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To master schoolwork...

April 21, 1997

At one Carroll County high school, the teachers are telling students who take certain courses that getting a "D" isn't good enough. Those who don't do "C" work fail the course, but the help they get to pass sounds a great deal like the concept behind Washington County School Superintendent Wayne Gersen's "mastery learning" program.

North Carroll's No-D program began as a pilot program three years ago under the leadership of Gregory Eckles, then the school's principal. Eckles said the old grading system is fine if your object is to separate those who naturally achieve from those who don't. But if the idea is to get everyone to achieve at a satisfactory level or better, then you've got to set a standard that students must achieve. This means that those who don't do C-level work (or better) must participate in after-school remedial clinics and undergo retesting to bring up their grades.

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Gersen's proposal for his mastery learning envisioned a program that would work in much the same way. In presentations to parent-teacher groups, he likened his system to the process of getting a driver's license. Failing once wouldn't mean the end of study, he said, but going back to the book and testing again and again until the material is mastered and the license achieved.

If students begin to look at a diploma as something that is earned only after the material is mastered instead of a certificate that is awarded for attending a certain number of classes, then, Gersen said, the quality of education here would improve.

Washington County's school board has eliminated the D here, making 70 the passing grade across the board. But how much remedial work gets done is up to individual schools and teachers.

Reaching the next level would mean additional personnel; remedial classes do not teach themselves and tests given a second time must be graded by someone. The question citizens must ask themselves is whether they would rather pay now to do the job right the first time, or later when the D-level graduate has to be re-educated at taxpayer expense to hold a job in a world that doesn't tolerate below-average performance.

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