Engagement, achievement, learning: Making meaning of mastery at an urban charter high school

Deborah Stern, University of Pennsylvania


This is a case study of a small, urban, charter high school during its first five years of existence. It tells the story of the school's efforts to establish and implement a "mastery system": a series of academic policies and practices intended to help students achieve in school. The study reveals the ways in which the belief systems and behaviors of students, teachers, and administrators act together to shape this system. Focused around the following question--How do school stakeholders understand motivation, engagement, and learning?--the study investigates the dimensions and dynamics of academic achievement at Mastery Charter, a new urban high school. The study was conducted by one of the school's co-founders. Its arguments are informed both by the knowledge base of traditional academic research and the complications of administration as experienced from an emic, or insider perspective. The study looks at two phases of the school's early operations, historic (years 1-3) and mature (years 4-5), with the bulk of the study focusing on the mature school. The historic section traces the school's attempts to define mastery as a grading and learning standard, and as a collection of instructional practices. Data for this phase consist of field notes, journal entries, and archived documents. The study argues that during this time, the school's academic systems were molded by limited institutional capacity, stakeholders' investments in traditional school practices, school leaders' urgent desire to remediate students' academic skills, and students' needs for self-determination. More current school experiences lie at the study's center. Data here consist of interviews of students, teachers, and administrators. Investigation reveals ongoing transactions between students and Mastery staff as both types of stakeholders work with the mastery system. As students pursue self-determination at school, they challenge and shape the system to align with their needs and values. Mastery staff endeavors to use the system so that it increases students' motivation, engagement, and academic performances. Analyses of these various efforts show that the mastery system is most effective in increasing engagement and achievement, and less effective in enabling learning outcomes. Stakeholders' perspectives and responses to one another's efforts reveal the system's limitations and suggest that the more responsive high school reforms can be to adolescent students' needs for autonomy and agency, the more impact such reforms may have on improving learning gaps as well as achievement gaps.

Subject Area

Secondary education|Curricula|Teaching

Recommended Citation

Stern, Deborah, "Engagement, achievement, learning: Making meaning of mastery at an urban charter high school" (2007). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI3271852.