The New Report Card: Forget an “A,” Try for an “M”

Four years ago David Boone was a homeless 15-year-old sleeping on a park bench in Cleveland, Ohio. This fall he’ll be entering Harvard.

His is the kind of heroic story that would seem over-the-top in a movie, if it didn’t happen to be real: David used his book-bag as a pillow, studied in train stations, figured out how to avoid local gangs.  (Read his story here.)

More interestingly, David’s not the only hero in this story. The other is his report card. Not because of its grades, but because of its design. You see, report cards at David’s school don’t have “A”s, “B”s, and “C”s. Instead, they have “M”s and “I”s.

M stands for Mastery; I stands for Incomplete.

This method is a product of remarkable new high school David attended called MC2 STEM, in which David is part of the first graduating class. The school, part of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation STEM Initiative, teaches science and engineering through hands-on, project-based learning in cooperation with a General Electric R&D facility across the street (translation: they don’t sit at desks listening to teachers talk).

As they learn, students are graded on specific skill-sets — called benchmarks — that make up each 10-week subject.

“M” means the student has mastered the benchmark skill (usually demonstrated by a score of 90-plus on a project or test).

“I” means the student needs to work more until they master the skill.  They don’t retake the course — instead, teachers provide additional activities and opportunities for mastery, until it’s achieved.

It’s refreshingly simple: the mushy, judgmental landscape of Bs and Cs is replaced with a clear goal: mastery is expected; if you don’t get it right away, you will get new opportunities to work until you do. As David says, “They don’t accept mediocrity.”

I think one reason this technique is effective is that it uses grades the way they should be used: not as an often-demotivating verdict on identity (“You’re a C student); but rather as an ignitor of effort, a motivational north star. “Incomplete” is a motivating concept, because it sends a strong signal that complete learning is not only possible but expected; that everyone is capable of top-level work. It nudges the culture away from judgement and toward continual improvement and reaching. It turns a school into a skill-construction zone.

The question is, how can other organizations put this M/I grading method to work? For instance, could a soccer coach build a team around the idea of mastering certain moves? Could a businesses do the same when teaching employees? A music teacher?

Also, I’m curious: do you know of other simple methods that schools, teams, and businesses use to promote the love of mastery? If so, I’d love to hear about them.