A School District In America’s Farm Country Is Getting Away From Traditional Education

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Zachery Schmidt Contributor
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A North Dakota school district is in the process of implementing a school system that throws traditional education out the window.

Northern Cass School District will eliminate grade levels and allow students to create individual academic courses all the way until high school graduation by 2020, according to 

“We can’t keep structures that would allow us to fall back into a more traditional system,” Northern Cass Superintendent Cory Steiner told “If we’re going to do this, we’re going to have to manage without grade levels.”

This school district is starting competency-based education (CBE). The U.S. Department of Education described this education as “allowing students to demonstrate mastery of academic content regardless of time.” Students will have a chance to do more job shadows and internships, according to

Northern Cass opened a school called Jaguar Academy for eighth and ninth graders to “work at their own pace in a customized environment.” By 2020, the school district wants eighth-through-twelfth graders to have to option become part of the program.

Students in this academy choose their courses and work at their own pace. All this freed up time allow students to take elective classes, according to Jaguar Academy. Also, students continue to take traditional classes. The academy features students in one room under the watch of teachers.

Instead of having A–F grades at the academy, it uses levels from 1–4 to grade students.

“Level 1 is new information to which students have not yet been exposed. Level 2 is an understanding of foundational concepts such as content-specific vocabulary. Level 3 is proficiency in the measurement topics. Level 4 is applied learning, where students have the opportunity to design a project applying what they have learned,” according to the school’s website.

Students must complete a project to complete Level 4.

CBE began when North Dakota passed Senate Bill 20186 in 2017, which made innovative education programs possible in the state.

“We were too often teaching to a test. Educators wanted students to engage more and apply their learning in meaningful ways.” Kirsten Baesler, North Dakota’s superintendent of public instruction, said to

Northern Cass got help from Lindsay Unified School District, a school district in California implemented CBE in 2009.

This type of education is gaining popularity in America, but not much research has happened on this topic. Students have more motivation and a better understanding of the learning targets, according to 2016 American Institute for Research (AIR).

Schools implement CBE learning differently, the AIR study found. “The implementation of competency-based education practices was neither comprehensive nor uniform, varying greatly across and within both groups of schools.”

The study found close traditional education and CBE have common overlap. A “distinction between competency-based and more traditional models is not as sharp as expected, and that practices may fall along a continuum, even across classrooms within a school.”