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It’s time to blow up the current grade-level structure

“Performance levels could be established as benchmarks that would denote passage from early childhood to primary, intermediate, middle, and secondary.”

Learning Leadership column, June 2012 edition of eSchool NewsI want to blow up K-12 education! Not the public school system, just the grade level structure that has regulated how our schools are organized since the 19th century. It served its purpose once upon a time. It compared well with Henry Ford’s assembly line in the early 20th century as a way to conveniently group kids according to age.

Today, the K-12 structure is an impediment to progress. All reform efforts still bow to the grade levels as if they were sacrosanct. Amazingly, there are a number of states still debating social promotion and holding kids back on grade level. How mid-20th century!

Think of all of the ills confronting education today, and they can be traced right back to the K-12 grade level structure that all of our schools adhere to.  Some of us have made attempts to get rid of it, but with little success.

Back in the early ’70s, the Kettering Foundation’s Institute for Development of Educational Activities (IDEA) developed a program called Individually Guided Education (IGE). That was my first exposure to non-gradedness. IGE attempted to organize schools by multi-age groups of students that would comprise a cell that would work with teams of teachers. Within the cell, students would be taught in large groups, small groups and individually. At all times, children would be grouped by ability level relative to the lesson being taught. Ideally, the cell would be made up of students spanning a three-year age range.

I attempted to implement IGE in several schools on Long Island, New York, specifically in schools that at the time were into individualizing education or the open classroom model of the British Infant School. The concept never advanced, because the grade level structure was impossible to overcome. It is written into our laws, rules, and regulations.

Not one to give up easily, I introduced non-gradedness to Fairfax County, Virginia. In a program we called “Success by Eight,” a number of our elementary schools went non-graded at the primary level, grades K-2. Classes became multi-aged, and children were grouped for instruction according to ability. It was a beautiful sight to behold. You would walk into a classroom and see five, six, and seven year olds working together side by side and be hard pressed to identify the kindergartner, first, or second grader. In some schools that had the space, teachers teamed up and combined their classes to form IGE-type cells. The only problem was that the parents wanted to know what grade their child was in, as did the state.

The idea of the program was to move to individualized, competency-based instruction based on a child’s ability rather than on the requirement that at this age, on this grade level, the entire class must learn this lesson.

This is the fix that grade levels have gotten us into. Instruction is based on age and time rather than ability level and performance. Our gifted children are bored out of their minds in classrooms that do not challenge their abilities. Our children who need more time to learn are left behind and eventually drop out because they cannot keep up with the clock. What is more important, that children learn or that they learn within a specific period of time? Sorry Johnny, you learned to read too late. You were supposed to have done it last year, so now we will leave you behind.

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