Kuna Middle School sets a high goal: Mastery of knowledge

Students learn at their own pace in Kuna Middle School mastery program

Kuna Middle School is trying a different approach to learning that has altered their daily schedule and how they study. The mastery program ensures students understand key principles before moving to new material.
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Kuna Middle School is trying a different approach to learning that has altered their daily schedule and how they study. The mastery program ensures students understand key principles before moving to new material.

Maryn Petersen doesn’t have textbooks in her class at Kuna Middle School. She doesn’t often sit at a desk taking notes of a teacher’s lecture or reading a chapter and answering the question in the back of the book.

The 14-year-old eighth-grader learns by doing. Her school days are spent working on projects: Building a memorial to the victims of the world’s genocides. Learning about food’s history and future in a project titled “Chew on This”

In her genocide project, Petersen learned about stereotyping. In the food project, she learned about what her ancestors ate. In ancient Rome, from where her family comes, she learned “they ate a lot of flat bread, they ate wild boar and a lot of wine, too.”

Petersen is bringing her knowledge in math, history, science and other subjects to bear on her work. For the genocide project she needed to study history. She needed to know geometry: how to construct a dome. She needed to understand science and chemistry to create an ancient-style “solar bulb” or skylight — a container of water that captures and diffuses light, with bleach to keep the water from clouding.

She loves learning by investigating and building on her knowledge.

“You get to do something that you care about,” Petersen said. “It is your idea to come up with a dome. You have to use your brain and think of an idea.”

Petersen is part of an unfolding experiment at Kuna Middle School where students are expected to master the subjects they are taught. The process is straightforward: Learn one skill well before you move on to the next. In Petersen’s case, where she is in a group of about 100 students, it is also learning by putting all your knowledge together in real-world projects.

6The number of Idaho schools or districts putting mastery programs in place


Mastery envisions an education system where no child is left behind — really. Mastery is aimed at trading classroom seat time for knowledge gained. Students move on when they are ready.

Mastery is individualized learning on a schoolwide and districtwide scale. Teachers take students where they find them, then move them as far as they can.

“It basically allows students to move at their own rate,” said Linda Clark, a State Board of Education member and former superintendent at West Ada School District, where three alternative high schools have used the mastery approach.

Gov. Butch Otter’s 2013 Task Force for Improving Education listed establishing mastery in Idaho schools as one of its recommendations.

Lawmakers appropriated $1.4 million to develop and enhance mastery programs for the next school year. Nineteen schools and districts have applied for grants — among them Nampa, Kuna, Notus and Wilder school districts. Grants will be awarded April 22.

Boise School District, which uses some mastery instruction in its professional-technical courses and gifted program, is waiting for data from other districts to see what they can learn from those programs, said Don Coberly, district superintendent.

Turning Idaho schools toward mastery is a “generational shift,” said Kelly Brady, director of mastery for the State Department of Education.


Most of the parents at schools such as Kuna Middle learned differently from their children. The teacher explained some skills. Kids took a test. The class moved on. If you didn’t get the concept, it was a blank in your learning.

That isn’t how education works in Laurie McCord’s seventh-grade math class in Kuna. Dressing in a blue Super Pi shirt (the logo resembles the Superman S), McCord moves constantly among her 25 students, pausing to give advice or encouragement. Students at tables work on their Chromebooks. Seven of the 25 students are taking a test on Pi — the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter. Others work on math problems. And others, about half the class, are working on catching up to seventh-grade math from as far away as a third-grade level.

“Not very many are doing the test today,” McCord said. If any of those kids fall below 70 percent, they study more and then take a take a new test.

The secret to teaching to mastery?

“The teacher is able to teach the kids at their level,” McCord said.

Computer devices have greatly enhanced mastery education. Instead of printing off a bunch of different worksheets, McCord and others say the devices provide the information students need for their learning level.

Still, mastery is proving a challenge at Kuna Middle School. Lots of students struggle, so a teacher can’t just go over her material once and move on, said Principal Deb McGrath.

Students’ progress is shared with all the staff, from the summer school teachers to the after-school program. Everyone knows what each student lacks. “Then we can all really target, and we keep going until he’s got it,” McGrath said.

Students who get the subjects quickly move on, she said. “The kids who take longer get to take as long as they need.”


Different parts of the school are in different phases of mastery, ranging from the project-based learning in Petersen’s class to more traditional learning approaches in other classes.

It’s exhausting, but it’s right.

Deb McGrath, Kuna Middle School principal

Curriculum must be precise, McGrath said. Students know skill-by-skill what they must learn. And grading is undergoing a transformation. Some students are graded on a new scale — exceeding standards, meeting standards, improving and needs improvement — for each of the standards in a class. For many students, that replaces the traditional single A to F for an entire class that can also incorporate more than academics, such as behavior, extra credit and attendance, McGrath said.

“That has been very difficult,” McGrath said, “because parents think about how it was when they were in school and they struggle.”

Many of the school’s 840 students support the mastery.

“I love it,” Petersen said. “I can focus on my learning.”