Moving Forward toward Mastery at Kuna School District

This is the third post in a series on Mastery Education in Idaho. Links to the other articles in the series can be found below.

During my visit to Synergy at Kuna Middle School, the conversation with Kelly Brady, Idaho Department of Education; Shelby Harris, math teacher at Synergy; Cathy Beals, Administrator of Curriculum & Assessment in Kuna School District; Linda Wiedenfeld, Instructional Coach for Kuna Middle School; and Deb McGrath, the former principal of Kuna Middle School who is now opening a second middle school in Kuna, turned to how to transform schools into mastery-based approaches.

We started with a conversation about what is needed to support teachers to develop a Synergy-like approach. Harris responded, “Give them all the professional development in the world. Let them shadow other teachers to see it in action. Free up teachers to come hang out all day with the students and teachers. Summers are a great time for the curriculum development. You can’t just give teachers projects. They need time to talk them through. See how it might play out and where students might need more help. And teams just need time together. The four of us now work in tandem – and that’s because we have spent a lot of time together in school and out of school. We know how each other thinks about things. There has to be enough time for bonding and for honest conversations.”

Our conversation then turned to the role Synergy is playing in the district. Kuna School District is supporting the three mastery schools (out of ten total) and is monitoring the impact on student learning over time. Beals explained, “Synergy has inspired the rest of the school. Everyone is working to develop a mastery-based approach with the understanding that it is going to look different with different teachers. Synergy’s interdisciplinary approach calls for teachers working in very close teams. However, we may see different configurations going forward.” She also noted that Deb McGrath, previously the KMS Principal, is leading an effort to open a new interdisciplinary, project-based middle school. McGrath noted that there is a pendulum-like momentum to innovation, “You get all your plans together and start to put together a high quality approach and then something happens and you falter. What’s important is to push through it and swing back with new insights.” An example of this is how districts or principals respond to the state accountability policies and pressures. A call for doubling down on skill building in response to a state tests challenges a pedagogical approach that is more developmental with the expectation that students will do better in the long run through intrinsic motivation and a sense of purpose.

Beals also mentioned that the general teachers are interested in the mastery-based approach because “this is great for teachers and great for students.” However, there have been two challenges. First is the branding of the approach as mastery-based learning because “most of it is just effective instruction. Calling it something new can create mistrust.” Second, recently hired teachers may have a lack of understanding of the direction being taken by Kuna. Beals pointed out, “It’s not buy-in problem. It’s a need for more time and professional development problem.”  
McGrath explained that they have early data indicating the interdisciplinary, mastery-based approach is improving student learning. Linda Wiedenfeld,Instructional Coach, added, “This isn’t the same level of learning as in the past. We have students going deeper in their learning in the mastery-based approach. You don’t apply just one skill at a time. Application is an interdisciplinary process.”  

Changes to grading at Synergy have also gotten attention, and parents and educators in the elementary and high schools are looking close. Beals noted, “When changes impact grades, kids and their families start paying attention.” Thus, the community is actively talking about education. However, there is opposition: people who believe that children should be taught in an environment of winners and losers – the way they see how the world works – disagree with an idea that every student can and should learn to high levels. They want their children ready for a hard-knocks life.  

As we wrapped up our conversation, I asked Shelby for her advice to other educators:

  1. Small teams are important. It’s hard to transform the whole building. Thus, organize around teams of educators and build off of their success.   
  2. Go for it. There are many who think becoming mastery-based should be done incrementally. But slow and steady doesn’t get you very far very quickly. It’s okay to figure things out as you move forward if you have agreed upon a few core pieces.
  3. Systems make a difference. You can’t be dependent on people alone. Once you figure things out, start to create the systems across the whole school so that the new approaches become the norm.

Wiedenfeld added, “Make sure you have a deep understanding of mastery-based learning and communicate it early and often. When people see computers, they see it as learning at your own pace. They are blinded by the technology to all the other important parts of a mastery-based system.”

Beals summed up the experience as a district leader trying to guide the transition to mastery-based learning, “It’s like holding on to an inner tube behind a speedboat. Be sure to get a good grip on your purpose of improving the experience of learning for students before you start.”

Read the Entire Series:

The original article was published at in September 2018

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