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Story by Deb Seminary, contributing writer

A few weeks after North Dakota State Superintendent Kirsten Baesler took office in 2013, she received an email from a high school principal who “wanted to do things differently.”

“I responded that I wanted that same thing,” said Baesler. “After hearing requests for more flexibility and autonomy in my more than 15 years as a teacher, vice-principal, school board member, and parent, I promised him it was the number one priority on my list. And I didn’t just want to rip up the turf, I wanted to move the ball down the field and deliver a different learning journey for our young people.”

When work first began on how to improve the way North Dakota students learn, it became apparent that what was good for one district was not going to work in another. School districts were going to need to communicate what changes were desired and of course, not all school districts saw the need for change.

Over time, the concept of allowing innovation to grow locally took shape and during the 2017 legislative session, SB 2186 was passed. This precedence-setting legislation allows public and nonpublic schools to have more local control and flexibility over the design and delivery of learning in their schools. As schools and districts wrestled with this flexibility meant for their communities, the concept of personalized, competency-based learning (PCBL) experiences developed. A cohort of four schools continues their work (that started in fall 2018) to provide a model and to give guidance to other districts next in line for new student learning experiences.   

“The passage of SB2186 let our school districts be creative and innovative and break free,” said Baesler. “Kids are learning differently, and we have trapped them in this traditional model that no longer works for them. This new model shows what we really value and also shows the need to change the opportunity for graduating with a diploma, which led to SB 2196.”

This latest legislation, passed in the 2021 legislative session, created a learning continuum that, once certified by the State Board of Public Education, will be recognized as an official graduation pathway for a North Dakota high school diploma, the first of its kind in the nation.

“This transformational legislation was a major victory for North Dakota students,” said North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum. “It opens the door for school districts to design student learning that recognizes space, place, and time not as barriers but as levers to transform how we deliver a world-class education to all students.”

Lori Phillips, director of teaching and learning with KnowledgeWorks, explained the learning continuum in her testimony in favor of passing SB 2196: “A learning continuum is a transparent document containing a progression of knowledge, skills, and dispositions (academic and 21st century skills), aligned to college- and career-ready pathways. Establishing a learning continuum, that is accessible to all members of the learning community (families, learners, educators, board members, community, etc.), creates an environment for learners to engage fully in the learning process and make decisions based on their needs, preferences, and goals for the future.”

If we look at a child’s educational experience as a ladder, in elementary school, students are just starting out on the first step and need to have solid footing on that step before they move up to the next rung. Some students may move faster than others.

“Over time, the sheer volume of things we want young people to learn has become overwhelming and we have never changed the amount of time we are giving them to learn it,” said Sen. Erin Oban, D-Bismarck, a sponsor of SB 2196. “This bill provides incredible flexibility and creativity for our local school districts to provide adjustments to respond to the different paces and ways, even locations, at which kids learn. Of course, there are still those solid fundamentals we expect every student at every stage of learning to have been taught and demonstrate they know, no matter where they are going to school across the state, and the learning continuum solidifies those necessary fundamentals.”


School districts don’t have to do away with the traditional path just because personalized, competency-based learning is being offered, they can offer both paths to graduation. School boards must give their approval (for adaptation) then the district needs to be able to determine what their skills, knowledge, and competencies standards will be as aligned to the state learning continuum.  

“This will look different in every district,” said Ann Ellefson, director of the office of academic support, North Dakota Department of Public Instruction (NDDPI). “It is not a one-size-fits-all model like we often see in our traditional educational systems. The PCBL model requires a lot of thought and attention. You can’t just plug in what another district has done. For our systems to truly change, districts need to understand, consider, and support what their students, parents, and educators – the entire community - want and need.”

“It is hard work,” said Baesler. “And, you have to be really good at the craft of education, but we know North Dakota has the schools and districts that can do this.”

Rep. Cynthia Schreiber-Beck, R-District 25, another sponsor of SB 2196 agreed. “It is hard work, but probably more rewarding – especially for the students. They need to have those skills, (communication, critical thinking, math, language arts, etc.) before they can move forward. Now they can be given the time to learn those skills if they are struggling. Otherwise, they may get frustrated and act out, or even worse, give up. We want the student to feel like they are in charge of their learning.”

“SB 2196 is a piece of legislation that helps to transform the system of education for students, not only in how they consume education, but how they demonstrate what they know,” said Ellefson. “If a student has English 9, this system will allow students to put those English skills to the test in real-world settings."

The 2021 legislative session introduced a companion bill to innovative education, HB 1478 titled “Learning Opportunities through Sponsoring Entities” (but more commonly referred to as the “Learn Everywhere” bill) that allows students to get credit for educational opportunities outside the classroom. For example, if a math teacher sees an Eagle Scout project that involves a lot of math skills checking off a lot of the standards, maybe that student doesn’t have to take Algebra during high school or maybe takes only part of Algebra.

“Other states are taking notice,” said Baesler. “We are getting calls from all over the country about what is going on in North Dakota.”

“I think part of our success is our collaborative approach in North Dakota,” said Ellefson. “In visiting with schools across the nation, many other states define the program or parameters for their schools and districts. The legislative flexibilities provided through SB 2186, SB 2196 and HB 1488 have been a direct response to the needs expressed by our schools and districts. At NDDPI we listen to and are responsive to the needs of the schools and districts, they are right there with us in the conversations.”

“I think the only way we can recognize and come back from this challenging time in education, where teachers are feeling tired and unappreciated, is to provide them with the time and ability to do what they do well,” said Oban. “Let’s prioritize what every kid needs to learn and allow educators the level of creativity of reaching every kid.”

“I also want to stress the importance and the need for local school leaders to step up. At their request, we have created this immense opportunity at the state level, and I’m excited to see what we are made of at the local level. There is a lot of support to help our schools along the way - from other administrators and educators to the folks at NDDPI - but ultimately, it is up to the schools to take advantage of it,” Oban added.

Ellefson couldn’t agree more. “The barriers have been removed and it is up to local leaders to embrace the changes and do education differently.”

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