Anyone reading the literature published by contemporary, upbeat school reformers cannot avoid such phrases as “teacher leaders,” “change agents,” and “dynamic entrepreneurs.” One is bombarded with happy visions of peppy, smart, young teacher leaders replacing tired, ineffective, older staff. Eager change agents swapping places with uninspired principals; and charismatic CEOs succeeding hapless superintendents.
This upbeat rhetoric that idealistic and energetic young teachers and principals receive is that the system, its leaders and bureaucracy, is the enemy, the source of all problems. Individual teachers and principals have to be tough enough to fight in behalf of their students.
This macho message–underscored by a war-like vocabulary of trenches and guerrilla tactics with district bureaucrats—while engaging to read too often diverts reformers’ attention from analyzing commonplace school structures, such as the age-graded school and how it has shaped public attitudes towards education, school culture and classroom practice for nearly two centuries.
The age-graded school is the unquestioned mainstay of school organization in 2022. Nearly all taxpayers and voters have entered kindergarten at age 5, studied Egyptian mummies in 5th or 6th grade, took algebra in the 8th or 9th grade and then left 12th grade with a diploma. If any school reform–in the sense of making fundamental changes in organization, curriculum, and instruction–can be considered a success it is the age-graded school.
What the age-graded school does is allocate children and youth by their ages to “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 so that all children will move uniformly through the year-long schedule to be annually promoted to the next grade. This way of organizing schools has been a gold star success.
Consider one standard of success: longevity. The first age-graded structure of eight classrooms appeared in Quincy (MA) in the late 1840s. In various combinations of grades (e.g., K-5, 6-8, 9-12, 6-12) this way of organizing tax-supported public schools has been around ever since.
Or consider another standard: effectiveness. The age-graded school has processed efficiently millions of students for nearly two centuries, sorted achievers from non-achievers, and now graduates over 80 percent of those entering high school.
Or consider the adaptability of the structure. The age-graded organization exists in Europe, Asia, Africa, Latin America, and North America covering rural, urban, and suburban schools.
The age-graded school has had its critics (see here and here). In the late-19th century, some educators saw the age-graded organization as crippling the intellectual and psychological growth of individual children who learn at different rates thereby causing dropouts from elementary and secondary schools as students of different ages piled up in lower grades because they failed to keep up with their peers. As John Dewey put it in 1902, “the manner in which the machinery of instruction bears upon the child … really controls the whole system.”
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 that required teachers to cover the content and skills specific to a 3rd or 6th grade class and that every student had to learn 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.
For some critics, the organization isolates and insulates teachers from one another, perpetuates teacher-centered pedagogy, and prevents a large fraction of students from achieving academically at their own individual pace. Moreover, over decades many students have dropped out. Yet this structure remains the sea in which teachers, students, principals, and parents swim. Few contemporary reformers, however, have questioned this one-size-fits-all organization.
Why have most school reformers and educational entrepreneurs been reluctant to examine an organization that influences daily behavior of over 3 million adults and well over 50 million children? One reason is dominant social beliefs of parents and educators about what a “real” school is.
A “real” school is one where children learn to read in 1st grade, receive periodic report cards, and get promoted to the next grade. These prevailing beliefs have politically narrowed reform options in transforming schools. For example, even 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. Sure, occasional reformers created non-graded schools, the School of One, and particular community schools but they are outliers.
External pressures also constrict reformers’ maneuverability in trying other organizational forms. State mandated curriculum standards, college entrance requirements, and state and federal mandates rules such as testing 3rd to 8th grade students in reading and math are all married to this omnipresent, durable structure.
The unintended (and ironic) consequence of frequent and earnest calls for radical change in preparation of school leaders, school governance, curriculum, and instruction through non-traditional teachers and administrators, charter schools, nifty reading and math programs, iPads for kindergartners, and other reforms unintentionally preserve the enduring age-graded school thereby freezing classroom patterns that so many reformers sought to alter.
At the minimum, serious reformers must grasp the links between past reforms and current innovations or else their dreams of altering the age-graded school, an innovation that had persevered for nearly two centuries, will, in a word, fail.