Researching the Effects of Culturally Responsive Mastery-Based Education

By Leah Q. Peoples, Lindsey Foster
August 26, 2019

Every year, there are renewed calls to improve, reform and reinvent public education for all students, and particularly for marginalized students. In efforts to transform educational experiences for students of color, students with disabilities and linguistically diverse students, innovative approaches are imagined (or more often, reimagined) in an effort to address the challenges that these students face and build equity within schools. Culturally Responsive Education and Mastery-Based Education are two approaches to teaching and learning that centers and prioritizes students, but in different ways; combined, these approaches represent “District Student-Centered” and schools not using culturally responsive and mastery-based education represent “District Somewhere.” We use these two fictitious districts to contextualize our research.

The students of District Student-Centered work with their teachers to co-create curriculum that is tailored to each students’ individual needs. Students in District Student-Centered have the opportunity to learn in a variety of ways, whether it’s through self-guided learning, working in pairs or in teams, through instructional lectures with teachers, etc. Students’ cultures and identities are not only accurately portrayed and represented within their schools and classrooms, but also their social capital is sustained and positioned as paths to learning. Students advance at their own pace using clearly articulated goals and feedback from teachers to learn whether they’ve demonstrated mastery and if they haven’t what skills they need to work on to demonstrate competency. In District Student-Centered, students focus their efforts on developing a mastery of skills and concepts, rather than achieving a grade.

Teachers in District Student-Centered ensure that students have access to culturally responsive methods of learning and acknowledge multicultural demonstrations of mastery. Teachers work with students to ensure that there are opportunities for students to connect lessons to real-world activities; as such, students learn skills that are applicable to and useful for their everyday lives.

Next door to District Student-Centered, is District Somewhere which mainly focuses on two goals that dominate school decisions: students passing their classes via letter grades and students passing standardized tests. At District Somewhere, teachers and administrators implement a one- size- fits- all approach to education where students are expected to assimilate to the school’s definition and expression of success. For the most part, students learn within a culture that emphasizes grades and test scores instead of learning. Students’ curricula are not usually multicultural or meaningfully inclusive. Sometimes students may be exposed to other cultures during designated “diversity units” or time periods such as Black History Month.

However, those opportunities are neither vast or sufficient for students’ conceptualization of an inclusive education. Often teachers create non-responsive learning spaces without input from students who exist outside the majority.

Theoretically, District Student-Centered is a direct response to the critiques of inequities in education over the last few decades by moving away from a one size fits all monocultural approach. By using students’ cultures and community assets to inform and facilitate the learning and mastery process, District Student-Centered moves toward equity in education. District Student-Centered uses a mastery-based and culturally responsive approach to educating students.

Mastery-based education (MBE), also referenced as competency-based education (CBE), embodies the belief that students are central to the development of their education. Part of this belief includes assessing students’ progress through competency standards that focus on students’ ability to show mastery of a range of skills related to academic and personal development. In many mastery-based schools, students demonstrate these skills through performance tasks, (such as a multi-step learning process that pushes students to create deliverables through real-world application). The levels of mastery are attained when students are “provided sufficient time to work at their own pace” (Wang & Qi, 2018). Competency-based education operates under the belief that students’ approaches to learning vary and that they need different amounts of time to achieve levels of proficiency and mastery (Cox & Ryan, 2017).

Culturally responsive education (CRE) centers the intersections of students’ identities and implements those identities and the subsequent experiences into teaching and learning. CRE is “a pedagogy that empowers students intellectually, socially, emotionally, and politically [because it uses] cultural referents to impart knowledge, skills, and attitudes” (Ladson-Billings, 1995). It is imperative for students of all races to be taught with a culturally responsive approach, not just students of color. White students benefit from CRE just as much as their classmates of color. Benefits of CRE include helping students connect education to social justice issues and improve the inclusive scope of educational practice (Eglash, Gilbert, & Foster, 2013).

Respectively, studies document positive outcomes for each of these approaches such as increased sense of belonging and racial identity for culturally responsive education (Milner, 2011) and increased student engagement, heightened feelings of control and ownership over education, and shared student power in the classroom for mastery-based education (Gravina, 2017; Bloom, 1968; Ames, 1992) respectively. However, there aren’t any studies that examine student outcomes when these approaches are combined.

Our research can help fill this gap by investigating how the New York City Department of Education and Mastery Collaborative’s eight Living Lab schools’ use of culturally responsive mastery-based practices influence historically marginalized students’ (students of color, students with disabilities, and English Language Learners) learning outcomes, school engagement, and academic outcomes. Living Lab schools are a part of the Mastery Collaborative network, which is an NYC Department of Education program that supports schools implementing mastery-based education. Mastery Collaborative schools have the opportunity to receive the “Living Lab” designation when they implement mastery-based practices at an exemplary school-wide level. In 2017, Mastery Collaborative (and Living Lab schools) began integrating culturally responsive education into their mastery-based approach to education.

To learn about the effects of CR-MBE on marginalized students, the research team utilized several theoretical frameworks (primarily DisCRIT informed by Critical Race Theory, Community Cultural Wealth Theory, and Opportunity Gap) to theorize about the integration of culturally responsive education and mastery-based education into CR-MBE. This theorizing of CRE and MBE’s integration is critical to the research, as culturally responsive education cannot just be “added in” to existing structures and practices, it must be foundational (Ladson-Billings, 2006). We used CRE and MBE literature to re-imagine MBE as if CRE was a foundational element. The CR-MBE research project will document how administrators, teachers, and students implement CR-MBE in practice and investigate how those practices are linked to student outcomes. Our conceptual model (illustrated below) depicts how we theorize the relationship between CR-MBE inputs, outputs, and outcomes will unfold at Mastery Collaborative Living Lab schools.

Moving from the outside in, the first two rings represent our theoretical lenses DisCRIT and CR-MBE. We suspect that the ways Living Lab schools implement CR-MBE will reflect the CR-MBE framework and will be more equitable for marginalized students whose experiences and needs are well documented within the first theoretical lens. The next three layers of the conceptual model represent the spaces (and the people who occupy them) and potential CR-MBE inputs and outputs. Each of those layers is drawn with dotted boundaries to reflect the relationships and interactions between spaces and people which ultimately influence student outcomes bi-directionally. Within our model, communities, schools, and classrooms can build upon their social capital to co-create conditions for students to learn. Similarly, members of communities, families, administrators, staff, teachers, and students contribute social capital to co-create educational experiences. The arrow to the right side of the model depicts this fluidity of interactions across spaces and people. Students and student outcomes are placed at the center of the model because theoretically, all spaces and people are being responsive to students.

The CR-MBE Research project focuses on the following components to understand the effect of Living Lab schools implementing CR-MBE:

  • School-wide CR-MBE practices
  • CR-MBE teachers’ mindsets, practices, and skills
  • Short term CR-MBE student outcomes

Researchers will compare CR-MBE students’ outcomes to students’ outcomes from comparison schools. Although there is a robust amount of information surrounding the benefits and outcomes of culturally responsive education (CRE) and mastery-based education (MBE) independently, there is a lack of information on the intersection of these two frameworks. We hope that our investigation of CR-MBE will further contribute to people’s ability to build equity in schools and foster improved outcomes for historically marginalized groups.

Authors Leah Q. Peoples and Lindsey Foster are members of a Student-Centered Learning Research Collaborative-sponsored research team that is currently leading the study about CR-MBE. Read more about their current study here. This blog was created with support from JFF and KnowledgeWorks’ the Student-Centered Learning Research Collaborative and its funders. Learn more about this work.


Ames, C. (1992). Classrooms: Goals, structures, and student motivation. Journal of Educational Psychology, 84(3), 261-271.

Bloom, B. S. (1968). Learning for mastery. Evaluation Comment,1(2), 1-11.

Eglash, R., Gilbert, J. E., & Foster, E. (2013). Broadening participation: Toward culturally responsive computing education. Communications of the ACM, 56(7), 33–36.

Elliott, E. S., & Dweck, C. S. (1988). Goals: An approach to motivation and achievement. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 54, 5-12.

Gravina, E.W. (2017) Competency-Based Education and its effect on nursing education: A literature review. Teaching and Learning in Nursing, 12(2), 117-121.

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