‘Competency-Based’ Education Pilot Program Signs Up 19 Idaho Schools

Published June 3, 2016

Nineteen Idaho schools have been selected to participate in the Idaho Mastery Education Network (IMEN), a “competency-based education” system based on a model designed by Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education (FEE).

Gov. Butch Otter (R) signed House Bill 110 into law in March 2015. According to the Idaho State Department of Education (SDE) website, HB 110 “will move students away from the current time-based system to a mastery-based system to allow for a more personalized and differentiated learning experience.”

Proponents of the program say the system allows students to work at their own pace. Some will be able to move ahead quickly, once they prove they’ve mastered material in their current grade level, and others can spend more time on the subject matter if they need to.

Subsequent legislation capped the number of schools allowed to participate in the pilot program at 20, though only 19 applied by the March 11 deadline. The state has also set aside $1 million worth of grants for which participating schools may apply.

Pilot schools will spend the 2016-17 school year planning and designing their mastery systems, and will implement the program for four school years, starting with the 2017-18 school year.

‘Completely Devoid of Innovation’

State Rep. Steven Harris (R-Meridian), author of HB 110, says competency-based education revolutionizes education to benefit students across the board.

“Nothing seems more ridiculous or wasteful to me than to watch a classroom of students being educated in lockstep, and usually at the pace of the slowest student,” Harris said. “Advanced students often lose interest, while poorer students can still be left behind. And what’s more amazing is that we’ve been doing it this way since well before I was born.”

Harris says today’s schools are “old-style” and the traditional education model is “completely devoid of innovation.”

“Mastery-based education allows each student to progress at his or her own optimal pace, allowing them to work harder in areas that give them trouble and to excel in areas of strength,” Harris said. “Mastery-based education is usually accomplished by breaking curriculum down into many small, manageable units. Each unit contains well-defined, measurable learning content [that is] clear.”

Parents Express Concerns

Stacey Knudsen, Mila Wood, and Stephanie Zimmerman, three Idaho parents who advocate for Idaho education issues from a parent’s perspective under the banner of “Idahoans for Local Education,” say they have questions and concerns about the mastery program.

“What are the students mastering? Who’s in charge of selecting the ‘well-defined, measurable content’? How do we as parents see the ‘well-defined, measurable content’ and the embedded assessments?” Knudsen asked. “Are the companies that are creating and writing software, hardware, etc., profiting off of any data that is obtained from minor students via research or marketing, etc.?”

Wood says she has concerns about her ability to be involved in her own child’s education.

“How am I going to be able to see what his mastery learning will end up being, according to mastery ed, if there could very easily be a secret algorithm that no ed committee, no legislator, and no parent will ever be able to tangibly see or monitor or keep track of?” Wood asked.

Zimmerman says she too is worried the mastery program will diminish parental oversight.

“Teachers will be facilitators, software and ed tech companies will make millions, and parents will not have textbooks to check for accuracy or objectionable social agendas,” Zimmerman said. “This is exactly the opposite of the locally controlled, parent-centered education that Idahoans for Local Education advocates for.”

‘Not a Huge Change’

Kelly Brady, director of mastery education for the Idaho SDE, says the mastery program is more about enabling students to advance once they’ve mastered a concept than about changing how the material is taught. Participating schools are in their planning and design phase, and how they implement the program will vary depending on what individual schools decide after talking to experts and other schools.

“In Idaho we’re really about local control,” Brady said. “Schools will be doing things differently. It’s not a huge change in how we teach kids. It’s not about throwing everything out that we’ve already done. Parents are still an integral part.”

Brady says some schools may decide to focus more on online learning, whereas others may determine a blended method is best for them.

Jenni White ([email protected]writes from Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.