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ND's K-12 superintendent wants to shift education to fill in gaps intensified by distance, hybrid learning

iStock / Special to The Forum

FARGO — North Dakota State Superintendent Kirsten Baesler doesn’t want to just reopen schools for in-person instruction this fall. Baesler wants to reimagine education, she said at the Governor’s Summit on Innovative Education Tuesday, July 21.

Khan Academy founder Sal Khan visited North Dakota virtually to lend Baesler a hand in transforming education. He spoke at the fourth annual summit, which took place in a virtual format and had more than 1,300 registrants.

Khan Academy’s videos aren’t just free math lessons to help students struggling with a homework assignment. It's a mastery learning platform, which Baesler is looking to emulate, that can help students fill in learning gaps, which can plague them well beyond that grade level if glazed over.

“The reason why (students) are struggling, it’s not that they aren't bright. It's not that they don't have great teachers,” Khan said. “It's that they have gaps in their knowledge. They're having trouble in the algebra class, not because of the algebra, but because they didn’t learn their multiplication tables well or they didn’t learn how to divide decimals.”

These learning gaps, which Khan and Baesler referred to as the “Swiss cheese” learning foundation, are intensified in the age of COVID-19 and distance learning. “Swiss cheese” gaps happen when students cruise past topics they haven’t mastered, jumping right to the next lesson, thus creating a shaky foundation.


North Dakota Superintendent of Public Instruction Kirsten Baesler. Jeremy Turley/ Forum News Service

“I think we constrain our teachers quite a bit, because they don't sometimes have the luxury of going back to fill in that 'Swiss cheese' or fill in those gaps,” Baesler said during the event, which was streamed from the North Dakota Heritage Center in Bismarck. “Because at the end of their seventh-grade year, their students will be measured on grade-level content.”

The gist of mastery learning is, rather than focusing on the path and how long a student spends in a chair, what matters more is whether the outcome was reached.

“And if you didn’t reach the outcome, not a big deal,” Khan said. “We’re not going to brand you a ‘C’ student. We're not going to brand you as not smart. Just keep working on it until you’ve actually mastered the concept.”

Baesler’s sister, a longtime math teacher in the state, said she utilized Khan Academy to address learning gaps in her classroom while moving through content. Khan Academy is free, and offers grade-level courses, “get ready for” grade-level courses, test prep and more.

“Everything I’m talking about is free, non-commercial; there’s no catch here,” Khan said.


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Khan Academy founder Sal Khan speaks virtually at the Governor’s Summit on Innovative Education on Tuesday, July 21.

As students, parents and teachers look to the upcoming school year, which increasingly looks like distancing learning or some type of hybrid, the “Swiss cheese” gaps will expand, Khan said. Though there may be more time to allow students to close the loopholes at their own pace, he added.

Beyond the pandemic, Baesler said she wants to see the state move toward proficiency and learner-centered education and away from lockstep education.

“The governor doesn't want this for just some of our kids. I don't want this for just some of our kids,” Baesler said. “We want the proficiency -and-competency-based, inspired, curious learning to be the way that we do education in North Dakota.”

Baesler and Gov. Doug Burgum last week announced guidelines for reopening K-12 schools this fall. Local school districts have the power to decide how schools choose to re-enter and begin instruction, but a distance learning plan must be in the works, Baesler said.

“As we face unprecedented challenges and disruption from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, we also have an opportunity to lead in many ways – driving positive change and creating a system that leverages technology tools to meet students where they are,” Gov. Doug Burgum said.

When districts shifted to distance learning in April after schools closed to in-person instruction in March, some households lacked internet access and were identified as underserved. Local broadband providers have since worked to bridge that gap, ensuring internet access to more than 99% of the state’s K-12 students, Burgum said.

In gratitude, the governor proclaimed Tuesday, July 21, as “Broadband Providers Appreciation Day” in the state.


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The Governor’s Summit on Innovative Education, which was held Tuesday, July 21, through a virtual format, had more than 1,300 registrants.

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