In a recent conversation with an educational entrepreneur* about the power inherent in the organization of the age-graded school and its “grammar of schooling,” I was asked if I wanted to disrupt the “grammar of schooling.” I said I did not. I wanted–and he put it in words I wished I had used–many “grammars of schooling.”
What did I mean? There is not just one way to organize a school. Age-graded is simply a choice that policymakers made many decades ago. It is the “one best system” that has characterized U.S. schools since the late-19th century. There are other ways to organize schools.
One room schoolhouses where children of mixed ages learn content and skills under the tutelage of a teacher. Ungraded schools where groups of mixed-age students learn at different paces the prescribed content or a curriculum jointly constructed by teachers and students. Cyber schools where students learn at home or at different sites are another way of organizing a school. And there are combinations of all of these. Each of these ways of operating schools contains a “grammar of schooling,” that is, a theory of learning and teaching, implicit and explicit rules to follow, and a organizational framework that shapes the social and individual behavior of both children and teachers.
Historically, then, many ways of organizing schools have existed. Thus, multiple “grammars of schooling” were in play. Not now.
But my critique of age-graded schools is not a preface for a call to eliminate all such organizations. I do not wish to see age-graded schools replaced wholesale either by fiat or choice. For many students and their parents, that “grammar of schooling” is just fine. High-achieving age-graded schools in cities, suburbs, exurbs, and rural communities where both children and parents are satisfied should continue. Or KIPP schools and similar ventures that attract children and youth to their classrooms have parents who want the familiar “grammar of schooling” to continue since it has worked with their daughters and sons. Until parents become dissatisfied with the schooling their children receive, these age-graded organizations will remain the places that the majority of U.S. parents want.
What I seek is more experimentation in organizing schools, more choice for alternative arrangements, more “grammars of schooling.” Donors willing to invest in different ways of putting a school together and local districts that seek different ways for children to learn and teachers to teach. Parents and teachers joining hands to create schools that depart from the familiar model. Private schools that have public versions like Waldorf and Montessori add to the mix of different ways to run schools. That is what I support: far more alternatives to traditional age-graded organizations than exist now.
There were instances of such experimentation in organizing U.S. schools in earlier periods. In a post I wrote years ago, I described a part of that history. To make my point of having many “grammars of schooling,” I reprint it here.
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 a previous post 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 federal and state laws that mandate 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.
No, I do not seek to disrupt the one “grammar of schooling” that dominates U.S. schools. I seek many “grammars of schooling.”
*I was speaking with Joel Rose, co-founder and CEO of New Classrooms, a nonprofit that offers a personalized learning platform for middle and high school math students called Teach to One. Over the past three years after writing about one of the math programs his team had brought to ASCEND Charter School in Oakland (see here), he and I would have free-ranging conversations about school reform and its contradictions, particularly with the spread of Teach-to-One programs.