A North Dakota law gives school districts a chance to experiment

Innovation Hub
Children at school

Students at Northern Cass School practice using iPads. 

Courtesy of Northern Cass School District 

By next school year, grade levels are expected to be eliminated in the Northern Cass School District in rural North Dakota, and students will navigate their own path to graduation, at their own pace. Northern Cass, which serves just over 650 children from pre-K through 12th grade, is in the process of adopting a personalized learning initiative that will see a move away from standardized tests and towards project work and students mastering core competencies.

The district’s endeavor has the support of North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, a former Microsoft executive. Burgum is convinced that traditional education methods are outdated and inadequate when it comes to preparing all students to succeed in a world shaped by swift technological change.

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“We have to have the humility to say that what we’ve been doing doesn’t work for everyone,” he said. “It’s time to rethink that. If we really care about students and learning, we’ve got to let go of the patterns and approaches that all of us might say, ‘It worked for me, why change?’”

In 2017, Burgum signed a bill into law to spur innovative approaches to education in classrooms across North Dakota. The law gives local school districts the opportunity to seek waivers from certain regulations for K-12 education, in the interest of transforming their schools and improving academic outcomes for students. Northern Cass was the first district in the state to apply for a waiver and more have followed suit, according to the governor’s office. 

“If you’re trying to drive innovation, you can’t drive that federally, and you can’t drive it really at a state level. You’ve got to drive it on the front lines,” Burgum said. “That’s the way it worked in the technology industry and that’s the way it’s going to work here.” Burgum hopes that the steps North Dakota is taking will soon sweep the nation.

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On the front lines at Northern Cass, teachers and administrators have entered their third year of this new approach to school. Angie Froehlich, who currently has four children enrolled at Northern Cass, said she was encouraged by the changes she saw last year when her daughter was a freshman. A science teacher at the school, whom Froehlich described as a leader in the new personalized learning approach, recognized that her daughter needed additional help and offered her an extra science block. He was able to, “backfill some areas that she maybe wasn’t understanding,” Froehlich explained. Consequently, her daughter had “huge [academic] growth in the second half of the year,” she recalled. 

Froehlich’s other children at Northern Cass have also benefited. They, “seem more excited about school … some of them are really eager to keep working,” she said.

By next fall, students at the school — including Froehlich’s children — will be grouped with peers of the same age for only a few activities, such as physical education. Percentage marks on tests will also be phased out, as the school transitions to a standards-based assessment system where students will be expected to demonstrate proficiency in certain key skills.

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Although parents and guardians will be able to track their students’ progress through an online learning management system, Froehlich said one of her concerns about the new initiative is how colleges and universities will assess her children’s qualifications when the time comes.

Froehlich’s worries have also been voiced by other parents. Cory Steiner, the superintendent of the Northern Cass School District, acknowledged that his administrators will need to provide information to schools about how to interpret students’ transcripts, but said he does not foresee any major problems.

“We believe that [issue] … is going to be a small piece of the puzzle because the skills [students] develop in our system are what’s going to help them be successful in college, career or in [the] military,” he said.

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Ted Dintersmith, a former venture capitalist who has supported North Dakota’s innovative methods through grants and by working with people there who play a role in state education at many levels, applauds the transformation underway at Northern Cass. But he fears that the approach to schooling elsewhere — which he said is still mostly focused on preparing students for the industrial economy jobs of the last century — could compromise the very future of the country.

“If we don’t make those years zero through … 18 relatively balanced and equitable — to give kids a fighting chance — we’re sowing the seeds for our destruction,” he warned.

Elizabeth Ross is the senior producer of Innovation Hub. Follow her on Twitter: @eross6. A version of this story originally appeared on the Innovation Hub. 

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