Independent report praises Idaho’s mastery pilot — with some qualifications

Idaho is a national leader in mastery-based learning, and built a “solid framework” to continue to test the concept, according to an outside review.

The 47-page report validates many of state superintendent Sherri Ybarra’s talking points, as she pushes to expand mastery-based learning in Idaho. In many pilot sites, a shift to a mastery model has changed school culture, as “students take ownership of their learning,” said reviewers from Education Northwest, a Portland, Ore.-based research group.

But the transition hasn’t always been seamless. In many cases, said Education Northwest, “students, families, staff members and community members have struggled with the shift to a mastery education system.”

Mastery — a model that advances students through the K-12 system through subject knowledge, rather than time spent at a grade level — has emerged as one of Ybarra’s top legislative priorities. She wants the state to lift the cap on mastery pilot schools. She also wants to double the budget for the pilot program, from $1.4 million to $2.8 million.

On Wednesday, Ybarra’s bill to lift the mastery cap sailed through the Senate on a 34-0 vote. That bill doesn’t address spending, and it’s unclear whether lawmakers will write up a separate bill to increase the mastery budget.

The Legislature’s budget-writing Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee asked for the Education Northwest report. It’s among several reports JFAC requested, in order to track the effectiveness of education budget line items.

The report lists some recurring themes from the 32 mastery pilot schools. Teachers play a different role, as they guide students through an individualized learning plan. High school students can more easily work dual-credit college classes into their schedule. And students can speed up, or slow down, depending on how they are picking up coursework.

The report also includes some firsthand testimonials from students.

“I was badly behind,” said one student. “No teacher would ever stop to help me. I even had a teacher scream at me once when I asked a question. It’s different (at the mastery pilot school). They listen. They walk me through things. They make sure I understand. I’ve gained confidence, and I’m more motivated. Even though I am only a sophomore, I have enough credits to graduate.”

The report also listed several challenges, such as figuring out how to assess student growth; hiring enough teachers to support a mastery model; and getting teachers enough training to adopt a new instructional model.

Ybarra hailed the Education Northwest report.

“The report accurately reflects the values of our mastery model and repeatedly notes our collaborative approach to developing the network and to encourage personalized and differentiated instruction,” she said in a statement Tuesday. “I feel confident that mastery-based education in Idaho will continue to grow and prosper.”


Kevin Richert

Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television and "Idaho Matters" on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

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