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.

Because of our time-locked system, we have to revert to remediation, after-school programs, summer school, extended days, and tutoring to help the students who cannot learn on schedule. All of these programs add cost to the system. In an approach where the child is allowed to learn at his or her own pace, there is no need for any of that. Imagine a system that required compulsory education for children from age three to 21. Graduation is based on a child’s ability to demonstrate that he or she has acquired a specified body of knowledge, like the Common Core Standards. Some children might well fulfill that requirement by age 15 and move on to college or a career, while others might need to continue working at it until age 21. One thing would be certain: Everyone getting a diploma would have demonstrated the same level of competency.

Gone would be the stigma attached to children who have to repeat a grade level, an action more punitive than productive. Our more gifted and capable students could accelerate and get on with their careers. It would be the end of Senioritis.

Perhaps in the 20th century we lacked the technology to implement a non-graded, competency-based system of education. But that is not the case today. If there was ever a time when we could provide students with individualized education, it is today. Teachers are ready to transition into being directors of instruction rather than sages on the stage. Individualized learning plans can be developed for each child, tailored to meet the child’s needs and ability level at that moment. Under teacher supervision, students could take maximum advantage of the wealth of online products and services available today—and the individual learning strategy would not be confined to the four walls of a classroom. Learning can take place anywhere as long as the child has a computer, laptop, tablet, or handheld device.

States will need to erase the grade level structure from their books and replace it with an age by which children will be allowed to enroll in school. As long as we are dreaming, let’s make that age three. There is a wealth of research that suggests that early childhood programs provide the best return on the dollars invested in education. I say allowed, as opposed to required, because I know from experience that many parents will object to having their child taken away from them by age three. Fine, age five can be the age for compulsory attendance—but early childhood education will be an option similar to what kindergarten is today. At the other end, students will be entitled to a free public education until age 21. However, students will be eligible to exit the system at whatever age they have fulfilled the performance- and competency-based requirements for graduation.

For organization purposes, performance levels could be established as benchmarks that would denote passage from early childhood to primary, intermediate, middle, and secondary. Assessments would regulate passage from one level to the next, but this would be an individual event for each student that would occur at any time in line with the student’s readiness.

This is not a futuristic vision. It is a concept that has been around for 40 years. It would be incredibly cost-effective, because it would eliminate the need for remediation, extended time, summer school, and repeating a grade. Children exiting the system early would compensate for students staying longer. We can think outside the box by thinking out of the grade level structure: True transformation.

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