How New Technologies Can End Age-Graded Schools (Part 3)

Using high-tech devices smartly can customize the age-graded school out of existence. But it won’t happen.

Nowhere in Parts 1 and 2 on age-graded schools did I mention the uses of technology. I have claimed in those two posts that, first, as a mid-19th century reform the K-12 organization has been a resounding success. It is the model for school organization here and abroad; its longevity as a reform is unchallenged. Second, while efforts to ungrade schools with teams of teachers leading multi-age classrooms have appeared from time to time, they have never seriously challenged the dominance of age-graded schools.

So what about high-tech as the vehicle for upending the age-graded school? Why not replace self-contained classrooms where teachers dole out chunks of curriculum in bite-sized pieces every day for 36 weeks with multi-age groups of students in ungraded schools where students learn individually and at their own pace from lessons tailored precisely to their intellectual needs? Or simply have students learn at home? No more teachers preparing lessons for 25 to 35 students. No more end-of-year high stakes test. No more kids failing a grade. No more social promotion. No more 8th and 9th graders taking algebra … No more age-graded school.

Not so fast. Read the words of former New York City Chancellor Joel Klein, now CEO of a high-tech division of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation:

As someone who led America’s largest school district for 8 years, serving over 1 million children, I believe technology can radically transform the way students learn by customizing instruction, and by helping teachers focus on each student’s areas of greatest need. But the key to capturing this potential lies as much inside our own hearts and minds as it does in any hardware and software we’ll deploy…. Technology’s greatest potential is as a vehicle for students to learn more deeply and individually, unleashing them from the limitations of learning in step with 25 or more peers with different needs and strengths. How much a student learns is defined by two things: the quality of the teaching curriculum and the amount of knowledge students absorb from it. Those are the critical things, and, fortunately technology has the potential to significantly improve both instruction and engagement. It can leverage world-class experts in teaching math, for example, exposing students around the country to the best teaching. It can engage students, by using analytics to direct them to particular lessons that relate to their specific needs. The possibilities are enormous if we apply true discipline to our tools and demand that they help students learn.

Klein is one sharp fellow. Yet in his paean to the revolutionary potential of high-tech where he mentions the School of One in New York City and virtual Khan Academy, nowhere in that article does he take the logical step of saying that age-graded schools can be replaced with ungraded organizations where lessons can be customized to meet the needs of each and every child.

Like installing a jet engine in a Model T Ford, Klein’s “revolutionary” use of technology to customize teaching and learning keeps the age-graded school in place. Hardly a fundamental change when the lockstep of traditional schools continues to prevail in organizing how teachers teach and students learn.

Champions of online learning and customized lessons who see high-tech as a “disruptive innovation” that will eventually lead to the disappearance of traditional schooling–yes, the age-graded school–are far less timid than Joel Klein. The NewSchools Venture Fund has shifted from funding charter start-ups to more technology in schools. Liberated Learning and a host of other books, articles, and bloggers tout how online instruction and its toddler cousin–blended learning–will transform schools, end teacher unions, and bring an educational Nirvana to all Americans.

So what’s up among reformers when it comes to new technologies that can, in their favorite word, “transform” the Model T Ford of schooling?

What’s up is that age-graded schools are here to stay. Why? In earlier posts, I identified the social beliefs of most Americans and the political importance of “real schools.” There is more, however. Every single policy touted by “no excuses” reformers from Common Core State Standards to NCLB to Teach for America to New Leaders for New Schools to School of One to charter schools to teacher pay-for-performance–each reform is married to the age-graded school.

That is why CEO Joel Klein, Wendy Kopp, U.S. Secretary Arne Duncan, and the nation’s governors and state education chiefs, vociferous in applauding technology,  are silent about ending the organizational structure of the age-graded school.



Filed under Reforming schools, technology use

16 responses to “How New Technologies Can End Age-Graded Schools (Part 3)

  1. Joel VerDuin

    You ended your post about the silence of reformers and politicians about an ungraded school system. I would argue they are silent not because they have connected the dots about the relationship between current school structures and current initiatives, but because they have not connected the dots at all. People who work IN the system sometimes have trouble connecting the dots – how do we expect external people to do it?

    I am amazed at how people can espouse the values of individualized and personalized learning at the same time they are pushing hard at implementation of Common Core Standards and not see that the concepts are at odds.

    There are too many people speaking in such simplistic ways about how to fix public schools. If schools were so easy to fix, wouldn’t we all be on year-round schedules by now? I think 10-out-of-10 people would agree it is in the students best interest – but that is not all of what school is about. It is connected to too many other structures (such as day care, legislative and political will, heating and cooling of buildings year-round, financial structures, contractual structures, history, emotion, culture, …). What can seem a matter of common sense (in this simplistic example) is not so simply changed.

    • larrycuban

      You might be correct, Joel, that these reform-minded folks have not “connected the dots.” But I think that they just practice a different kind of “common sense.”

  2. Pingback: How New Technologies Can End Age-Graded Schools Part 3 | Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice « The Sharing Tree

  3. “Every single policy….to charter schools…is married to age graded schools.” This has not been my experience, I know of a few charter schools which are not based on the age graded school paradigm. Has anyone done research on this topic? If so, speak up.

  4. I have heard Joel Klein’s paen in many different forms, on many occasions in the past decade. It is an exemplary model of the way the industry deploys key public figures and uses them to legitimise their marketing efforts. Nothing wrong in that: as long as you know that’s what is happening. This chunk is pure marketing, “Technology’s greatest potential is as a vehicle for students to learn more deeply and individually, unleashing them from the limitations of learning in step with 25 or more peers with different needs and strengths.” My understanding of the neuroscience, as well as much less empirical research, raises serious issues about what technology really does to young minds.

    I would seriously argue that far from helping most children today to, “learn more deeply and individually” most technology has fostered superficial learning, easy plagiarism, replaced creativity with inane imitation, depleted attention spans and concentration and may even have had something to do with some children’s inability to empathise.

    • larrycuban

      I was with you, Joe, on the first paragraph about Joel Klein but depart on your last paragraph. While I have noted instances of what you “seriously argue” about what technology has “fostered” I am uncertain about whether “most technology” has produced the list of negatives you cite. I do not think we know enough about the upside or downside of children and youth using high-tech devices inside and outside schools. Which is all the more reason for my being skeptical of those who tout their virtues without mentioning the vices. And Joel Klein not giving full disclosure that he now works for Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation reinforces my skepticism.

      • Michael Robinson from Iowa

        Joe Nutt’s comments are on the money with some exception to the last paragraph. Technology is not the bad guy. The problem has been created by the K12 education community that fail to realize that they must learn how to implement the use of technology more effectively. That does not mean less rigor but more and deeper rigor. PowerPoint is worthless when it comes to more rigor. It is how the technology is applied and the expectations set by educators of the learning outcomes. If you accept mediocrity you will receive mediocrity.

      • larrycuban

        Thanks for your comment, Michael.

  5. “Why not replace self-contained classrooms where teachers dole out chunks of curriculum in bite-sized pieces every day for 36 weeks with multi-age groups of students in ungraded schools where students learn individually and at their own pace from lessons tailored precisely to their intellectual needs?”

    The idea of this sounds great. No students getting left behind because the pace is individualized for each particular student. But, for things like online learning for kids, I worry about the number of students who have the level of focus to do this. Even if the content is interesting, I doubt that very many could retain their focus for very long.

    • larrycuban

      For online learning, I agree that students’ motivation, self-regulation, and persistence are crucial factors in maintaining focus.

  6. I think the gravity of my concerns about what technology “may” be doing to children’s ability to access education, has been heavily influenced by my recent experience in the classroom after a long absence Larry. I have an article about this in the Times Educational Supplement, here in the UK, on the 17th.

  7. Our Governor in Iowa, Terry Branstad, believes in competency-based student progression but only for smart kids. In other words, he touts the ability of kids to work ahead of their same age peers but doesn’t see the corollary, which is that some kids will need more time, not less, to achieve certain learning outcomes. Apparently Iowa is Lake Wobegon?

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