By Sunny Deye
“I think my parents are happy with what we’re doing because I actually get what I need,” says a fourth-grade student at Greenhurst Elementary in Nampa, Idaho. “Before, things were too easy for me in math—now that we switch classes to the right level, I’m learning more.”
At the mastery-based Greenhurst Elementary, fourth-grade students might be working in fifth-grade math standards and third-grade grade literacy standards. Another student explains, “We all move up or down when we meet standards or when we are struggling. In fourth grade they put me in fractions; once I got it they moved me to decimals. I like to know where I’m at. If I move up, I completed the thing I was working on and will learn new things to challenge me.”
These students are describing how Greenhurst meets students where they are, ensuring they have mastered the content before moving on to the next level. This means that students are in mixed-grade classrooms, working toward the same learning standards as peers from throughout the building.
Students are pre-assessed on end-of-year standards; students who have already mastered grade-level standards go right up to the next grade to work on the next standard and students who are not yet on grade level are able to work on their learning gaps before progressing. Students report that it “helps to know exactly where we are—knowing where I am in math and reading helps because I won’t forget, I actually have it in my head and know where I am.”
Greenhurst is just one of 32 incubator schools in 19 districts participating in Idaho’s Mastery-based Learning Network. Idaho’s transformation to a mastery-based education system was first brought forward in 2013 as a recommendation of the Governor’s Task Force for Improving Public Education and was codified in HB 110 (2015).
The State Department of Education is charged with implementing the mastery-based education pilot program. Kelly Brady, director of instructional support for student-centered learning at the department, explains that participating schools are “incubators not pilots. Pilots come and go, but incubators develop over time; an incubator is nurtured and allowed to change and make mistakes.”
Brady shared the department’s ongoing statewide awareness campaign to help students, parents and educators understand the benefits of a mastery-based learning approach and what it looks like in schools.
Wilder school district is using one-to-one technology district-wide to ensure each student has a personalized learning plan. Instead of everyone learning the same subject at the same time, each student studies independently using iPads, with progress closely monitored by teachers. As Superintendent Jeff Dillon explains, at Wilder, “schedules are fluid—students move from one subject to another as needed and have flexibility (particularly at the high school level) to access classrooms and teachers as needed, depending on their own learning plan.”
At the Synergy Program at Kuna Middle School, a school within a school where students opt in to learn in a less traditional environment with individual pacing, students learn in a problem-based learning environment with flexible pacing and combined grade levels that focuses on integrating all four core subjects (math, English language arts, history and science) into one project.
Students have a great deal of autonomy in the Synergy Program. “You can move ahead if you want, and if you don’t you can fall behind—synergy learning management system tracks progress in the year," says a middle-schooler. "Synergy lets you move at your own pace, so I go slower in math and faster in language arts, because that’s what I’m good at."
Another student reports that “teachers care more about your work here and mentor us to get it done. It’s like a family.” Kuna School District Superintendent Wendy Johnson told the group that ““Synergy prepares students for high school because students are taught to manage their own learning."
This trip is the second time NCSL’s Student-Centered Learning Commission has "gone back to school," studying how the schools of today can be adapted to meet the needs of the future through systems that are personalized, flexible and student-centered, and that prepare students to embrace lifelong learning.
This May, the commission studied New Hampshire’s transformation from traditional, one-size-fits-all education to more personalized, competency-based learning.
NCSL’s Student-Centered Learning Commission will continue to study personalized, competency-based, and student-owned learning environments throughout 2018, and plans to release its findings in 2019. Follow along with the commission’s work.
Sunny Deye is a program director in NCSL's Education Program.