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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.




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Cartoons on Teaching

For this month I have gathered a melange of cartoons about teachers of various subjects that made me chuckle, smile, and even grin. I hope they do the same for you as we bid goodbye to 2018.




























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Cartoons on Thanksgiving

The national holiday is upon us both in families and in schools. Here are some cartoons that brought a smile to my face. Enjoy!


























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Photos of Innovations

Americans love innovations. If it is new, inventive, efficient, and effective–then it (e.g., light bulb, horseless carriage, driverless car) is good. Yet there have been innovations and inventions that range from clever to dumb and only occasionally get marketed beyond the family and friends of the inventor. Here are some photos of such innovations. Enjoy!































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Cartoons on Child Rearing and Kids in School

For this month, I have selected cartoons that poke fun at practices parents use to create “good” children–be it traditional or non-traditional. I also include the interactions between teachers and kids in classrooms. These tickled me. I hope they do thesame for you. Enjoy!













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Cartoons on Efficiency and Productivity

I have been thinking and writing about the concepts of efficiency, effectiveness, and productivity in different occupations. A question crossed my mind: how do cartoonists look at these concepts? Thus, this month’s feature displays cartoons on these topics. Enjoy!















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What Mark Twain Didn’t Really Tell Us About Technology Disruption, Jobs And Education (Derek Newton)

Derek Newton: “I write about education including education technology (edtech) and higher education. I’ve written about these topics and others in a variety of outlets including The Atlantic, Quartz and The Huffington Post. I served as vice-president at The Century Foundation, a public policy think tank with an emphasis on education and worked for an international education nonprofit teaching entrepreneurship. I also served as a speech writer for a governor of Florida, worked in the Florida legislature and attended Columbia University in New York City.”

This appeared in Forbes on July 26. 2018

At a time when facts and figures are tossed around indiscriminately, it is well to remember that school reform rationales have too often been anchored in false statistics. One example will do. For nearly forty years, business and civic leaders have claimed that schools are failing to prepare the next generation for a workplace or as a recent IBM report put it: “ … sixty-five percent of children now in primary school will work in job types that don’t exist today.”

This figure of “65%” has been picked up and disseminated repeatedly by corporate leaders, top public officials, and academic researchers to prod schools to adopt business practices in preparing children and youth to enter an ever-changing workplace. That the percentage has no credible source, seems to have been made up and then blazoned on the bandwagon of school reform for nearly four decades is what Newton points out in this piece For a more detailed inquiry to the source of the fake 65%, see Benjamin Doxtdater, “A Field Guide to ‘Jobs That Don’t Exist Yet.”


The movie The Big Short opens, more or less, with this quote from Mark Twain, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

It appears, though, that Twain never said that. Which makes the quote insightful, ironic and appropriate for what we are sure we know about technology, the future of work and the shortcomings of our education systems.

A fairly loud chorus knows for sure that three things are true – that technology is going to deeply and massively change the nature of work, that our schools, and colleges and universities in particular, aren’t preparing future workers for those future jobs and that a failure to quickly adopt massive changes in the way we teach will result in certain doom for future workers, businesses and the global economy.

In May, IBM, the global advice and technology leader, sang a version of that tune with a released report called, “The six new competencies Industrial companies need on their path to digitization.” The first statistic in that report is, “ … sixty-five percent of children now in primary school will work in job types that don’t exist today.” IBM highlights the figure and used it in social media ads to promote the report.

Which brings us back to the Twain quote that opens The Big Short. Not only is this 65% statistic something we know for sure that just ain’t so, the stat itself is fake – simply, it appears, made up.

The footnote in the IBM report leads to this 2016 article in Fortune Magazine by John Chambers who was then the ­executive chairman of Cisco. In it, Chambers wrote, “ … it is estimated that 65% of children entering primary school today will work in job types that don’t even exist yet.”

It is estimated. That’s it. No footnote. No source.

A similar stat appears in a report by the World Economic Forum called “The Future of Jobs and Skills,” also in 2016. It says, “65% of children entering primary school today will ultimately end up working in completely new job types that don’t yet exist.” And that statement footnotes to “McLeod, Scott and Karl Fisch, “Shift Happens.””

ShiftHappens is a series of viral YouTube videos from 2007. The videos are great but so dated at this point that it seems other-worldly to see references to the growth in MySpace as evidence of our technology future. But the problem isn’t the date, it’s the fundamental accuracy.

Scott McLeod, J.D., Ph.D. and associate professor, Educational Leadership, University of Colorado Denver, one of the creators of the videos, told me that the 65% stat, “ … indeed, is not a statistic we ever used! .. Not sure where it came from.”

McLeod isn’t the first or only person to have expressed bewilderment with this statistic. In 2017, the BBC did an entire segment debunking the “65% of primary school” idea. Also in 2017, Benjamin Doxtdator did some great research on the stat and found, “ …  the claim is not true.” According to Doxtdator, “ … versions of it date from at least to 1957.”

If you think about it, the idea that 65% of kids will take jobs that don’t exist today is implausible. To be real, coming technology would need to replace jobs like chefs, dog walkers, lawyers, software engineers, bank employees and directors of non-profits entirely, and within in a decade or two. That should be inconceivable on its face.

So, it’s an embarrassing wonder that IBM used it as recently as May of this year to make the case that businesses and schools need to gear up for major, inevitable changes in technology and prepare for a new generation of workers.

When asked, IBM repeated the premise of technology disruption in the workforce. “IBM’s position on this issue is that AI may not replace every job, but it will change every profession.  So, jobs as we know them today, will be different in the future,” an IBM spokesperson said.

And, to be fair, IBM isn’t the only one to get that stat wrong. As noted, the World Economic Forum, Fortune (via Cisco) and others have repeated it without checking.

And that’s the problem. It’s one thing to see statistics tossed around by anonymous sources in backroom bulletin boards. Those should often and rightly be ignored. But when otherwise credible sources such as IBM and WEF peg entire research reports to false, narrative-forming points, it’s damaging to the necessary and honest debates about what we should expect from employers and schools.

Yes, we should be more skeptical about the things we read. But IBM and others should also do better than just repeating statistics they hear in the chorus, which feels like the place to remember something else Mark Twain said, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies and statistics.”

And as true as that feels, no, it seems Twain didn’t say that either.



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