Friday, October 7, 2016

Customized learning expanding in South Dakota

A column by Secretary of Education Dr. Melody Schopp

“Mass customized learning,” “MOD/CL,” “customized learning.” It goes by a variety of names, and you are likely hearing them more and more. I recently visited several South Dakota schools that are implementing customized learning. It’s happening at different grade levels and through a variety of methods. I believe it presents the opportunity for transformative change in education.

Change is hard (but often good)
Customized learning looks much different than the traditional classroom in which most of us grew up. It has the appearance of students just “doing their own thing.” And they are “doing their own thing,” but with clearly laid out expectations from well-developed coursework. Teachers in these schools have spent extensive time developing materials and assessments. Continuing this work and expanding it to other schools will be one of the primary uses of the Classroom Innovation Grants the Department of Education awarded this summer, as a result of the 2016 education package.

This kind of learning can be a difficult switch for older students who are used to traditional classrooms where teachers tell them what to do and when to do it. Customized learning requires students to take charge of their time and choices.

The concept of mastery is another big change inherent to customized learning. This can be a difficult transition for parents who grew up with GPAs, honor rolls and valedictorians. Mastery removes competition among students, as everyone is expected to do well. There is no longer an averaging of grades because the expectation is that students cannot move on until they have mastered the content. Everyone must do well. They just do it at their own pace.

At Harrisburg High School, this year’s seniors will be the first graduating class of students who began as freshmen in the program. The school’s new wing, built for students in the customized learning program opened this fall. Students can do their work throughout the commons area and go to different classrooms if they need small group or one-on-one instruction. The common theme I heard when visiting with students was that it is more rigorous than the traditional program. However, every student I spoke to also indicated they would not want to go back to the traditional setting.

Students are committed because they see the relevance and how it is helping them prepare for life after high school. They are required to achieve mastery (defined by the learning targets staff members establish) and until they do so, they redo assignments and assessments to demonstrate their understanding before moving on.  Many are earning dual credit or taking AP courses at the same time.

In a new program at Gertie Belle Rogers Elementary School in Mitchell, three teachers are facilitating a 1st-5th grade classroom with 64 kids. All students are on individual learning plans with direct instruction provided throughout the day when and where needed. A couple of the school’s former kindergarten rooms have been converted into a large open room with tables, couches, high-top tables and bean bag chairs to accommodate students’ various learning styles. Technology is one-to-one, and the room is equipped with white boards for instruction. I spent time with students at all levels. Their ability to articulate what they were learning and how they use different strategies, was fascinating. There were kids all over the room working individually, while teachers also led some students in small group instruction.

Mitchell’s middle school program is a bit more structured. Students are all in traditionally arranged classrooms, but each student works at their own level and pace. One 8th grade student is starting geometry after having completed algebra last year. That’s just one example of the success students can experience.

In Gayville-Volin, the atmosphere of the entire district is different, as they have implemented customized learning in grades K-12. Again, students can be found sitting all over, engaged in learning at all levels. The community just supported a $2.6 million bond (about 75% voter approval) for a new building to better facilitate customized learning. The community and surrounding area sees and appreciates the student engagement and success. I walked into a room of juniors and seniors, some of whom already had 21-27 credits. They were working on courses from a couple different Board of Regents institutions as well as one of the technical institutes. Some of them will graduate with not only a high school diploma, but also an associate’s degree; others will be very close to it.

At the state level, it is our aspiration that all South Dakota students graduate high school ready for college, career and life. Customized learning is helping them get there. 

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Revising content standards in math and English language arts

A column by Secretary of Education Dr. Melody Schopp

Some very important work got underway this summer in Pierre. A number of dedicated South Dakota educators and other stakeholders, including parents, began reviewing and revising South Dakota’s content standards in the areas of English language arts and math. At the state level, we remain committed to our standards and confident that they are preparing our students to be college, career and life ready.

Reviewing and revising standards in all content areas is a normal process that occurs at regular intervals (on average, about every seven years) to ensure students experience the most up-to-date, relevant education possible.

Throughout the 2016-17 school year, all of our state’s K-12 educators will have the opportunity to study the standards work groups’ proposed changes and offer feedback.

This is a great professional development opportunity. Department of Education staff and standards work group participants have developed a standards review toolkit to help guide schools’ discussions. In addition, a number of these individuals will be available to give school staff presentations on these topics.

Unfortunately, there is sometimes a misperception that standards review is simply a matter of reading over existing standards and offering some minor tweaks. However, if you could be a “fly on the wall” during these meetings, I promise you would hear a good deal of energetic discussion and debate from individuals who are passionate advocates for South Dakota students. Feedback from Redfield Elementary Principal and ELA work group member Samantha Walder is a great example:

“There were educated, informed (sometimes lively) debates over the addition, amendment or deletion of nearly every word or phrase in almost every ELA Standard Strand K-12,” Walder said.

In June 2017, the math and ELA standards work groups will meet to consider feedback from the education field and make any necessary changes before the revised standards are taken to the state Board of Education for public hearings. Four public hearings on each set of standards will be held during the 2017-18 school year.

Find detailed information on the revision process for these standards on the Department of Education website:

Friday, September 9, 2016

Learning in Malawi

A column by Secretary of Education Dr. Melody Schopp

During the last week of August, I traveled to Malawi, Africa. My trip was sponsored by the U.S. Speaker program
. I was joined by the National Teacher of the Year and met with a number of individuals from teacher preparation and K-12 leadership, as well as several government figures.

Arriving in Lilongwe, capital city of Malawi, was a cultural shock. The ride to the hotel was my first introduction to what I would encounter throughout the week: lines of people walking along the roadsides carrying food, water, wood and other supplies.

We first visited some of the public schools in Lilongwe. The facilities consist primarily of brick buildings with concrete floors and stark furnishings consisting of only desks or tables. Some schools have electricity, but many don't, and in the rural areas, school could mean meeting under a tree.  Class sizes typically are over 100.  Students often have over an hour walk to get to school, which means an additional challenge with school typically beginning at 7 a.m.

In a village two hours from Lilongwe, we saw a new group of 13 Peace Corps inductees sworn in by the Embassy. After spending three months with the families of the village, they were preparing to go out to teach across the country. The village had put together a large celebration and going away ceremony for these young people. There is no electricity or running water in this village, and the huts had dirt floors. The Peace Corp inductees had learned to cook the local food, consisting mainly of maize and soy. They learned to wash clothes by hand and to speak the language with some fluency.

The next day, they would leave the families they had grown to love and depend on as well as the friendships they had developed as they headed to their schools across the country to survive on their own. With the country having gone through a devastating drought the past year, it is expected that one-third of the 18 million people will experience some level of food deprivation and starvation. Preparing these young people to deal with these sorts of conditions is beyond the normal concerns of supporting first-year teachers we discuss in the U.S.

We traveled to the eastern side of the country to visit a school for the blind and developmentally disabled in a village called Salima. Individuals at the school were very excited and prepared to present to us about their work. We gathered in a small dimly lit building. Goats and chickens surrounded the building, and women gathered at the well to pump water to take home. Teachers spoke to us about their work and had blind students "perform" their ability to read and use a computer with what they deemed to be the newest technology with braillers and printers when there was electricity available (it frequently went out).

Conditions were stark, but the students' successes were heartwarming. Parents came with their children, and it was easy to see the pride they had in their child's ability to read and learn. The dorm consisted of two single rooms for about 20 boys and 20 girls. The bunk beds had old, worn out two-inch foam rubber for mattresses and dirty blankets. Mosquito nets hung from the ceiling and beds above to protect the kids at night from the deadly risk of malaria. Showers were a single concrete room with a bucket available when the water is turned off due to the restrictions imposed across the country. Toilets were flushed by water sitting in a bucket. While facilities were lacking, the level of care and compassion for the students was quite obvious.

The culture of Malawi is one where affection is not openly exhibited. It would not be normal for a teacher to hug a child, as teachers are seen as the givers of knowledge only. The goal of the educational system there is for students to pass the national exam given at the end of grade eight to enter secondary school; once in the middle of high school and finally to leave the system. Without passing, students are moved from one level to another and have no opportunity to enter the postsecondary system. Thus, the pressure to perform academically is foremost in the minds of the students and parents without attention given to any of the social or emotional aspects we deal with in America.

The day is very short due to the distance students must travel by foot and their need to go home and do chores once the day ends. Students do not have the extras of music, art or PE and certainly don't need physical exercise after walking over an hour one way every day.

The faces, the sights, the people are imprinted in my mind. I realize more than ever how blessed we are to live here and have opportunities that we take so for granted on a daily basis. Being able to simply turn on a faucet or flush a toilet, or to switch on lights and keep food fresh...these are things we view as necessities. The same things are completely unknown to another part of the world and yet, the people appear happy and content. We can learn something from that.
Hear Dr. Schopp's recent interview about her trip to Africa on South Dakota Public Broadcasting.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Make School Attendance A Priority

Gov. Dennis DaugaardA column by Gov. Dennis Daugaard:

Across South Dakota, a new school year is getting underway. Students and families are getting back into the school day routine, reestablishing study habits and juggling activities.

In order to succeed in school, students are often reminded to listen to their teachers, complete homework assignments on time and cooperate with their classmates. There is another simple practice we sometimes overlook that is absolutely critical: consistent school attendance. It seems obvious, but the importance of attendance cannot be overstated.

Some absences cannot be avoided, and that is understandable. Sometimes though, absences can add up without notice. The research indicates that all it takes is missing 10 percent of a school year to negatively impact student achievement. That might sound like a lot, but when you consider that it translates to just two or three days a month, it’s easy to see how families can sometimes overlook accumulating absences. It doesn’t matter if absences are excused or unexcused, consecutive or non-consecutive. Time out of the classroom is learning time lost.

Attendance is vital from the very beginning. Kindergarten and 1st grade students who are chronically absent are much less likely to read at grade level by the end of 3rd grade. Already by 6th grade, chronic absence is an indicator that students are at risk for dropping out of school. And by 9th grade, a student’s attendance record is an even better predictor of graduation rates than 8th grade test scores.

In September, we’ll be observing Attendance Awareness Month in South Dakota. I encourage you to join with me in this observation.

This school year make attendance a priority in your household. Think of it as your student’s first and most important job, and know that the habits they form now will likely stick with them when they enter the workplace. Help your kids understand the importance of showing up. As Woody Allen put it, “Eighty percent of success is showing up.”


For an audio recording of the Governor’s weekly column, visit and click on “Audio” under “Governor Dennis Daugaard.”

Friday, June 24, 2016

Preliminary state assessment results show gains

Secretary of Education Dr. Melody Schopp
Preliminary results on the 2016 statewide assessment in English language arts and math show gains in student performance in both content areas and in all but one tested grade level. The assessment is administered each spring to just under 70,000 South Dakota public school students in grades 3-8 and 11.

I commend students and educators for the hard work and dedication that has led to these improvements.

It takes about 100 students to show a 1 percent increase in proficiency at each grade level, so we are talking about 300 to 600 more students testing proficient in many grade levels, which is significant progress. We also saw growth overall for our Native American students.

Our youngest tested students are showing the greatest gains. This makes sense, since they have been working with these content standards in math and English language arts for most, if not their entire, school careers.

At the other end of the spectrum, our 11th grade assessment results are largely flat. We aren’t entirely sure why this is, but I think several factors are at play. Our state’s 11th graders have spent a smaller proportion of their schooling with these content standards, and they are much more familiar with the former state assessment, which was essentially a “bubble test.” It did not require them to apply and demonstrate their knowledge in the way the Smarter Balanced assessment does.

We also know that some of our 11th grade students feel the test has little value or meaning for them. I want to  share the message with our high school students and their parents that all six of our state’s public universities accept Smarter Balanced scores for placement purposes. This makes the assessment very valuable. Students who score in Levels 3 or 4 in math and/or English language arts avoid the need for remediation and can automatically enter credit-bearing courses in the respective content area once they get to college.

I’ve said repeatedly that we must stay the course with regard to our state standards in English language arts and math. These preliminary assessment results bolster that message.

I am also pleased to report that a recent lawsuit against the state of South Dakota for its participation in a multi-state testing consortium was dismissed. As part of the consortium, South Dakota benefits from the shared expertise of member states and the lower costs available through a cooperative effort.

South Dakota educators have aided in the development of the Smarter Balanced assessment over the past several years, and their involvement continues. Several educators from our state were recently asked to participate in further item development this summer.

Smarter Balanced (SBAC) Test
% of students at or above Level 3*

English Language Arts

2016 State SBAC (preliminary)
2015 State SBAC (final)
Grade 3
Grade 4
Grade 5
Grade 6
Grade 7
Grade 8
Grade 11
All Grades


2016 State SBAC (preliminary)
2015 State SBAC (final)
Grade 3
Grade 4
Grade 5
Grade 6
Grade 7
Grade 8
Grade 11
All Grades

*Levels 3 and 4 considered on track for college/career readiness

Friday, May 6, 2016

A Message to the Classes of 2016

A column by Gov. Dennis Daugaard

Congratulations to the class of 2016! To all high school, college and technical school students now approaching graduation in South Dakota, I commend you for reaching this milestone. After years of studying, taking tests and writing essays, you’ve finally made it. Congratulations on all you have achieved!

Most of you probably already have a good idea of what you’ll be doing next – what additional education you’ll seek or what career you’ll pursue. Whether you’ve decided to stay in South Dakota or pursue a career or education elsewhere, I hope you’ll ultimately consider a future here in our state.
There are a number of reasons to consider living and working here.

First, we have the lowest unemployment rate in the nation at 2.5 percent, compared to the national rate of 5 percent. Job opportunities are better here than in most places.

Secondly, the tax burden in South Dakota is low. We are among only a few states without an income tax, meaning you can keep more of the money you earn. Money that can repay student debt, buy a house someday or replace that car you drove into the ground in school.

Third, not only do people keep more of the money they earn in South Dakota, but that money will buy more here than in other places. According to a U.S. Department of Commerce report, South Dakotans experience a very low cost of living in the United States. We don’t spend as much money on housing, insurance, food and the other everyday needs. In fact, we have some of the lowest costs in the nation.  In New York, California, Washington, D.C., or many other places, you will find costs that are 12 percent, 15 percent, even 18 percent higher than the national average. In South Dakota our costs are only 88 percent of the national average.

Now some people will say, “South Dakota may have a low tax burden and low cost of living, but I won’t get paid as much if I live there.” Actually when it comes to per capita personal income, we fare pretty well. Nationally, we rank in the top half. And, if you adjust the per capita personal income to add cost of living and taxes, we rank fifth in the nation.

After I graduated from USD, I hitchhiked my way to Chicago to attend law school at Northwestern. I’d lived in South Dakota my whole life and I was ready for something bigger, something more exciting. I wanted to experience life in the bright lights of a big city. I finished school and decided to stay in Illinois for a few years to practice law. Still, over time, I came to miss seeing the stars at night, enjoying the wide open spaces and having the company of friendly, down-to-earth people. I was glad to have experienced something new and different, but I was ready to come home to something better.

My hope is not that you will never venture outside of our state, but rather that you would consider a more permanent future in South Dakota. Most of all, I hope you will come to realize, as I did, that your dreams can come true right here at home.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Math and science teachers honored at annual conference

The 24th Annual Joint Professional Development Conference of the South Dakota Science Teachers Association & South Dakota Council of Teachers of Mathematics was held Feb. 4-6, in Huron. A number of outstanding math and science educators were honored. Congratulations!

Mark Kreie and Paul von Fischer
Outstanding Math Teacher Award, sponsored by Daktronics: Mark Kreie (right) and principal Paul von Fischer (Brookings High School)

Janet Wagner
Physical Science Teacher of the Year Award, sponsored by 3M: Janet Wagner (Bon Homme School District)

state-level finalists
Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching state-level finalists (l to r): (Dorothy) Marie Gillespie (science, Pierre Indian Learning Center), Jennifer Fowler (science, Rapid City), Mark Kreie (math, Brookings), Ruth Conway (math, Rapid City), Sheila McQuade (math, Sioux Falls), Lisa Cardillo (science, Harrisburg), LuAnn Lindskov (science, Timber Lake)
Not pictured: Cole Knippling (math, Elk Point-Jefferson) and Bjorg Remmers-Seymour (math, Rapid City)

Tricia Neugebauer and Marie Gillespie
SD Space Grant Consortium Kelly Lane Grant award winners: Tricia Neugebauer, left (Mitchell CTE Academy) and (Dorothy) Marie Gillespie (Pierre Indian Learning Center) with Tom Durkin (SD Space Grant Consortium)

Hilary Risner Jacoby Hinton
Daniel Swets Robotics Awards: Hilary Risner (SDSU 4-H Extension, Bon Homme & Douglas counties), Jacoby Hinton (McLaughlin High School)

Jean Gomer
Cindy Kroon, left (Montrose High School)presents Jean Gomer, retired (White, SD) with the Distinguished Service to Mathematics Award.

Brenda Murphey
Distinguished Service to Science Award: Brenda Murphey, left (Rapid City Area School District)

Other awards:
     • Outstanding Biology Teacher: Kay Bass (Harrisburg High School)
     • Friend of Mathematics Award: Huron Events Center/Crossroads Hotel
     • Friend of Science Award: 3M