Whatever Happened To the Non-Graded School?

Ask a teacher, principal, superintendent, or school board member about the non-graded school and you will get a “huh” or perhaps a blank stare. The educator might whip out a smart phone and tap away at the tiny keyboard, wait a few seconds and then get a raft of websites and definitions. The non-graded school does exist. Few know about it, however.

This post is part of a continuing series about what happened to educational innovations that spread virally at first (before there was Twitter) but within a few years nearly disappeared from the U.S. landscape of schooling.

Where and When Did the Idea Originate?

Throughout the 19th century, non-graded schools were everywhere. At that time, such places were called the one-room school. Children and youth from age 6 to 14 or so gathered in the schoolhouse every morning and over the course of the day, the teacher taught different subjects to individuals and small groups that kept changing as the content changed. By the late-19th century, however, the innovation of the age-graded school of eight classrooms with a teacher in each one room transmitting a portion of the curriculum to children grouped by age–six year olds in the first grade, eight year olds in the third grade took hold initially in urban districts and then in the emerging suburbs. By the middle of the 20th century, urban, suburban, and rural schools were age-graded and the one-room schoolhouse had nearly disappeared.

Beginning in the 1950s, scholars and practitioners seeing the shortcomings of the age-graded school (e.g., students failing and repeating a year, all students do not learn at the same speed) and wanting individual children to master content of different subject at their own pace and in mixed-age groups started a small number of elementary non-graded schools (see here and here). Throughout the next decade and a half, such schools flourished in both talk and action (see here and here).  Few secondary schools became non-graded. One that was highlighted in the 1960s was Melbourne High School in Brevard County (FLA)–see here and here.

What Problems Did the non-Graded School Intend To Solve?

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 cover each chunk assuming that all children will move uniformly through the 36-weeks to be annually promoted (or retained). Obviously, students do not learn at the same pace. If some fail to learn fractions in the allotted time, then algebra becomes a serious problem later in their school career. And just as obviously, all teachers do not cover the assigned content and skills within the time allowed. So students then become unprepared for the next grade or sequence of academic subjects. These students became “misfits.”

Educators called them: pupils of low, I.Q., ne’er-do-wells, laggards, slow learners, occupational learners, slow learners, mental deviates.

The message of the labels was clear: There were students who simply did not have
smarts, and the pedagogical answer was to teach them different things in a different way
in a different place (see here).

The non-graded organization tries to solve these problems inherent to the age-graded organization.

What Does a Non-Graded School Look Like?

Three features capture non-graded schools. Multi-age grouping, team teaching, and small group and individual work on academic content and skills until each student masters both. Students are not assigned to classrooms or centers strictly on the basis of age. The galvanizing idea is that students will make “continuous progress” as they proceed through language arts, math, science, and social studies. That said, there are many variations of non-graded schools now as there have been in the past. In fact, even parts of age-graded schools can have primary non-graded (e.g., ages 6-9 being taught by a group of teachers). See here

At Madrona School in the Edmunds district (WA), school staff inform parents about non-graded schooling:

Facts about Madrona: Q & A

Q:  What does “nongraded” mean?

A: Madrona is called a “nongraded” school not because no grades are issued, but because children are not put into traditional Grades as in most other schools.  Instead, children are put into “Centers”, which are multiage classrooms that hold 3 grade levels.

Q:  What is a Center?

A:  A Center is a classroom consisting of 2 teachers who team-teach around 50 kids, covering 3 grade levels.  A Primary Center consists of grades 1 – 3; an Intermediate Center covers grades 4 – 6; Middle School comprises 7th and 8th grades….

Q:  What’s the difference between nongraded and combined classrooms?

A: Combined classrooms consist of 2 or more groups that are each being taught their grade-level curriculum.  Nongraded classrooms contain children who are learning at one or more grade level.  For example, a child may excel at math, but be not very strong in reading.  In a Primary classroom, a first year student might therefore be learning math with second year kids, but read with other first year students.  Social studies, science, and art are taught on a 3-year rotation, so each child experiences that portion of his/her education only once.

Q:  Are 7th and 8th Grades handled the same way as Primary and Intermediate centers?

A:  At Madrona’s Middle School, with the exception of math, all classes are taught on a 2-year rotation.  Placement in math classes is dependent on standardized test performance and classroom performance in the lower grades….”

Did Non-Graded Schools Work?

The research and evaluation of non-graded school achievement, as one has come to expect in assessing the worth of educational innovations–is mixed. Studies that show academic gains as measured by achievement test scores in math and reading have been published as have studies that show no difference between non-graded and age-graded students. See here, here, here, here, and here.

As frequent readers of this blog know, adoption of an innovation in schooling has less to do with what the research says and far more about what school leaders and practitioners believe about students, teaching, learning, and knowledge. In the case of non-graded schools, even were the research and evaluation evidence to be overwhelmingly in favor of such an organization, getting teachers, parents, and district officials on board the train to introduce multi-age grouping of students, team teaching, and “continuous progress” is an instance of switching train tracks of one gauge to another in a railroad yard. Politically and organizationally, regardless of what the research says, that is one tough task to complete.

What Happened to Non-Graded Schools?

The age-graded school continues to reign across U.S. schools. The brief spurt of non-graded schools–nearly always elementary–in the 1960s and 1970s died a slow death in following decade but has not totally disappeared.

For example, 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, the above Madrona school, The Northern Cass school district (ND) that embarked on competency based learning,  Hodgkins elementary in Westminister (CO),  and many others scattered across the nation.



Filed under how teachers teach, Reforming schools

7 responses to “Whatever Happened To the Non-Graded School?

  1. Reblogged this on David R. Taylor-Thoughts on Education and commented:
    It died with the obsession over accountability.

  2. Laura H.Chapman

    I am not sure it non-graded schooling schemes are dead. KnowledgeWorks.org ia among many organizatiuons enchanted with deschooling education, and by substituting badges earned in out-of-school venues for demonstrated “competency.” Such badges can be collected or stacked by students, irrespective of age and grade level distinctions. The badges can be awarded by zoos, social service and corporate-sponsored programs. There are badge certifying organizations. Here is one. https://www.imsglobal.org/sites/default/files/Badges/OBv2p0/index.html

    Badges are also being awarded for professional development programs. Badges are replacing credits for professional development in 27 states. You can receive a badge for competency is the theory and practice of Carol Dweck’s “Growth Mindset.” Ths is to say that the rituals of “going to school” for education are being dismantled. https://bloomboard.com/microcredential/view/1051acb8-7587-48f4-af8f-6ed865e02261

  3. W. Samuel

    I’d like o learn more about this concept. Do you have any websites or research that I might be able to read?

    • larrycuban

      Yes, I would start with the John Goodlad and Robert Anderson book, The Non-Graded School. Although written decades ago, they give examples of non-graded schools then.

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