reforms of this century, the No Child Left Behind Act and Common Core, both tried to address this question with top-down mandates to force schools to push students to learn.

No Child Left Behind eventually gave states so many waivers that it accomplished little or nothing, except possibly to send far too many administrators to prison for fudging test scores. (I wrote about a particularly egregious case in Atlanta here.)

I think the jury’s still out on Common Core, although the most likely outcome is that the program will conclusively show that top-down reforms by mandarins don’t change schools.[1]

But even though they provided a poor answer, the anonymous producers of Common Core standards were at least trying to ensure that all students learned something. If you don’t have national standards, the question remains unanswered: we don’t really know what students have learned in school.

Rob Barnett is a high school math teacher in the Washington, D.C. public schools. In this admirable article in the Washington City Paper, he shares his frustration both with his students and with the school system:

“Our high schoolers are graduating at increasing rates while measures of proficiency are stagnant—we are passing kids who haven’t learned. It’s a problem with roots in the very design of our educational system, but it’s also one we can solve.”

He asks what you would do with a student he calls “Robert.” Robert entered Barnett’s class three grade levels behind. He is “a sweet kid with lots of potential.” But in class he stares at his phone or into space. His mother changes her phone number a lot, and Robert often skips class. “You’ve given up your lunch period and bought Robert snacks and encouraged him in every way you know how.” But Robert refuses to put in the effort to learn math.

So Barnett explains that teachers like him have two options: they could flunk Robert and make him repeat a grade. But that doesn’t guarantee Robert will shape up and learn. Or you could pass him, ensuring that in an advanced course he’ll struggle even more.

Nationally, Barnett says, teachers are passing more students.

In 2016, 69 percent of Washington, D.C. high school students were graduated, up six points from 2015. But some of this was due to a grading change where an F meant a student received a score of 59 instead of 0, with 64 percent needed to pass a class. Under the new rules, a student could have earned a B in one quarter, flunk the other three quarters, and pass a class. Since then, it appears that schools have tightened the rules so that a student has to earn at least a B+ in one quarter in order to pass for a year.

Barnett notes that the National Assessment of Educational Progress reports that students are, on average, poorer readers than in 1992 and that math scores haven’t changed since 2005. Another third-party assessment, this time for the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for Career and College (PARCC) said that 21 percent of District of Columbia students were “college and career ready” in tenth-grade English and 11 percent “college and career ready” in geometry. “In my own school,” Barnett writes, “18 percent of students were proficient in reading, 1 percent were proficient in math, and nearly 80 percent crossed the stage” and got their diplomas.

According to Barnett, some states are relaxing graduation requirements even more. Arizona has a “Grand Canyon Diploma” where students only have to pass half as many classes as before to get a degree. Alabama got rid of their exit exams, so graduation rates went up.

Obviously, something has to be done. Barnett’s solution is “mastery learning.” With encouragement from his supervisors, he put his courses online. Students watch them over and over until they show they understand the material before they proceed to the next one. He found that, while some students started the semester spending their time watching stuff on YouTube, they ultimately did what they were supposed to do and learned while watching their computers, with Barnett there to answer questions and presumably instill a little discipline.

Like most education ideas, “mastery learning” is not new. When I was in eighth grade, we had boxes from Science Research Associates stuffed with lesson packets, which we were supposed to study at our own pace to improve our reading comprehension. (The purple ones were ones you read after you read the orange ones.)

Moreover, “mastery learning” is becoming more common. Washington Post columnist Catherine Rampell, who is very good when writing on education, noted earlier this year that 100 prep schools, including Holton-Arms, the Phillips Academy, and Chapin have formed the Mastery Transcript Consortium which means they won’t give colleges grade transcripts but instead will offer “mastery transcripts” they say college admissions officers can read in two minutes.

The transcripts, Rampell says, provide what she calls “qualitative, soft-focus descriptions” but are, in fact 100-proof content-free edu-bargle.

Among the activities students get credit for are to “learn from, and work collaboratively with, individuals from diverse cultures, religions, and lifestyles in a spirit of mutual respect and open dialogue” to “view failure as an opportunity to learn, and acknowledge that innovation involves small successes and frequent mistakes’ and “implement decisions and meet goals.”

As I understand these rules, teachers offering a mastery transcript aren’t allowed to write anything about a student on their own; all they can do is pick clichés from a list.

What the rise of “mastery learning” shows is a need for school choice, particularly in schools which have high standards because of firm rules. A “mastery transcript” says nothing, but a degree from a Great Books, Core Knowledge, or International Baccalaureate school tells colleges that students have worked hard in a school that insists on excellence.

Rob Barnett wants public schools to be places where students pursue individual lesson plans at their own pace. Given the glacial pace of school reform, this will never happen in school districts that restrict choice. But he is absolutely right that the current education rules produce students whose high school diplomas are little more than a certificate of attendance.

“Our entire school system,” he concludes, is one “in which year-long, pass-or-fail courses, whose students are grouped largely by age, create incentives that allow students to pass through high school without ever being required to learn anything. As a result, many don’t.”

[1] Here is my piece about Common Core.

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