Idaho Falls’ mastery pilot fuses technology and projects

IDAHO FALLS — There’s a new learning model available to students at Rocky Mountain Middle School in Idaho Falls this year — and it’s being spearheaded by teachers who want to phase out the traditional K-12 grading system.

No more As, Bs or Cs. No more GPAs.

The school is implementing a new program called “Fusion Classroom” — one answer to the State Department of Education’s call for “incubators” or pilots aimed at providing mastery-based styles of learning to students in 2016-17.

“We are excited about what we are doing here and feel that every student could benefit from it,” said Rocky Mountain math teacher Angie Pipinich.

In April, Rocky Mountain and 18 other Idaho schools were granted access to $1.4 million in state funds set aside for mastery-based startups like Fusion, which will receive $30,000 and absorb 130 of the school’s roughly 1,000 students this school year.

Under a mastery-based system, students no longer advance from grade to grade based on seat time or by receiving a passing mark. Instead, they advance once they have demonstrated mastery of all the concepts covered in a class or grade level.

“It doesn’t matter how long it takes a student to learn the material,” said Fusion history teacher Jani McLing. “Why waste time teaching students things they already know?”

Fusion teachers have chosen an 80 percent mastery threshold for the 2016-17 school year, but won’t be able to hold students completely accountable to that standard.

“The school district has asked that we continue to give the students regular grades this year because that’s what the high school accepts — and we’ve agreed to cooperate with that,” McLing said.

As a result, Fusion teachers will “encourage” students to strive for at least 80 percent on all tests, quizzes and projects but will divvy out traditional letter grades at the end of the term — something they hope to phase out.

Still, Fusion teachers say they are determined to provide as much of a mastery-based model to students as they can this year.

How Fusion will work

Providing students with freedom to succeed is one crux of the program. And one way to do that is through technology — and lots of it. Roughly $20,000 will be used to purchase a laptop for every Fusion student, each equipped with mastery-based learning software that outlines assignments, quizzes and test dates.

The software — “Personalized Learning Plain” — provides learning resources and notifies students and teachers when mastery-level proficiency has not been met, opening the way for additional instruction.

“There will still be good, old-fashioned teaching going on — when it’s needed,” said McLing.

Students can then continue to work toward mastery-level proficiency in English, math, science and history.

Group projects and presentations will also help promote “student-centered learning” in the program.

Last year, teachers rearranged four large classrooms in a vocational building located directly behind Rocky Mountain Middle to open the way for Fusion’s computer and project-based emphasis. Instead of desks, students will use “collaborative” tables, which are better for group projects and presentations, teachers said.

Fusion teachers will spend the majority of the time on their feet, coaching and mentoring instead of lecturing, and keeping tabs on students, making sure they stay on track.

“These are middle-schoolers,” McLing said. “Ensuring that they are doing what they are supposed to is definitely one challenge we will face on a daily basis.”

Rocky Mountain Principal Jason Lords said he is confident in Fusion’s future success.

“It’s just one other way to provide more learning options to students — and that’s always a good thing.” Lords said.

Students and parents were provided more information on Fusion during registration on Aug. 17. Enrollment in the program is optional.

Idaho’s future with mastery-based learning

Establishing pilot programs like Fusion will enable the state to collect feedback on how to implement mastery-based learning in the future, said State Department of Education director of mastery-based learning Kelly Brady.

“We have to remember that this is a generational thing – it’s going to take years, maybe even decades, to get into place,” she said.

Brady referred to states such as New Hampshire, which has been working to implement mastery-based models for nearly 10 years.

“It’s still not happening in many regards in some of those areas,” she said. “But many colleges and universities have adjusted their acceptance criteria to mastery-based models.”

For now, she said, the pilot programs are about local control and learning what works and what doesn’t.

Participating schools will submit a report at the end of this school year that provides feedback regarding their unique pilot program. The state will  use that information in determining best ways to continue implementing a statewide, master-based model, said Brady.