Ungraded Schools, Past and Present (Part 2)

I was stunned when I walked into the classroom of Carmen Wilkinson at Jamestown Elementary School in 1975 (all names are actual people and places). In my first year as Arlington (VA) school superintendent, I had already seen over 300 elementary classrooms. This was the only one I had seen that had mixed ages (grades 1 through 4) and learning stations in which 50 students spent most of the day working independently and moving freely about the room; they worked in small groups and individually while Wilkinson–a 27-year veteran of teaching–moved about the room asking and answering question, giving advice, and listening to students. Called “The Palace” by parents, children, and staff, the class used two adjacent rooms. Wilkinson teamed with another teacher and, at the time, two student teachers. She orchestrated scores of tasks in a quiet, low-key fashion.

In the rest of the school, there were 17 self-contained classrooms of which only one was similar to The Palace. Wilkinson’s informal classroom was unusual at Jamestown and rare in the 500 other elementary classrooms in the Arlington public schools.

Of course, the original ungraded school and classroom pre-dated Wilkinson by well over a century.  The one-room schoolhouse in mid-19th century rural America had a lone teacher instructing  children and youth ages 6 to 14 in all subjects in the district curriculum while at the same time insuring that there were enough books, writing supplies, heat, water, and outdoor toilets for everyone.

As efficiency-driven superintendents in the 20th century consolidated scattered one-room schoolhouses into centrally-located age-graded schools, they have nearly disappeared. But the ideas of multi-age groupings and children learning at different paces persisted in different attempts to break the lock-step age-graded schools where teachers in self-contained classrooms delivered chunks of content to be learned within a school year and students were either promoted or retained in grade.

Too often we forget, that there were late-19th critics of age-graded schools. They saw these structures as crippling the intellectual and psychological growth of individual children who learn at different rates and causing  dropouts from elementary schools as students of different ages piled up in lower grades because they flunked.

The development of twice yearly promotions and ability groups smoothed out some of the inherent problems of age-graded schools. But not the overall structure of the age-graded school that required teachers to cover the content and skills specific to a 3rd or 6th grade class and that every student had to learn that content and skills by the end of the school year or be retained for another year. These regularities became the “grammar of schooling” and persisted decade after decade.

Beginning in the 1930s and stretching through the 1960s, progressive reformers launched non-graded schools and multi-age, team-taught classrooms time and again. Whole elementary and secondary schools used flexible scheduling where teams of teachers grouped and re-grouped students by performance in math, reading, and other subjects rather than what grade they in. Open classrooms flourished in the late-1960s and early 1970s–and this is when The Palace came into existence.

Over time, however, these experiments in non-graded schooling and classrooms withered and disappeared. Even though researchers found sufficient evidence that these innovations were just as successful as traditional age-graded schools, multi-grade classrooms and non-graded schools found little traction among superintendents, principals, and parents (see REVIEW OF EDUCATIONAL RESEARCH-1992).

There were (and are) exceptions, however. As part of a state reform, Kentucky ungraded all of its primary grades in the 1990s. But this reform and other ungrading plans in elementary schools across the nation soon gave way to test-driven accountability. Still amid standards based testing for the past three decades, ungraded public schools and classrooms soldier on. There is the Sycamore Elementary School in Claremont, Calif., a school that has done multiage grouping ever since it opened in 1890. There is the open classroom in San Geronimo (CA) in operation since 1971 and many others scattered across the nation.

Why so few? Why is so hard to disrupt the age-graded structures that shape how children learn and teachers teach? In the previous post (Part 1) I mentioned the potent social beliefs among parents and educators about what a “real” school is. I also pointed out that state mandated standards, college entrance requirements, and No Child Left Behind rules such as testing in 3rd to 8th grade are all married to the age-graded structure.

Most of all, like the air we breathe, the age-graded school with its  “grammar of schooling” is taken for granted. It is everywhere and has been around for forever. But it is made by human hands. As Carmen Wilkinson knew and her like-minded innovators decades before her and since, the age-graded school structure was invented to solve a problem a century and a half ago. It can be re-invented to solve new problems.

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8 Comments

Filed under how teachers teach, Reforming schools

8 responses to “Ungraded Schools, Past and Present (Part 2)

  1. I believe the reason that we seem to be stuck with age graded schools stems from the fact that it is easier for the adults to do it that way. What we have is mostly one-size-fits all, which ends up fitting some rather than customized education. From the view of administration and policy makers, it gives them control of what students learn and when they learn it. It makes standardized testing easier as everyone takes the same test at the same time, ready or not. With modern technology there is no reason why students can’t take tests when they think they are ready and retake them if they do not demonstrate master. Note I didn’t say passing. If you just barely pass you probably aren’t ready for what comes next. Let’s hear more about schools that are trying things out of this box.

    • larrycuban

      Yes, Doug, age-graded schools are habit-forming and that is probably one of the reasons that they have been around for well over a century-and-a-half. But there are many factors, as I have tried to suggest in the posts, that have kept it in place for decades and made it part of the natural order of things. It is the furniture in the room that we see daily and keep in place because it is, well, where it belongs.

  2. I am an administrator of a K-5 public elementary school in Michigan. Our unique multiage school has been in existence for 17 school years! We have had our share of many roller coaster rides-but we are successful, ongoing and accomplished, thanks to a group of committed, dedicated educators; loyal parents and families; and cooperative learning for all! WE ARE LMA (Lincoln MultiAge) and we continue to think out of the box!

  3. Another reason for the persistence of the standard K-12 age-graded system is that it makes migration easier. A family moving from Washington, DC, to Palo Alto, CA, with a fifth-grader in tow wants to be sure that the child can continue in the sixth grade in California without having to do a lot of remedial work. And if one of the parents is a teacher and wants a job in California, it helps a lot to have a standardized system, Cuban and Tyack’s “Grammar of Schooling” if you will. As they point out (and as I do in Making the Grade), the system is somewhat tyrannical. A district that adopted an ungraded system would get resistance from homeowners who would wonder if outsiders would shun their communities if they did not have “real schools.”

    • larrycuban

      Yes, what you point out, Bill, are solid reasons for the continuation of age-graded schools. Yet Kentucky in the early 1990s tried non-graded primaries in elementary schools and, from time to time multi-age classes in various schools, and occasional districts have tried out such organizational arrangements. Not much, I agree, but it remains on the periphery.

  4. Patti

    There is a small number of educators in our school that would like to begin a non-graded 5/6 multi-age team. I have been a multi-age teacher in a 2/3 classroom, however I was not a part of a team. I LOVE the multi-age/ungraded philosophy, especially in these days of high stakes testing (I am a New York teacher). I wish we could just acknowledge in public school that all children are not at equal developmental stages! I think “grading” schools creates a false sense of uniformity among human beings and thus is a faulty system at its core.

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