Mastery Charter Schools emerging as a national model

Mastery Charter Schools is on a roll this year.  In July, President Obama hailed Mastery’s success at the National Urban League Centennial Conference on education reform.

In September, the U.S. Department of Education awarded Mastery $7.4 million from its Teacher Incentive Fund, which focuses on developing pay-for performance teacher compensation systems.

And just a few days before that announcement came Oprah’s very public award and endorsement through her Angel Network.


  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

Philadelphia Schools failing our students

This higher profile role for Mastery makes its CEO’s recent criticism of the Philadelphia’s schools all that much more damning.

Back in October, Scott Gordon, CEO and founder of Mastery Charter Schools, said the Philadelphia School District (PSD) is doing a dismal job of preparing its students for college.

“Our house is on fire and we’re not even close,” said Gordon, who spoke at the Lutheran Theological Seminary as part of the Mount Airy Learning Tree’s “Fantastic Philadelphians” lecture series.

“We’re not even in the ballpark in terms of what we’re supposed to be doing with our young people and what’s actually happening.”

Mastery is credited with turning around three of the school district’s lowest performing schools. Earlier this year it took over three more schools.

The same month it famously received $1 million from Oprah Winfrey for its successes and earned high praise from both U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and President Obama.


By the numbers

During his half-hour presentation, Gordon detailed how far behind city students are in math and reading compared to their counterparts across the country.

District students have been at or near the bottom of the pack in those categories year after year, he said. And nearly half don’t go on to graduate.Out of the approximately 20,000 children who start kindergarten each September, about 9,000 he said will drop out before finishing high school.

To change these trends, Mastery Charter Schools focuses on the adults in the building and in particular, the teachers.


Teacher turnover

So far, Mastery’s teaching model has meant that at its turn-around schools – Pickett, Shoemaker, Thomas, Harrity, Mann and Smedley – there’s been almost a 100 percent turnover of teachers.

Gordon said some teachers aren’t interested in staying at a school that’s in the bottom 10 percent in terms of Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) scores. Others don’t want to be part of Mastery’s system, which requires teachers to follow the organization’s teaching methods and standards.

Some teachers also don’t care for Mastery’s model for teacher compensation, where teachers are paid based on performance, not seniority. As for the students, Gordon said they stay if they’re eligible for enrollment.

While somewhat unorthodox, Gordon said Mastery’s method has, according to data available for its three middle schools Pickett, Shoemaker and Thomas, dramatically increased academic achievement and helped reduce school violence at those schools.


Mastery’s next challenge

Following Gordon’s presentation, audience members raised concerns about the organization’s ability to maintain its model as it wins awarded more bids to takeover take over failing district schools.

Gordon said if the model works at one school, it could work at several. He said Mastery is developing teacher and leadership training programs to help ensure Mastery successfully expands.

“But if quality suffers,” Gordon told NewsWorks after the meeting. “We will slow down our growth.”


Related link from NewsWorks partner The Philadelphia Public School Notebook

The Notebook’s story on Mastery’s approach to teaching

The Notebook’s story on Mastery’s Smedley elementary school

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal