Remodeling the Age Graded School?

In July 2020, Eric Gordon head of the Cleveland Metropolitan School District released a report that would alter the 170 year-old institution called the age-graded school (see here and here). The 74 Million website summarized the report July 2, 2020. While there have been previous efforts to alter the age-graded school and such schools exist now (see here, here, and here), they have been largely confined to individual schools. Never a district especially a large urban one. For that reason I offer the proposal here. Because of the pandemic and mostly remote instruction, no implementation of the plan has yet occurred in CMSD.

A bold proposal in Cleveland could set the tone for how schools around the country could restart in the fall, one that takes into account students’ vastly different access to resources and remote learning during the pandemic and lets students learn at their own speed.

Cleveland schools would toss aside teaching many students in traditional grade levels this fall and dramatically expand the “mastery” learning plan it has tested for a few years.

Out would go the usual practice of students advancing a grade each year, an especially tricky issue to manage this year after schools shut down nationwide in March — to be replaced with a system of “grade bands” that combine students of a few ages and grade levels into the same classroom, school district CEO Eric Gordon told the school board Tuesday night.

“We’ve got opportunities here to really test, challenge and maybe abandon some of these time-bound structures of education that have never really conformed to what we know about good child development,” Gordon said.

Educators nationally are worried about the early school closures and how the chaotic shift to home learning will affect students, especially those from poor families. Most expect a “COVID slide” that magnifies the typical “summer slide” as student skills regress over summer vacation.

Many are debating extending the school year to have classes in person before break or returning early for “jump start” review sessions. Others look at intense online summer school.

In Cleveland, schools that use the system often keep K-8 students in the same grade band for a few years, instead of moving up a grade every year. Students then relearn and reinforce skills they need to succeed before advancing when individuals are ready to move on, sometimes mid-year.

At high schools, students in mastery schools can keep re-learning specific skills and receiving extra help until they know them well. As students learn, schools often avoid giving traditional A-F grades and rate students as “incomplete” or “developing” until they rate as proficient.

Gordon told the school board that by avoiding the normal grade levels, the district can help students catch up, learn what they need and not stigmatize students as failures by making some repeat grades.

He also said that his draft school reopening plan coming mid-June will offer the mastery system as an option for the community and individual families to consider, along with a few other choices described below.

As chair of the Council of the Great City Schools, the national association of big-city school districts, Gordon said other urban school superintendents around the country have told him they are using or are considering using mastery approaches. Some schools in New York City and some states are using the model, but more may take it up, he added.

For urban districts like Cleveland, which has the second-highest socioeconomic challenges of any big city in the country, according to Stanford researchers, students falling further behind is a real concern. The same researchers estimated that Cleveland students were two years’ worth of learning behind the national average, even before poor internet access put students at an even greater disadvantage when schools closed.

In his preview of the reopening plan to the board, Gordon suggested a few strategies for learning while keeping kids at safe distance. He said he will likely offer families a few choices for returning to school so they can pick what works for them.

“You’re going to see a menu that people can move through to adjust and meet their needs,” he said.

Among the possible strategies:

  • Having older students do much of their schoolwork online, while younger students come to class to work with teachers more often.
  • Having community groups that offer afterschool programs for students also work with some students during the day, while other students are in class with teachers. The different groups would then swap activities.
  • Having more year-round schools, on top of the nine district schools already using that calendar. Another 13 have extra days in their school year.
  • Schools could likely open later than their original Aug. 17 start date so that teachers have time to learn new learning systems and the pandemic has time to subside.

“Many of my peers tried to shut down early, in part because there’s a fatigue … and train teachers now,” he said. “My fear of trying to train teachers now is we haven’t built the plan.”

He also said he wants focus groups of students to review the draft plan and help craft the final version.

The district is polling parents and teachers about what has worked with the district’s emergency remote learning plan so far and what they want to see in the fall.

And the district’s plan is also subject to guidance from state health officials and the Ohio Department of Education, though Gordon has been part of discussions to set the state plan. Early drafts of the state plan also give districts wide flexibility to set their own approaches.

Gordon’s preview of Cleveland’s plan Tuesday centered on “mastery” or “competency” systems, coaxed by school board questions. It previously failed at two ninth-grade academies in Cleveland a few years ago, but it is an integral part of MC2 STEM High School, one of the district’s more popular choice high schools.

It is also at the core of the successful Intergenerational Schools charter chain in the city and the new private

The shift would take cooperation from the Cleveland Teachers Union, which is already familiar with the approach. It would take buy-in from parents, who won’t see their children promoted each year. That has sometimes been a source of conflict at the Intergenerational School when parents do not fully understand the model.

It also will need law changes from the state, which tests students annually based on their grade level and which gives districts lower grades on state report cards if students don’t graduate in four years. Gordon said the state focuses too much on days or hours of classes, not on whether students have learned material.

“We really see an opportunity that means an entirely new policy context at the state and national level that allows us the nimbleness to behave differently,” he said.

Correction: An earlier version of this article reported that CEO Gordon had proposed ending the practice of moving students up a grade every year, instead keeping them in the same band for a few years to relearn and reinforce skills before advancing. Gordon talked about using grade bands but did not specifically say how they would be carried out, though typically schools using mastery plans will keep students in grade bands for multiple years.

22 Comments

Filed under leadership, Reforming schools, school leaders, school reform policies, technology use

22 responses to “Remodeling the Age Graded School?

  1. Laura H.Chapman

    Wondering what “mastery” and “competency” mean for music, theater, dance, the visual arts. I can show you some texts from about 1890 that are written as if mastery/ competence based learning was no different from giving correct responses to questions posed by others.

    • larrycuban

      The point you make, Laura–and have made often–remains one of the limitations of such proposals over the past half-century. I do not think it is an impossible task for music, theater, dance, and visual art educators to engage in breaking down their skills into ways that students can learn. After all that is what they do when they teach individuals. But the fact remains that previous incarnations of “mastery” have usually failed to transfer to instruction and learning in these artistic domains.

  2. David

    Hi Larry–this sounds an awful lot like what Maine has tried–I talked with some teachers from there a couple of years ago and they hated it: https://www.chalkbeat.org/2018/10/18/21105950/maine-went-all-in-on-proficiency-based-learning-then-rolled-it-back-what-does-that-mean-for-the-rest

    • larrycuban

      Thanks, David, for the reminder about Maine. Moving to multi-age groupings for the past century have involved teachers and students in some form of what has been called “mastery” learning or “competency-based instruction.” Like all shifts in teaching and learning, there have been pluses and minuses simply because no one system or instruction can embrace all of the differences among teachers and students. Learning to deal with the imperfect has not been a strength of innovative educators or their critics.

    • Fenn

      This is your example? This is such a joke. Of course teachers hated being told to do something new but not how to do it! Maine jumped in unprepared and everyone suffered. It means absolutely nothing.

  3. bluecat57

    Simple question: When were schools good?

    • larrycuban

      Define “good.”

      • bluecat57

        You asked for it.
        To begin, I haven’t read this article yet, but my question is not related to the article but a question for you and your blog readers.
        The impression I get is that most people on earth think schools are “bad”.
        https://news.gallup.com/poll/1612/education.aspx
        So, what do I mean by “good”.
        1. The students who attend, learn the subject matter.
        2. Test scores (which I believe are a bunch of hooey, but that’s another rant.) are rising. And the tests remain the same or are made more challenging because students are learning the subject matter NOT how to take the test. (yeah, cultural bias BS)
        3. Parents want to send their children to the school they are assigned to or which they have chosen.
        4. Students look forward to attending their school.
        5. Like most statistics, how the hell do these dropout figures make sense?
        a. “About 25% of high school freshmen fail to graduate from high school on time.”
        b. “The proportion of youth and young adults residing in the United States who have dropped out of high school has declined from 1970 to 2016: from 15 to 6 percent, respectively.” “For this indicator, high school dropouts are defined as individuals, ages 16 to 24”
        c. Article “Is the high school graduation rate really going up?
        Mark Dynarski” “It was only 10 years ago that the country adopted a standard for measuring its high school graduation rate.” Yep, don’t like a statistic, change the definition so it is impossible to compare historically.
        I was simply trying to find out what the dropout rate was for the 1950 to 2019 period.
        Part of “good” would be a statistically significant reduction in the dropout rate, though that doesn’t really make sense since my impression of high school graduates today is that we are lucky if they can tie their shoes because they are simply advanced to avoid an awkward conversation with their parents. And heaven forbid they can diagram that sentence or copy it in cursive.
        FYI – I did find an interesting report but don’t have time to look through it.
        “120 Years of American Education: A Statistical Portrait”

        Click to access 93442.pdf


        6. That all those entering high school are functionally literate. They can read, write and do arithmetic. That they can fill out a job application and do the basic functions of the job (part of which would have been covered if rhetoric was still taught in schools) such as showing up on time, working the whole time they are on the clock, and interact with coworkers and customers in an intelligent fashion. Meaning that by 8th grade they are ready to enter the workforce should they decide to drop out of high school or simply get a job to help pay their family’s bills. I got my first job in 6th grade and had two jobs all through high school.
        7. I can add more items, but their parents are really responsible for the moral, ethical, and human sexuality parts of a child’s education.

        What I am asking is:
        If you think schools are “bad” now, when did you consider them “good”?
        I’m making the assumption that you think schools are “bad” or at least in need of significant change and improvement.
        Or
        If schools need a “lot” of improvement and change now, when were they “successfully” meeting the educational needs of students?
        Or
        Why won’t the old education model that prepared the Greatest Generation for war work for today’s students? Have humans changed that much?

        I’m just skeptical of spending Billions of dollars on something no one seems the least bit satisfied with. More accurately, I’m tired of more and more of MY money being taken by force from me for something that doesn’t seem to be accomplishing what it is supposed to be doing. (I think that of government in general, but yet another rant.)
        And since when does it cost a Billion dollars to build a school? Many expletives deleted. Why not just say, “Screw that.” and pay it out in welfare? If they need that level of facility to teach a ……. kid to read, then they are doing something wrong.
        I know that all institutions change and hopefully become “better”. My impression is that in general nothing tried in the effort to make schools “better” in the last 45 years since I graduated high school has made the K-12 education system in America “better”. For that matter, nothing since 1950 either. In fact, if critics are to be believed, virtually every “improvement” has made things worse. Including, desegregation, coed schools, and extremely lax dress codes. The opposite of those pop up in articles as the “newest” way to improve schools.

      • larrycuban

        Well, Bluecat, I thank you for your extended answer to my question to define “good.” I do wish you were not anonymous so we could at the very least address one another as comrades deeply interested in U.S. education.

        Some answers to your questions:

        1.Whatever you mean by “bad” (and I could guess at that but won’t) all U.S. schools are not “bad.” I have never said such a thing or even inferred it. There are,however, U.S. schools, mostly in poor minority communities in urban and rural America that are under-resourced, have inexperienced and uncommitted teachers, and very low student test scores on state and local standardized tests. Such schools remain the shame of America.

        2. And there “good”schools in the nation as well that would fit your definition of “goodness.” Found in affluent suburbs, occasionally in urban and rural districts also, such schools are well known for their high percentage of high school graduates, admissions to college,and awards for academic achievement.

        Please note that in the above sentence I said “your definition of ‘goodness'”. And that is the rub. As you put forth your definition of “goodness,” for centuries Americans have differed again and again over what is a “good” school. One only has to dig into the reform movements of the past century to find Progressives in the early 20th century had a vision of “good” schools as did many Americans during the civil rights movement of mid-20th century and just as our fellow citizens over the past forty years in the midst of the standards, testing, and accountability reforms–have their definition of “good” schools. So notions of a “good” school are varied now and have been in the past. No one definition captures that historic variation in ideas of “goodness.”

        3. Just as definitions of a “good” person, a “good” family, a “good”city vary, ditto for a “good” school. You have such a definition and seemingly would want it for all schools. And that has been the curse, no, the dilemma that reformers have faced both in the past and present.

    • Fenn

      And it all comes down to you thinking that you shouldn’t have to pay taxes for someone else. And yet, you clearly have no idea how much you pay to schools or the breakdown of your taxes. Your argument is false. If you don’t want to pay for schools, then don’t. Be radical and refuse the IRS the amount you think you should be allowed to keep. It’ll be much smaller than you expect.

      • larrycuban

        Thank you for taking the time to comment.

      • bluecat57

        You’re so cute thinking you know about taxes and government-run schools and I don’t.

        “you clearly have no idea how much you pay to schools” I’m sitting here looking at my property tax bill. How about that? There’s a line right there that says “Schools”.

        “…it all comes down to you thinking that you shouldn’t have to pay taxes for someone else.”

        And what is wrong with that? Why can’t I keep all my money and spend it the way I want to? (Find and read Milton Friedman’s 4 ways to spend money.) What right do YOU have to any of MY money?

        I want something that I don’t have the money for, so I come to YOUR house. You open the door and I point a gun at you and demand you give me YOUR money for what I want.

        That is how taxes work.

        As for no idea. How do you think I could say “I don’t think even our extended family pays anywhere near the $30,000 a year for my two children in all (edit: direct) taxes. ” in my comment below?

        Yes, I ask, “… where does that money come from?” I know, but I’m pretty sure you have absolutely no clue what the real source of that money is.

        The ONLY economic entity that can pay a tax is the end consumer. That means ALL taxes are paid for by the end consumer. And that all government-run indoctrination centers are paid for with taxes taken at gun-point from end consumers.

        Don’t believe the “gun-point” part? Just try to NOT pay your taxes and see who finally shows up at your door. I can guarantee you, they or someone with them will have LOTS of BIG guns.

        “It’ll be much smaller than you expect.” Again, you have no clue about how taxes and economies work.

        I know exactly how BIG that chunk of MY income is in America.

        Check out USdebtClock .org

        As of this post, it is $84,125 for each member of my family. Or $222,191 per taxpayer. I’ll concede that there is one taxpayer in my family.

        For my state, the “Debt per Citizen” is $6,869. Multiply by 4 and even if that ALL went to schools, it still wouldn’t cover the cost for 2 children. They’d have to get some money from you to cover the rest.

        If you look at the government “Spending to GDP Ratio”, which is 47.11%, that means that nearly 50% of MY income is spent by governments. That means that they INDIRECTLY have to collect about 50% of MY income through taxes which results in higher prices for the goods and services I, the end consumer, use.

        All my arguments are true. You just are ignorant of how taxes and economies work.

        I’ll bet you and your children think that that “free” school lunch doesn’t cost a thing.

        The proudest moment of my parenting was when on our way to drop off at elementary school there was a story on the radio about a “free” lunch program. I asked my children, “Is it really free?” One immediately said, “No.” So I asked the other one, “Why?” They answered, “Taxes.”

        How come you don’t know that?

      • bluecat57

        PS – In case you didn’t know, government produces NOTHING. All the money they spend is Other People’s Money. Those “fees” are taxes because they are NOT optional.

  4. bluecat57

    Thank you for replying. For some reason, the headline of this post triggered my question: When were schools good?
    Maybe a better question would have been: When have parents been satisfied with their children’s education? Or “Have they ever been…?”
    Of course, that’s another set of definitions.
    I didn’t intend to imply that you thought schools are “bad”. I was just curious if anyone that reads your blog thought they were ever “good” stipulating that they can always be “better”.
    Our family moved from a “good” school district to one that offered “choices” which included a selection of “good” schools. We are happy with our choice. We did this in “Thank God for Mississippi.” Upstate South Carolina.
    While I’m interested in education, “deeply interested” would be going a bit far. I’d say I’m “deeply interested” in where my excessive tax dollars go and why I’m not getting a superior Return On Investment.
    Education seems to be one area where everyone thinks money is wasted yet more money is always touted as the solution. Hence my question “When were schools good?”
    Was it when we spent $5,000 per student (inflation-adjusted back to 1960 approximately)?
    Or the $15,000 per student we spend today? (I don’t think even our extended family pays anywhere near the $30,000 a year for my two children in all taxes. So, where does that money come from? (Yes, only from end consumers through higher prices and “spreading the wealth around” and printing money.)
    Are we getting our money’s worth? Might have been another question to ask.
    Just a lot of questions trying to find an answer to maybe this question: When will you be satisfied with your children’s education? Or do we just keep spending more and more money hoping that someday we will have finally achieved a “good” education for all children?
    I was hoping that maybe some of your other readers would jump in with their thoughts.
    Thank you again for the interaction.
    The one time I asked a government official a question about education (Why should I be taxed to pay for somebody’s 3-year old’s K3 program which is basically tax-paid daycare?), I got some bureaucratic BS.
    Your replies have been informative and thought provoking.

  5. Larry, I think that “Remodeling the Age Graded School” needs to happen in a much broader and disruptive context to be successful. It will require a vision and shift in resources that integrates learning into technology and not technology into existing classrooms and schools — graded or not. COVID-19 created new opportunities to move forward on the disruptive innovation front — an approach I have supported because of its capacity for change and improvement unlike any I have seen in the past five decades. I’ve updated my vision of “Teaching and Learning at the Speed of Light” to illustrate how leaders of learning can move forward during and beyond COVID-19 and to rethink old school strategies such as “Age Graded” into more dynamic ways of learning and schooling.

    Click to access LF_Vision_2020.pdf

  6. So we’re just going to throw Piaget out the window?

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