A Successful School Reform: The Age-graded School (Part 1)

Anyone reading the literature published by contemporary school reformers cannot avoid such phrases as “teacher leaders,” “change agents,” and “dynamic entrepreneurs … who challenge the status quo to lead urban school systems.” One is bombarded with happy visions of peppy, smart, young teacher leaders replacing tired, ineffective staff. Eager change agents swapping places with uninspired principals; and charismatic CEOs succeeding hapless superintendents.[i]

This rhetoric of gallant leaders and change-agents is narrowly individualistic to the point of discouraging collaboration across schools and within a district. The message that idealistic and energetic young teachers and principals get is that the system, its leaders and bureaucracy are the enemy, the source of all problems. Individual teachers and principals have to be mavericks tough enough to fight the system in behalf of their students.

This macho message–underscored by a war-like vocabulary of trenches and guerrilla tactics with district bureaucrats—diverts reformers’ attention from analyzing school structures, specifically how the age-graded school has shaped attitudes towards education, school culture and classroom practice.

The age-graded school (e.g., K-5, K-8, 6-8, 9-12), a 19th century innovation, has become an unquestioned mainstay of school organization in the 21st century. Today, most taxpayers and voters have gone to kindergarten at age 5, studied Egyptian mummies in the 6th grade, took algebra in the 8th or 9th grade and then left 12th grade with a diploma.


If any school reform–in the sense of making fundamental changes in organization, curriculum, and instruction–can be considered a success it is the age-graded school. Consider longevity–the first age-graded structure of eight classrooms appeared in Quincy (MA) in the late 1840s. Or consider  effectiveness. The age-graded school has processed efficiently millions of students over the past century and a half, sorted out achievers from non-achievers, and now graduates nearly three-quarters of those entering high school Or adaptability. The age-graded school exists in Europe, Asia, Africa, Latin America, and North America covering rural, urban, and suburban districts. What other school reform has been this successful? [ii]

As an organization, the age-graded school allocates children and youth by their ages to school “grades”; it sends teachers into separate classrooms and prescribes a curriculum carved up into 36-week chunks for each grade. Teachers and students cover each chunk assuming that all children will move uniformly through the 36-weeks to be annually promoted.

The age-graded school is also an institution that has plans for those who work within its confines. The organization isolates and insulates teachers from one another, perpetuates teacher-centered pedagogy,  and prevents a large fraction of students from achieving academically. It is the sea in which teachers, students, principals, and parents swim yet few contemporary reformers have questioned this one-size-fits-all organization.

Why have most school reformers and educational entrepreneurs been reluctant to examine an organization that influences daily behavior of nearly 4 million adults and well over 50 million children? Dominant social beliefs of parents and educators about a “real” school, that is, one where children learn to read in 1st grade, receive report cards, and get promoted have politically narrowed reform options in transforming schools. For example, when a charter school applicant proposes a new school the chances of receiving official approval and parental acceptance increase if it is a familiar age-graded one, not one where most teachers team teach and groups of multi-age children (ages 5-8, 9-11) learn together. Sure, occasional reformers create non-graded schools, the School of One, and particular community schools but they are outliers.[iii]

External pressures also constrict reformers’ maneuverability in trying other organizational forms. 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.

The unintended (and ironic) consequence of frequent and earnest calls for radical change in preparation of school leaders, school governance, curriculum, and instruction through non-traditional teachers and administrators, charter schools, nifty reading and math programs, iPads for kindergartners, blended learning, pay-for-performance, and other reforms  preserve the age-graded school and freeze classroom patterns that so many reformers and entrepreneurs want to alter.

The next post (Part 2) looks at non-graded classrooms and schools that existed decades ago and now.

[ii] David Tyack, One Best System (Harvard University Press, 1974) pp. 44-45.

[iii] For “real school” reference, see Mary Metz, “Real School: A Universal Drama amid Disparate Experience,” in D. Mitchell and M. Goertz (eds.) Education Politics for the New Century (New York: Falmer Press, 1990, pp. 75-91; also see John Meyer and Brian Rowan, “Institutionalized Organizations: Formal Structures as Myth and Ceremony,” American Journal of Sociology, 83, 1977, pp. 340-363. For an example of the rationale and operation of non-graded schools, see John Goodlad and Robert Anderson, The Non-graded Elementary School (New York: Harcourt & Brace, 1963).



Filed under school reform policies

8 responses to “A Successful School Reform: The Age-graded School (Part 1)

  1. I’m always puzzled by the school reform movement, when it proceeds, as you so often note Larry, as though there is no such thing as a successful school. I’ve always taken the view that not only are there perfectly successful schools, there are schools which any child is genuinely privileged to attend, not because of the cost or their elite nature, but because of the superb job they do.

    BBC Radio 4 is currently running a fascinating series on the history of sport and the British. And the debt the world owes to English Public schools as the originators of so much we recognise today as sport (never mind where de Courbetin got his ideas for the Olympics from) is perhaps rarely appreciated.

    • larrycuban

      And in the U.S., Joe, affluent, middle- and low-income parents seek out, identify, and enter their sons and daughters in precisely such schools. The highly praised and just as highly critiqued “Waiting for Superman” documentary was about one of those successful schools.

  2. Peter Lund

    “What other school reform has been this successful?”

    The introduction of the blackboard?

    Printed books?

    Public schools in the English sense as boarding schools? Denmark has Herlufsholm which was founded in 1500-something — and it is still operating.

    Actual public schools? We got organized public schools all over the country in 1700-something (rytterskoler). Not that there weren’t any schools before that.

    Also for the girls? Happened about a century later, as far as I recall.

    Teaching of Latin in grammar schools? There are grammar schools (latinskoler) here in Denmark that date back to at least the 12th century — and are still in use although their buildings are usually newer.

    • larrycuban

      Thank you for the historical reminders of Danish schools well before the 19th century age-graded school in the U.S.

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