Mastering Engagement

It has been heartening for me to see a local uproar involving our school district that didn’t have to do with a levy, teacher pay or athletics. Our little dust up has to do with “Mastery Based Learning”.

I’m not a professional educator, though some of my patients are sometimes disappointed that educating them about their body or their disease can be my main focus. “Can’t you just give me something for this Doc?”

The first time I heard about Mastery Based Learning was back after the LUNA Laws got repealed in 2012. After their defeat, Governor Otter engaged a task force of education folks to give him some recommendations for Idaho education. Recommendation Number One (of twenty) was to institute Mastery Based Learning in Idaho. A fellow State Senator, a retired educator, who had served on the task force, muttered under her breath to me, “I don’t know about this Mastery Based stuff” as she shook her head. I asked about her reservations. “It’s going to be a lot of work for teachers. And we aren’t going to pay them any more for it!”

If you are wondering about just what exactly this shift in learning is, there are plenty of resources. I would encourage you to read some, but not on Facebook. You wouldn’t be considered mastering the subject with that research. I suggest Idaho Education News; they have a few great reporting pieces.

Let me see if I can summarize. Students advance based on their demonstrated mastery of specific learning goals.

Under the current system, a student takes a year of Algebra 1, then moves on to a second year of Algebra 2. Under Mastery Based Learning, if a student demonstrated mastery of Algebra 1 in December, they could start Algebra 2, maybe completing it by June.

Of course, the corollary is also true. If a student doesn’t master the concepts of Algebra 1 by June, they may be spending some extra time in the summer, or coming fall accomplishing that. Or, if they had mastered their English goals early, they could take some time from there to invest in their Algebra deficiencies.

Like I said, I’m not an expert in education matters. As it turns out, from my limited research, there’s not complete agreement on the value of Mastery Based Learning. Maybe except in the Idaho legislature. Both the Senate and the House passed unanimously and Governor Otter signed House Bill 110 in 2015, codifying Recommendation Number One of Otter’s Education Task Force. The change in student evaluation was rolled out in 19 incubator districts a few years ago. My local district was one of those incubators.

But my retired educator colleague foretold the rub. When the legislature saw a $1.4M price tag for expanding Mastery Based Learning to all districts in 2018, they killed it. But then they voted to approve expansion to all districts in 2019, as long as there was no cost to the state. Can you see where there might be some pain here? It is standard operating procedure for the Idaho Legislature to demand a change in policy but refuse to pay for such effort.

I can imagine some teachers resisting this change. It is work to do things different than before. Especially if one is comfortable that what one has been doing has brought success. Add to that, it’s more work with the same pay.

Some parents and students argue that the Mastery Based system makes students unengaged in learning if all they have to do is demonstrate mastery on a simple test. Such a concern for student laziness, or complacency is merited, but I would argue we see enough of that now under our current grade-inflated system.

In short, I’m happy our community is engaged about education and talking about it. We all have so much to learn.

About ddxdx

A Family physician, former county coroner and former Idaho State Senator
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