Is ‘good enough’ good enough?

By Jan Bryan, EdD, Vice President, National Education Officer

Previously, we explored distinctions between proficiency and growth. Proficiency, from its Latin origin, means “to accomplish or make progress.” Accomplishments in the education setting are generally described as reaching an established performance benchmark. Most commonly, this benchmark represents a minimally acceptable level of student performance at a certain grade level in a specific discipline. Proficiency represents “good enough for now.”

While “proficiency” comes to us courtesy of the Romans, the French gave us “mastery,” which they describe as “intellectual command.” Not just “good enough” but a confident, authoritative grasp of learning. We often speak of mastery in pursuits beyond school. For example, professional athletes are described as having physical command, singers at the top of their game demonstrate vocal command, and effective leaders showcase their tactical command. With all this command going around, is it enough for our scholars to simply make progress, or does each one deserve the opportunity to develop intellectual command?

Intellectual command

One of the earliest documented attempts at mastery learning in the United States was implemented in the San Francisco Normal School in 1912. In this model, students had to show evidence of mastery rather than via the dual requirement of fulfilling an established amount of time and a minimally-acceptable degree of knowledge.

The San Francisco model was not sustainable, due in part to the extensive amount of data and analysis required to fuel it. The roaring 1920s ushered in two additional efforts to implement mastery learning: the Winnetka Plan and work by the University of Chicago Laboratory School (Block, 1971; Washburne, 1922). Like the San Francisco model, neither one was sustainable. Additional efforts toward mastery continued throughout the 20th century (Bloom, 1968; 1972), each with similar challenges related to data-management technologies (or the lack thereof). Regardless, mastery remains at the heart of many of education’s boldest ideals, e.g. Response to Intervention and personalization.

Instructional command

If mastery is intellectual command, then guiding students to it requires instructional command. Recently, I asked a true artisan to describe her journey toward mastery. She mentioned three key elements:

  • Vision—see what needs to be done.

  • Others—seek guidance from mentors and colleagues.

  • Mistakes—grow from what could be done better.

Educators with instructional command have a deep understanding of students’ work with mentors and peers. Further, the emphasis over the past decade on resiliency, failing forward, and growth mindsets makes clear the power of paying attention to, and learning from, mistakes. However, there may be a place in the discussion to think more about vision and its role in instructional command and mastery learning.

With something as infinitely complex as guiding students toward making meaning from text or solving problems with symbolic representations, a vision of how learning happens is critical. A learning progression, such as Renaissance Core Progress Reading® or Renaissance Core Progress Math®, clearly lays out the skills and subskills required to master the domains of reading and mathematics in the order in which they are most commonly learned. Empirical testing found a strong statistical link between the progression of skills in these learning progressions and the assessed difficulty levels of Renaissance Star 360® items, making these learning progressions the “backbone” for Renaissance Star Assessments®. This means that educators can use scores from these assessments to see what students know and what they are ready to learn (Renaissance, 2017). This is vision. Using that vision to identify resources and design lessons for students based on what they know and what they are ready to learn is instructional command.

Renaissance mastery view

Mastery Dashboard

In addition to the vision required to understand where students are and what they are ready to learn, teachers need tools to visualize student progress toward mastery in specific areas of learning. The Renaissance mastery-view series of dashboards automatically tracks and reports information about a student’s performance by domain, standard, skill area, skill, or subskill (Renaissance, 2016). Within these dashboards, student performance is visualized in three key stages:

  • Beginning mastery—the first steps in learning are among the most critical. Students in the beginning mastery stage have achieved up to 59 percent mastery.

  • Developing mastery—as knowledge deepens, students develop greater understanding of skills and subskills and have achieved up to 79 percent mastery in that skill area, skill, or subskill.

  • Secure mastery—as students reach 80–100 percent mastery, they secure and maintain their knowledge.

Many teachers guide students to visualize their mastery—their continually refining intellectual command—via the Renaissance mastery view.

Command is all that is truly good enough

We began this discussion by questioning whether “good enough” is good enough. Is it good enough for now, or do the data-acquisition, analysis, and management tools exist to allow meaningful efforts toward intellectual and instructional command? To learn more about mastery learning and about the Renaissance mastery model, please download our special report.

Also visit our EdWords page to browse our discussions of key education ideas—from personalized learning to productive struggle, we think it through and share our thoughts. While there, be sure to download your own copy of Renaissance EdWords: Assessment Edition.


Blatchford, R. (2015). Differentiation is out. Mastery is the new classroom buzzword. The Guardian online. Retrieved from
Bloom, B. S. (1968). Learning for mastery. Evaluation Comment, 1(2), 1–5.
Bloom, B. S. (1976). Human characteristics and school learning, New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.
Block, J. (1971). Mastery learning theory and practice. Holt, Rinehart, & Winston.
Cooper, A. How personalized learning stars with less teacher talk and more student voice. EdSurge. Retrieved
Renaissance (2016). Special Report: The Renaissance mastery model. Retrieved from
Renaissance (2017). The next generation of Response to Intervention. Retrieved from
Washburne, C. W. (1922). Educational measurements as a key to individual instruction and promotions. Journal of Educational Research, 5(3), 195–206.
Wiliam, D. (2011) Embedded formative assessment. Solution Tree Press, Bloomington IN

Jan Bryan, EdD, Vice President, National Education Officer
Jan Bryan, EdD, Vice President, National Education Officer
Jan Bryan has more than 20 years of classroom and university teaching experience. Her work at Renaissance focuses on formative assessment, exploring data in a growth mindset, and literacy development.


  1. Amber AuBain says:

    Very interesting article!

  2. Liana Ferrer says:

    I measure proficiency based on the scores. As students go mastering a level I slowly increase it until they meet their next goal.

  3. Jody Steinhaus says:

    I believe that proficiency also begins with the children having an understanding that learning equates to thinking. Thinking is a skill that must be developed. When children learn to think, they learn, and in turn they become proficient with their learning.

    • Jan Bryan, EdD, Vice President, National Education Officer Jan Bryan, EdD, Vice President, National Education Officer says:

      This is a powerful comment. I may argue for deep thinking to be more closely associated with mastery, but you make a good case for proficiency. One of the most influential bosses/mentors I had the privilege to work with would rarely say, “No, let’s not do that;” rather she would say, “Let’s think about that.”

  4. Laura says:

    I wish more people understood the distinction between mastery, proficiency and growth.

  5. Virginia Travis says:

    I enjoyed reading this thought inspiring article!

  6. Mary Moetell says:

    Interesting article. Mastery to me means that the content is totally understood and the students are able to use that information and apply it.

  7. Carly says:

    I’m trying but struggling to understand the graphs in dashboard. I find the data reports in AM to be a breeze. So far I’m liking what I see. Students are growing and reaching proficiency while others with mastery are learning how to help those who are struggling by asking guiding questions. We are off to a great start!

    • Jan Bryan, EdD, Vice President, National Education Officer Jan Bryan, EdD, Vice President, National Education Officer says:

      Moving to data in this visual format takes some practice. However, once you gain confidence, you will find the information easily accessible and the information gleaned quite clear. When I work with the Mastery Dashboard, I think of it as a race. The dashboard helps you visualize where each student is in the race. Have you clicked the help icon when you are looking at the Mastery Dashboard? I find that to be quite effective. The help icon returns printable/email-able information focused solely on the page you are viewing. The detail helps me understand what I am seeing and what inferences I might draw from the data. If you learn best via live chat, click that icon. If you learn best via conversation, video or documents, go to and click the support link for multiple options.

  8. P R says:

    Everyone needs to know the differences in the terms presented in this article. Growth is based upon a baseline data. Mastery happens when students grow to a standard point. We also need to teach our students to THINK about what they are doing and why they are doing it. They need to explain why their answer is correct.

  9. LeeAnn Needham says:

    I do think we need to ask more. We’ve let life swing too much to the ” everybody gets a trophy” and maybe we need to swing back towards mastery.

    • Jan Bryan, EdD, Vice President, National Education Officer Jan Bryan, EdD, Vice President, National Education Officer says:

      This is deep on many levels. In essence, it comes to motivation and excellence. The “trophies for all” paradigm is designed to motivate toward excellence. It comes with every good intent and perhaps spares tender feelings. My personal bias is that the focus could be misplaced for the learner, and the goal is more about the trophy rather than the actual attainment of skill, expertise, knowledge. If we flip that thinking—first by removing artificial time constraints on learning—we focus on attainment of knowledge and skills. An example here could be found in watching a toddler take those first steps. Look at the absolute joy radiating through the entire body. It was motivated by the natural sequence of learning to walk that unfolds with guidance and modeling from caring adults, siblings, and peers. Once attained, good luck in slowing the toddler down. The challenge for schools (and it is an authentic challenge—not to be taken lightly) is in implementing mastery within a system traditionally focused on estimated “seat time” to master a skill. Within this model, acceptance of less than mastery (70% for example) is an unfortunate by-product..

  10. Mario says:

    Very interestinf to know that we have come to use the word “proficiency” to describe a student that is doing “well enough”. While “mastery” should be the goal for everyone instead of the bare minimum.

  11. R says:

    Please send this to US Secretary of Education DeVos. Thank you!

  12. Heidi says:

    I actually had never thought about it in this way. It’s definitely something I want to share with my colleagues.

  13. Dr. Jolanda Roby says:

    This was a very inspiring and informative article that explored the differences between mastery, proficiency and growth.

  14. Brenda Curtis says:

    I am so excited to learn more about reading the dashboards in renaissance more effectively so I can share with other teachers in the district that they are really helping their students achieve mastery. We do a good job as educators exposing our students to lots of info, but don’t work hard enough at helping them achieve mastery. It is so important for their long term success!

  15. S.Bellomo says:

    Great article. I believe that goals for mastery need to be set for students. Reviewing the student’s data to make accurate evaluations is a essential step for making goals. And practice, practice practice!!

  16. janice raby neely says:

    This is very interesting. WE use the STAR to se our goals for the students.

  17. RENEE P GRAHAM says:

    “Mistakes—grow from what could be done better”
    Amen! We need to teach students that mistakes are critical to growth.
    The differences between mastery, proficiency and growth are well worth discussion.

  18. Andrea says:

    Great article! Educators work hard for students to be proficient, and mastery comes with lots of practice.

  19. Kimberly McKinley says:

    I never thought of it that way but it does explain a lot. I’m going to share this with others.

  20. Cynthia says:

    Interesting Article!!!!! This was informative and helped me understand the difference of mastery, proficient and growth.

  21. Alecia Walkuski says:

    Very insightful overview of educational history. Technology continues to advance the ways we can personalize and individualize learning for students to put them on the path towards mastery.

  22. Danielle says:

    Mastery really is the standard students should achieve because that will show they truly understand and can demonstrate that skill

  23. Stephanie Mitchell says:

    Very informative and useful.

  24. Angela Domond says:

    I found the terns beginning mastery, developing mastery and secure mastery more positive to use than below level, approaching level, on level and above level.

  25. Lloyd Goldberg says:

    With technology and immediate feedback masters collection should be much easier.

  26. Maya M says:

    I use the 80% Club as a tracker of mastery within my class. Students are always excited to “join the club”!

  27. Christina says:

    Great article! I use 85% to measure mastery.

  28. May Brown says:

    Thank you for differentiating the subgroups of mastery, beginning, developing and secure… and showing us the percentages of each.

  29. Ami K. Edwards says:

    Interesting article. Is the mastery part in one of the dashboards?

  30. jennifer says:

    I wish our Secretary of Education would read these articles! Very informative.

  31. Sarah says:

    I will be sharing this article with a couple of teachers at Utica Academy of Science!

  32. Lisa Capon says:

    Interesting. Thanks for sharing.

  33. Emily says:

    Interesting! Thanks for sharing!

  34. Jody Steinhaus says:

    Definitely thought-provoking read.