How Mastery Design Collaborative Helps Schools Redesign their Models to...

How Mastery Design Collaborative Helps Schools Redesign their Models to Personalize Learning

By Marisa Busch     Sep 23, 2016

How Mastery Design Collaborative Helps Schools Redesign their Models to Personalize Learning

This article is part of the guide: The Complex World of School Redesign: The Building Blocks and the Builders.

This profile is part of an EdSurge Research Guide about school redesign and the landscape of service provider organizations that support schools and districts throughout the process. The full guide includes a report highlighting trends, insights and challenges we learned about while studying the market over the course of six months.


Mastery Design Collaborative (MDC) works with schools and districts that are focused on designing school models that personalize learning. The organization is dedicated to transforming existing schools rather than building and launching new ones. MDC offers support in three ways: through strategic planning, professional development for classroom teachers, and a program called Reimagine School Collaborative. The Reimagine School program brings together up to ten schools in a district represented by teams of four to six member design teams that are dedicated to planning, designing, building, testing and refining a new model for their school.

Jeffrey Tsang and Samir Bolar co-founded Mastery Design Collaborative (MDC) in 2013 with funding from the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation and The Learning Accelerator. Prior to launching the nonprofit organization, both co-founders worked together at Education Elements, consulting with districts around designing and implementing blended learning models. Tsang also served as the Chief Academic Officer of the national charter network Lighthouse Academies and was the principal of Bronx Lighthouse Charter School in New York City. Bolar brings consulting experience from Deloitte and has educational roots from his role as a program director for Teach for America as well as his work as an eighth grade algebra teacher in Compton, CA.

After parting ways with Education Elements, Tsang and Bolar wanted to continue to consult with schools and districts, focusing exclusively on working as a service provider. In 2013, they began this work by supporting the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation with components of the Next Generation Systems Initiative (NGSI).

Following phase one of the initiative, ten districts received grants to build a cohort of schools that would participate in a school redesign around personalized learning. Mastery Design Collaborative supported some of these schools through their redesign process. This was MDC’s first major project and led the organization to build relationships with some of the districts going through school model redesign.

MDC supported Henry County Schools in Atlanta, which was one of the districts that received funding through the NGSI initiative. The district still works with MDC today, but no longer through the Gates Foundation. By the end of the engagement, MDC will have helped Henry County Schools design 23 personalized learning schools with three different collaboratives. The nonprofit will also help the district secure financial resources necessary to move the plans for transformation forward.

Mastery Design Collaborative’s work with Henry County Schools acted as a catalyst for working with other districts in the area, and nationally. Additionally, the Broad Residency Program brought more work to MDC; the company developed a six-month professional development program around personalized learning for Broad’s residents, which are personalized learning directors from districts and charter management organizations. This included hands-on learning experiences, workshops and online modules. This work led to relationships with Fulton County Schools and Oakland Unified School District. By November 2016, more than 50 schools will have completed the Reimagine School program.

Who They Work With

A typical MDC client is a district that is exploring innovative approaches to teaching and learning, and, in some cases, has already piloted these changes in a few classrooms. The organization is focused on scaling personalized learning; it ideally works with public districts that want to change what school is and can be, rather than districts looking to make small scale change. While individual schools are not typical clients, MDC sometimes makes an exception.

Mastery Design Collaborative also believes that there is an aspect of readiness that a district and school must have in order to work together successfully. The organization’s ideal partners have the leadership, motivation, the team and funding to make change happen. When all of these things are in place, the probability of a school continuing its redesign work after MDC’s role is over is much higher.

What They Do

Mastery Design Collaborative’s mission is to personalize learning at scale. It straddles two lanes: personalized learning and school transformation. The organization views personalized learning as having five guiding principles: pace, path, people, place and agency. When asked to paint a picture of personalized learning, Tsang and Bolar describe a learning environment where students are decision-makers and agents of their own learning.

Districts that work with MDC are often looking for assistance because they have technology, but it isn’t making the impact they had hoped for. MDC engages with schools and districts in three ways: through strategic planning, professional development for teachers, and a program called the Reimagine School Collaborative.

The collaboratives represent a large portion of MDC’s work and are designed to tackle what MDC views as the three main barriers to personalizing learning: district-level engagement, instructional design and teacher capacity to personalize learning. The collaborative is a program where MDC supports a group of schools in redesigning its model with a focus on personalized learning. In these collaboratives, the organization works with the district to identify up to ten schools to participate in the program. The program has two parts: the personalized learning prototype program which is three months long, and the school redesign program which is six months long. A district can choose to participate in one program or both, with the total work spanning from three to nine months.

A Specific Engagement

From spring 2015 to January 2016, MDC held a nine-month Reimagine Schools Collaborative in partnership with Next Generation Learning Challenges and the Rogers Family Foundation. This collaborative involved ten Oakland schools including ASCEND, a K-8 charter school in East Oakland. The ten schools each received a $100,000 NGLC planning grant from the Rogers foundation and were brought together to build and prototype a new school model.

For the instructional model prototype, ASCEND took on the challenge of providing learners with more instructional time at their appropriate levels. The school chose to incorporate four principles into the new model: place, people, path and student agency. To do this, ASCEND’s team developed a prototype for a daily, two-hour, multi-age literacy block and tested it out with half of the students in two grade bands: grades 1-3 and grades 4-5.

In order to rethink roles and staff, the team grouped the students by Lexile level rather than grade level. During the block, students rotated between self-directed learning activities and teacher-led activities. Self-directed learning took the form of independent and partner work, online activities, independent reading and journaling. Teacher-led activities consisted of small-group instruction such as guided reading circles for students grouped according to their Lexile levels. The prototype also featured a partnership with a local university Master’s degree program in which graduate students volunteered to provide push-in support for learners doing independent work. This strengthened the self-directed learning component, giving the teachers more freedom to focus on small group instruction.

To experiment with place, the school purchased a lot of low-cost and in some cases used furniture such as bouncy chairs, stadium seating and rugs. This furniture helped ASCEND’s staff transform the learning environment. Students began choosing where to sit each day based on their comfort and what worked best for the activity in which they were engaged.

With a focus on increasing student agency, the prototype incorporated goal setting; this gave students the opportunity to set weekly goals and have frequent conferences with their teachers to discuss growth. For the pilot phase, this tracking happened in a Google Doc. Moving forward, ASCEND is interested in finding a different edtech tool to help students and teachers manage goals and progress tracking.

Though MDC’s collaborative finished, ASCEND’s work with personalized learning continues. In January 2016, ASCEND was one of six schools that won a $350,000 grant from the Rogers Family Foundation to launch its blueprint. In fall 2016, ASCEND will expand the prototype to the entire elementary school. All students in grades K-5 will have a multi-age literacy block. Additionally, the school will adopt a multi-age math block and is currently vetting tools to support it. A longer term goal is to redesign the middle school program to look more like the new elementary model. According to Mastery Design Collaborative, ASCEND is on track to be a fully personalized school in two to three years.

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The Complex World of School Redesign: The Building Blocks and the Builders

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