The Tomato Harvester, the Smart Gun, and The Age-Graded School: Reframing the Problem

Machines picking thick-rind tomatoes, a gun that won’t fire in the hands of someone who doesn’t own it, and schools where six year-olds work with eight year-olds, where 14 and 16 year-olds, regardless of grade, engage in academic lessons–all are instances where historic problems have been reframed in creative ways.

Take the tomato harvester. Mechanizing agricultural work reduces labor costs and produces larger profit margins. But there was a problem with machines picking tomatoes. Early versions of the harvester would crush too many of the tomatoes as they scooped up the entire plant, shook the tomatoes free of the stalk, and then piled them high in trucks.

Then a few scientists in California looked at the problem differently. Rather than a better machine, create a different tomato, one  with thick rinds that could withstand the jostling and the weight of piled up fruit in a truck. Trial after trial finally produced the “vf-415” or “square tomato.” In 1961, about 1 percent of all tomatoes in California were picked by machines; seven years later, 95 percent was.


Then there is the “smart gun.”  Because so many Americans own guns, accidents occur when children and youth unintentionally kill siblings and friends, commit suicide or use stolen weapons. For decades, blame for these lethal accidents has been on those who have improperly secured weapons in their homes. So attention has focused on home security devices that keep guns out of children’s and teenagers’ hands.

Now here is where reframing the problem occurs. Rather than focus entirely on gun owners using weapons safely and security devices as the National Rifle Association has done, some inventors using the latest technologies have looked at the gun itself. Using sensors, magnets, fingerprint recognition, and other bio-metric devices, “smart guns” have been developed where only the person owning the weapon can use it. If stolen, the gun will not shoot. If discovered in the back of closet by a five year-old, it cannot be discharged. Flipping the perspective from the gun owner to the gun itself can eventually–only a few have reached the market yet– curb avoidable mayhem.


And then there is the age-graded school.


The age-graded school (e.g., K-5, K-8, 6-8, 9-12), a 19th century innovation, solved the  problem of how to provide an efficient schooling to masses of children entering urban schools.  Today, the age-graded school is everywhere. Most Americans 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.

As an organization, the age-graded school allocates children and youth by age 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, and, after an annual test would be promoted. The age-graded school worked well but, nonetheless, has caused serious problems past and present.

Late-19th and early 20th century critics of age-graded schools saw these structures as crippling the intellectual and psychological growth of individual children who learn at different rates and causing  dropouts from 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 left untouched 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 where every student had to learn that content and skills by the end of the school year or be held back. The notion that children differ in how fast they learn knowledge and skills was foreign to the age-graded school.  These regularities became the “grammar of schooling” and has persisted decade after decade.


Instead of endorsing drop-out programs, pulling students out of classes and remedial teaching, reformers reframed the problem as the age-graded school itself. They created  ungraded schools.

Beginning in the 1930s and through the 1970s, reformers launched non-graded schools and multi-age 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.

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, non-graded schools found little traction among superintendents, principals, and parents (see REVIEW OF EDUCATIONAL RESEARCH-1992).

There were (and are) exceptions, however. 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, many others across the nation.

Why so few?

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 ( see metz-real-schools).

Just as paying attention to the tomato rather than the machine and seeing the gun rather than the gun owner as the problem to be solved, the age-graded school has to be seen anew as the problem to be solved, not teacher unions, insufficient iPads, or policies that instill fear into teachers or tighten standards-based testing.  Ungrading schools create different structures for students to learn at their different paces reducing dropouts while giving teachers time and flexibility to teach what has to be taught.


Filed under Reforming schools

12 responses to “The Tomato Harvester, the Smart Gun, and The Age-Graded School: Reframing the Problem

  1. This is a great article that we all should share as much as possible. The reason we will have the factory model in most schools is that it is way more convenient for the adults. Perhaps the flipped/master model (summarized here: can move education in to a self-paced model that replaces failure with not finished yet. Colleges have the same problem as they require every chuck of content to fit into the sacred semester that everyone must complete in the same 15 weeks. Keep up the great work Larry.

  2. While I have great respect for you, Dr Cuban, this post bothered me.

    Your first example of changing the physical nature of the tomato so it can be more easily picked by a machine rather than changing the machinery immediately made me wonder if this is why today’s commercial tomatoes are tough and flavorless.

    Your second example of a biometrically secured gun made me wonder if the availability of these protections might lead to a false sense of security which would then lead to greater gun ownership and more gun-related deaths. (Most gun deaths are suicides.)

    Might there be unintended consequences with ability-leveled, instead of age-leveled, schools? Would placing children with others who are much older or younger best suit their non-academic developmental needs? (Developmental needs and interests are chronologically-based, not based on literacy level, as I remember.) Would we see a higher incidence of bullying? Do we want 18-year-olds hitting on 14-year-olds in the same classrooms? By pushing groups of like-ability kids together are we simply enabling teachers to continue large-group instructional practices, rather than individualizing or personalizing their classrooms of multi-ability kids?

    You seem to imply that reforms like ability-grouped schools are resisted by reactionary parents, politics, or unimaginative thinking. Might there also be some legitimate resistance due to the fear of unintended consequences?

    • larrycuban

      Thanks, Jane, for the nice example you used for K-3 non-graded arrangements using different levels of mastery that kids can attain at their own speed. The questions you ask and points you raise in the third paragraph are fair ones and need to be looked at in places where such non-graded arrangements have worked over the years. Thank you for your comment and questions.

    • larrycuban

      Always nice to hear from you, Doug. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

      My answer to your question in the first paragraph is yes.
      Ditto for answer to your question in your secondparagraph.

      As for unintended consequences from ability-level grouping rather than age-grading, sure there have been ones from age-graded schools for decades. By now, however, they should not be called unintended because they are well known after all of these years. These outcomes are no longer unintended or unanticipated (e.g., dropping out after repeated failure). As for unintended outcomes for non-graded elementary and secondary (these are pretty uncommon historically) schools, there have been decades of experience with the few that have been around and, while difficult, what you identify are not impossible to work with.

      And, yes, Doug, there is probably a lot of resistance to the idea and practice of non-graded schools for the reasons given in the post: dominant social beliefs about what a “real school” is, not, in my opinion, from fear of unintended consequences.

  3. EB

    I taught in a K-3 environment that was not age-graded but readiness-graded. This was a K-8 Catholic school in a very low-income, mostly-minority neighborhood. There were, I believe, 12 levels, based on proficiency in reading. A child could move into a different level when s/he had mastered the reading skills of the previous level. Most children moved up a level or two during the school year, but most stayed in the same room because each room had several levels. Nonetheless, each year a few children moved to a more advanced classroom during the year, and each year a few did not make it to the next level but repeated a level in the other classroom for those levels, but without having to repeat an entire year and without the stigma of being retained..

    It was a great system. As you can see from the description above, it was not a chaotic system; children were not rapidly moving from room to room, but it insured that very quick learners could be accomodated in a classroom that met their needs, and slower learners could move ahead at a pace that was appropriate for them.

    But note: this system was only in place for grades K-3. It was assumed that by Grade 4, all children would be reading at an acceptable level; if not, 9-year olds still went to grade 4 with some extra support. The reason was exactly what Doug Johnson noted: mixed-age classrooms are much more problematic at the upper elementary and middle school levels. Only in a 1-room schoolhouse will 13-year olds accept learning with 10 year olds, and only rarely will 10 year olds be able to stay afloat socially with 13 year olds (and most parents would not want them to!).

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  5. Mandy Upton

    As a former K-12 employee and current graduate student studying education; I really appreciate you bringing up the topic of age-graded vs. nonage-graded schools. I believe that transitioning from age-graded to nonage-graded schools could be very beneficial. In the seven years spent working in the k-12 environment one thing that seemed to always cause behavioral problems was “boredom”. This was something that was consistent from the pre-school level all the way to the middle school level (and I’m sure beyond). This by no means is a reflection on the teacher’s skills and abilities; just an observation that when students’ work is too easy, or so hard that they are unable to focus and pay attention, they become “bored” with the lesson; as I’m sure every educator has observed.

    I agree that grouping students together simply based on age just seems like taking the easy way out. I feel that all students and all people for that matter are at different social, cognitive, and emotional levels and that it should be more important to nourish them where they actually are; not where they should be according to their age. I do think that we would see a shift in school success rates where less students are being tucked away into remedial classes, and more students are feeling empowered with learning because it is at an adequate level.

    • larrycuban

      Thank you, Mandy, for taking the time to comment on non-graded schools. Reading about past efforts to do exactly that, especially for lower grades in elementary school show a very mixed picture but one that many educators and parents did like.

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