Is Idaho prepared to fund a mastery-based learning model?

Idaho is joining a growing number of states in a shifting movement to adopt a mastery based learning model (sometimes also referred to as a competency based model) in lieu of the more traditional “seat hour” model our state currently employs.

This is an exciting move that much scholarship suggests will benefit a tremendous number of students who will advance in a model more relative of their individual understanding of the content; however, much less clear is scholarship surrounding this model’s impact on minority populations like special education and Limited English Proficiency students.

Indeed, in many ways a mastery based model shares many characteristics with a special education student’s Individualized Education Plan (IEP) in the sense that both models aim to help a specific student reach an individualized goal on a timeline appropriate for each unique kiddo.

However, there is a key difference between the two: mastery based asks for what the name suggests in mastery of content before a student is eligible for grade promotion/credit. That poses a unique challenge for special education students and other minority populations.

Far be it from me to argue that most special education students are not able to achieve mastery of content; instead, let me simply suggest that mastery of content for many students with disabilities requires ample individualized attention, targeted research-based strategies, and other demanding resources for this outcome to occur in a timeline synonymous with typical peers.

Indeed, before considering a mastery based model, the National Center for Learning Disabilities bluntly declares: “Schools must have adequate resources and supports available for all students…. For students with disabilities, it is not enough to allow them more time to reach mastery; they have a right to additional supports and services under the law. Moreover, educators must have the time and resources to provide the interventions and supports as needed to students on various schedules.”

Therein lies the rub. As the recent viral open letter penned by teacher colleague Ranae Bafus in Troy demonstrated, Idaho schools (particularly districts struggling to float bonds and levies) are literally operating on shoestring budgets with services cut to the bone.

Is Idaho genuinely prepared to provide the expanded services necessary for a mastery-based model to succeed, for all students, when the price tag for substantial additional resources is revealed, particularly for minority populations like special education students?

As Superintendent Ybarra recently stated in a recent IEN Voices submission, mastery based learning, “is probably going to be messy and chaotic, and there will be failures and misfortunes that we will need to learn from, in order for our educational system to get better.”

I wholeheartedly agree that there will be missteps along the way, but am also equally emphatic that such a tectonic shift in credit and grade promotion requires equal recognition and forethought into what additional resources will be required for all students to succeed, particularly our minority student populations, in such a dynamic new model.

Teachers will need extensive professional development: Time to align the new approach to the new Common Core State Standards; resources to gain understanding of how to incorporate minority student populations like English Language Learners and special education students; And — let’s face it – additional staff in the form of both aids and certified teachers to help such an individualized approach succeed by providing the customized teaching such a model requires for each unique student.

And if the gumption isn’t currently there for the state to provide adequate resources and equitable funding to all districts (as illustrated by Troy’s heartbreaking plea for its decrepit status quo), is it realistic to expect that a significant increase in resources will be spent to allow all students to be successful, regardless of what zip code they live in, under such a model when it is implemented in the near future?

It is an open secret that Idaho has been experiencing something of a teacher exodus the past few years; the last thing the Gem State can afford is to implement policy without proper resources in place if it wants to break this trend. It will require money to improve the educational system or Idaho will continue to bleed teachers. This is certainly true for certified special education teachers which, as a recent Idaho Statesman article highlighted, are about as easy to find as a Democrat in the Statehouse leadership.

So yes, the transition will be messy and chaotic. Yet, it doesn’t have to be unnecessarily so. We have limited time to plan for the shift itself as well as for the adequate resources necessary for the shift to be successful. If we are not prepared to write the check for those resources, perhaps it’s better we wait until we are.

Levi B Cavener is a special education teacher in Caldwell. He also manages the blog IdahosPromise.Org