True grit: Programs promote stick-to-itiveness

Idahoans like education that instills grit in kids.

The 2017 “People’s Perspective,” a public opinion poll conducted by Idaho Education News, found that Idahoans think skills like hard work and determination should accompany more traditional K-12 subject matter, like reading and arithmetic.

And those polled might be on to something. Some research suggests that the hardest working students — not necessarily the smartest ones — perform better in school, and in life.

In response, several school districts throughout the state are turning to programs that emphasize the kind of stick-to-itiveness Idahoans say they want.

Here’s a look at a couple of these programs, and how they’re affecting student performance.

Mastery-based learning: Letting students take the reins

Of the 1,004 Idahoans surveyed in the People’s Perspective, 97 percent said it’s absolutely essential to teach basic reading, writing and math skills in school. Seventy-five percent said hard work, persistence and responsibility should accompany these subjects.

The numbers come in the wake of a statewide push toward mastery-based learning, a method that some educators say reinforces persistence and hard work by letting kids take control of how they advance through their coursework.

Last March, the state granted 19 Idaho schools access to $1.4 million set aside for mastery-based pilot programs, after statewide implementation of the framework topped the 2013 list of 20 reform recommendations drafted by Gov. Butch Otter’s Task Force for Improving Education.

The State Department of Education aims to assess the success of the pilots at the end of the school year, with an eye on eventually getting all Idaho schools on board.

Under a mastery-based system, students no longer advance from grade to grade based on seat time, getting a year older or by receiving a passing mark. Instead, they move on once they demonstrate mastery of concepts covered in a class or grade level — no matter how long it takes. Schools choose what constitutes “mastering” the material, but many set the threshold for assignments and tests at around 80 percent.

To get pilot programs off the ground in all of its schools, the Moscow School District last year tapped into a portion of the state’s $1.4 million earmarked for mastery. The large-scale changeover has been difficult, says Moscow superintendent Greg Bailey, but it’s also helping kids “take ownership” of their own learning.

“We’ve had some teachers drag their feet in the process,” Bailey said, “but there’s no hiding behind a percentage with mastery-based learning. It forces kids to take the initiative and either learn the material or not advance.”

Ali Breeze, a teacher at Bonneville’s Rocky Mountain Middle School, said many of her school’s 130 mastery pilot enrollees grappled with the program at first — just what they needed to develop more grit.

“Some really struggled, got upset and fell behind,” Breeze said. “But when they learned that it was on them to catch up, most of them came back and did better the second time around.”

Though the rigors of mastery-based learning aren’t new to all students, some of them say the method’s emphasis on self-reliance requires adaptation.

Eighth grader McKinley Christiansen says she’s always been a straight-A student, but agrees that mastery-based learning’s emphasis on projects and group work forces more kids to take ownership of their learning.

“Mastery learning is a good thing,” McKinley said. “I wouldn’t say it’s been harder for me. A lot of it really just depends on your attitude and how hard you’re willing to work.”

Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID)

SDE director of mastery-based learning Kelly Brady recently returned from visiting several schools nearing the end of their first year of mastery implementation.

Brady agrees that the pilot programs are helping kids “take control” of their learning, but acknowledges that it’s too early to cite any specific data-driven improvements, like test scores or other performance indicators.

But a different grit-driven learning framework has been in some Idaho schools since 2010, and some educators say its positive influence on student data-driven indicators is clear.

Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) is a worldwide non-profit that helps schools target and close achievement gaps by encouraging middling achievers — students with GPAs between 2.0 and 3.5 — to challenge themselves by engaging in tougher coursework.

At the secondary level, educators “recruit” these students into the AVID program, but kids ultimately choose whether or not to enroll. Those who do participate in a variety of enrichment and motivational activities to help “make their college dreams reality,” and to meet the demands of honors or dual-enrollment coursework.

Typically, teachers recruit students who speak English as a second language or are expected to be the first in their family to graduate college. Thirty-two Idaho schools, located mostly throughout Western Idaho, have implemented AVID since 2010, with at least two others eyeing the framework.

Idaho school Districts where AVID is in some form of implementation:

Emmett: All secondary schools
Homedale: All secondary schools
Boise: All secondary schools
Mountain Home: All secondary schools and one elementary
Vallivue: All schools

One of those school districts, Vallivue, now offers AVID in all of its schools.

Vallivue assistant superintendent Gary Johnson says teachers throughout the district key in on three grit-inducing areas of focus:

  • Regular self-reflection: Teachers often ask students to analyze the consequence of their own actions, particularly in terms of their goals, and to write about their findings in brief essays. “This helps them see the benefits of their efforts.” Johnson said. “When they see these results, it increases their desire and their drive — their determination — because they now understand the path to success.”
  • Getting help: AVID’s advocacy programs help students understand that determination doesn’t mean doing everything on their own, Johnson said: “We teach them how to study and where to go for help when they get stuck instead of throwing their arms in the air and saying, ‘I don’t get it.’ This same skill helps them to search out financial aid, scholarships, and other support for their college goals.”
  • Fostering a “family” environment at school: Developing a sense of “family” gives kids the courage and the motivation to take risks and push beyond barriers because someone has their back, Johnson said.

Educators in other districts point to AVID students’ improved grades as evidence of the program’s effectiveness.

Of the 800 students at Boise’s Fairmont Middle School, 238 enroll in AVID, and nearly 93 percent of them take accelerated courses and pass with a C or better. In the 2015-16 school year, Fairmont AVID students owned a cumulative GPA of 3.03, ahead of the 2.7 average of all other students.

“We are giving [students] college prep skills that really do help — AVID offers many of these kids the best they’ve ever had,” Johnson said.

Devin Bodkin

Devin Bodkin

Devin was formerly a senior reporter and editor for Idaho Education News and now works for INL in communications.

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