By Steven Penn
The school board here received a presentation on the corporation’s Mass Customized Learning (MCL) pilots at its meeting Monday night, but have put off making a decision on whether the pilots will stay.
The MCL pilots were instituted throughout the school corporation in various subjects at the beginning of this school year. They are designed to allow students to take control of their own learning and achieve a mastery level before advancing. A typical lesson consists of a pre-test, work stations, direct instruction, post-test, remediation if necessary, and then a performance assessment, which must be completed before the student can move on.
The performance assessments allow teachers to gauge if a student is truly ready to move on to the next topic, by making the student explain and apply the newly learned skill, not just answer multiple choice questions. The pilots also utilize technology such as iPads.
The DCSC faculty’s presentation consisted of testimonies from faculty, including principals and pilot classroom teachers, as well as data comparing the traditional classrooms to those in the pilots.
However, faculty conceded that the amount of data, while sometimes encouraging, is slim at this time, with it being only the first year.
Krissy Strack, a first-grade teacher at Danville North Elementary School, was one of several teachers on hand who spoke about the pilot program and mastery learning.
Strack told the board and those in attendance that the mastery learning method has affected her positively as a teacher.
“I’m proud that I work in a district that allows us to try mastery learning this year and it impacted myself, my (students’) parents, and as I call them, my kiddos, and I will always be a better and stronger teacher because of it,” she said.
The other pilot classroom teachers on hand echoed similar sentiments, saying that even though there were tough times and some struggles, they felt like the MCL pilots and mastery learning program was the right fit.
Danville Middle School Principal Matt Vandermark said he was proud of the work that has been put into the program at his school
and the corporation as a whole.
“We can’t even begin to show our appreciation to the people who are involved in this,” he said. “They have put their blood, sweat, and tears ... into this. I don’t think I’ve ever seen people work so hard in my life to try to get something so right. For that, the administration and everyone that has been working on this, we really appreciate that. We cannot say enough how much we do appreciate the work that they’ve done.”
Fifth-grade teacher Angie Smith compared where the corporation is now with this program, to the recent major accomplishments of Danville’s wresting team, saying they could have quit but continued to fight.
“It’s not going to be on the data right now, but it will be in less than five years — it might be next year,” Smith said. “But if you give up on it right now, (the data will never show up) and we’ll be going back to the comfort zone and we’re going to get the same results.”
Superintendent Denis Ward agreed, adding “This is not a one-year journey.”
He added that more data will become available in the future.
“You’ve seen the data at this point, and it is positive,” Ward said. “Some would say that that’s not data that tells us anything. You’re correct. There’s no way we can tell you today that’s overwhelmingly convincing that this is going to work for every single child. But that’s what we need to find out, and that’s why we need more time.”
He said if the community wants to see improvements, then they need to embrace change.
“We need to continue working on a change ... and this is the strongest thing I’ve heard all year, ‘We can’t believe that we’re last in the county in ISTEP scores.’ If you really have a problem with that, then you need to support change,” he said. “It may not be exactly the change that we’re doing, but you’ve got to support change. Because if you’re fighting change, you’re fighting to keep the status quo and that’s guaranteed. It’s historical, the research will tell you that. If you have a better plan, my door has been open for four years.”
He said the corporation could know more by the summer.
“Will we have more data? Sure, we’ll have more data when we have ISTEP sometime this summer,” Ward said. “We can’t show it to you tonight. They haven’t even finished the test yet. So we need more time.”
He added that in a survey of pilot class parents, the majority indicated they were “very pleased” with the results of the learning that’s taking place, and that their conversations at the dinner table have changed.
Ward said ultimately, what he was asking for at the meeting, was to approve the continuation of the MCL pilots and increase the size of the pilots based upon the need and interest, while working out some of the kinks that have been discovered in the first year.
“Allow us to problem solve additional areas of concern,” he said. “Our teachers have identified a lot of areas of concern this year ... and (allow the corporation to) collect additional data for analysis.
Prior to full implementation, we want to make sure that all students can be successful. The data doesn’t show us that yet, but the data also doesn’t show that it doesn’t work. We need more data. We need another year at least.”
Board member Michael C. Beaty, DDS, said among his concerns is that for a program that relies on technology, only having — in some cases — four iPads for 30 students is a “big issue.”
“Until we can get more (iPads) into the rooms, that’s my biggest concern with MCL,” he said. “Mastery learning, I’ve seen it work, it’s been great. I think that’s the correct direction that this district needs to go.”
He added that instead of expanding the pilot programs to more classrooms, his recommendation would be to keep the pilots that are in place now.
Board member Scott Bess said from his point of view, going forward with the program is the right step.
“I do want to move forward, I do want to give the approval to expand and continue, knowing that if parents don’t choose it, if teachers don’t choose it, we scale back and then at some point ... if no one wants it, (we’ll) stop,” Bess said. “But if they do, then lets keep figuring these things out ... I’d like to give us the opportunity to continue to work on that ... I think it’s more of a philosophical decision tonight versus an implementation.”
Vice President Matt Steward said he felt there might be better ways to achieve mastery learning by not utilizing the MCL method.
“My personal opinion, my vote on this board is that Mass Customized Learning, although it has elements of mastery learning, there are other ways to implement mastery learning and achieve and gain these same results,” he said.
Board President Bill Bradshaw said he felt there were too many unknowns to make any concrete decision at this time.
“The situation has put the board in a tough spot — no question about it,” he said. “With regards to MCL (and) mastery learning ... there’s a lot of unanswered questions. Does the board need to be fiscally responsible? No question about that. I would personally like to see what the cost of such a program is. If the teachers feel they need more equipment ... more help to implement it, it makes it tough on us because we need to have a balanced budget.”
Bradshaw added that if teachers feel they can continue with the program without needing more equipment or help, that would make his decision to approve the program easier.
“I’d like to see that (fiscal) piece of the puzzle before I make any agreement to continue this program and implement it fully,” he said. “Do we need to collect more data? Absolutely. It looked like many of the pilot programs did score higher than the other regular programs, but if you looked at the growth, the growth is actually probably greater in the regular (education) classes than it was in the pilot programs. That’s somewhat inconclusive.”
Board member Brandon Lawson added that he conducts school board business by asking himself if the decision is best for the students.
“I truly feel that (continuing with the MCL program) is the best decision for our students,” Lawson said. “It may not be for some of our teachers — I’m OK with that. If they don’t want to be a part of the plan, they don’t have to be. I believe it’s the best decision for our students and I’ll be able to sleep because I think we’ve done the right thing.”
Bess made a motion to continue with the program and it was seconded by Lawson. However, when the vote fell 3-2 against continuation (with Bess and Lawson voting for), Beaty made the motion to table the decision until a later date. That motion was passed 3-2 (with Bess and Lawson voting against).
The motion was then made to conduct a special session with the MCL discussion being the only focus at the meeting before the next regularly scheduled school board meeting in April. That motion was made and seconded, and passed unanimously. The date of the next meeting is unknown at this time, but it will be advertised ahead of time on the corporation’s website and other outlets.
The board meets regularly at 7 p.m. on the second Monday of each month at Danville South Elementary School.