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ND School District's "Bold Experiment" Eliminates Grade Levels

Members of a small North Dakota school district used schools in California, Maine and South Dakota as models for a bold experiment in education. (gerik/Twenty20)
Members of a small North Dakota school district used schools in California, Maine and South Dakota as models for a bold experiment in education. (gerik/Twenty20)
August 3, 2018

HUNTER, N.D. – In the rural North Dakota town of Hunter, an experiment is underway that educators in the area believe could revolutionize the learning process. It involves eliminating grade levels.

Northern Cass School District is entering its second year of making education more personalized, so each student can move at their own pace.

Superintendent Cory Steiner says the current model, of placing students in grades based on their age, assumes all those kids learn in the same way – a notion he says isn't backed up by research or personal experience.

"What I don't like about that is, it doesn't respect the individuality of a kid and it also puts them in a box in terms of, 'Well, you need to learn how to read as a third grader by the end of third grade and if you don't, you're behind.' Well, what if that student's able to do math at a fourth-grade level? Then we'll hold you back and make you go slower," says Steiner.

The new, self-paced model is scheduled to be fully implemented for Kindergarten through 12th grade by the fall of 2020. Steiner says members of the district traveled to schools in California, Maine and South Dakota for research on this experiment.

There are about 640 students in the district. Part of the model involves teachers leading seminars, rather than formally instructing kids at the front of a classroom.

Steiner says seminars allow for more flexibility and small groups that encourage students to get involved. They might gather kids who are struggling in a certain area, regardless of age.

Outside of the seminars, Steiner says there are fears that kids will simply be turned loose, leading them to slack off.

"Like this just is, 'Hey kids, go.' And, you know, 'You'll check in with me.' But the teacher actually becomes much more important in this model, because they're going to be doing small-group seminars and coaching throughout this whole process," says Steiner.

Parents have also expressed concern that the new standards-based grading, rather than percentage-based grading, may not be accepted by some schools, or could make it harder to apply for scholarships. But he's talked to colleges and says that won't be the case.

Overall, he says teachers and parents are excited about and supportive of the new model.

"We're nervous, we have some anxiety." says Steiner. “But we're close to doing something really special here and, I think, absolutely changing the way education is done throughout this country. And I believe that fully."

Eric Tegethoff, Public News Service - ND