04 March 2009

One Third Bored, One Third Behind

Asked to create a policy brief regarding any reauthorization of the US "No Child Left Behind Act." I thought about all the ridiculousness of that law, but what I wanted to focus on was the essential fallacy, of NCLB in particular, but of our educational structure in general.

In the mid-19th Century many nations, including the US and Britain, adopted the Prussian notion of "age-based grades." Age-based grades are "efficient," as an educational solution, and they echo the form of industrial processing, but age-based grades, as well as the kinds of exams mandated by NCLB, assume that every child learns at exactly the same rate, in every subject. And we know that's a ridiculous idea.

Of course those age-based grades do more: They require special education because many children fall behind. They require "gifted and talented" and "AP" classes because so many students are bored. In fact, age-based grades were truly designed as a filtering system, geared to getting rid of students who "couldn't keep up" and would thus be consigned to "capitalism's dustbin" - the low skill, low wage jobs, and the poverty which market-based economies need as a cautionary tale for the potentially lazy.

The ideas of breaking students up by age, or of breaking lessons up by subject, are not "natural." These strategies replaced the tutor and "one room schoolhouse" which preceeded it. Whether or not it was a successful strategy for 20th Century industrial societies can be answered elsewhere. But what's important now is knowing that we no longer live in the world our educational systems were designed for. And it is time to change.

- Ira Socol


Chris said...

This is well researched and presented. As one who has worked in a multi-age elementary school for 10 years, I can attest to the benefits to student learning. I can also say how difficult it is to make it work given the direction we've been forced to take, away from project-based learning across age and disciplines to straight grade classes and curricula and, of course, all testing all the time.

Thank for taking this on. I am hopeful the pendulum will head back this way.

Anonymous said...

Hi Ira
This was great. Makes me really miss multiage teaching..which was how I started my career in Australia. What a magical way to teach.

Jason Buell said...

Sorry no link, but I read about a district in Colorado that was going to 10 levels and having students move through each topic level by proficiency. So someone could be at a 4 for math and an 8 for language arts. I know you reject segregating subject matters but it sounds like a good compromise.

Anonymous said...

who asked you to write a policy brief?

irasocol said...

Chris: I hope the pendulum swings as well. I think we too often "assume" age-grading as if it is a "natural order" when really - obviously - it makes no sense at all.

Anon: I've seen magical schools which embraced this.

JYB: Not so much "a compromise" as a step in the right direction. With current teacher training multi-age is actually much easier to get to than interdisciplinary. "We" can imagine that 8th grader sitting next to that 4th grader before "we" can imagine how while discussing Hannibal's invasion of Rome we get fully into math formulas (mountain slopes, speed of elephants, march rate of men) and science (what did elephants eat in Europe? did Roman roads hold the elephants?) and current events (would US highways hold tanks without cracking?) and back to science and government (why would US roads hold tanks or why not?).

But, I'm not against first steps, and anything that gets rid of the 'age-presumption' is good with me.

Vera: Certain advantages to being at certain Research universities.

- Ira Socol

Jim Dornberg said...

Here's one of the great ironies in many states: no money for schools, but plenty of money for building more prisons. Hello? Cause and effect anyone?

Anonymous said...

Vera asked: who asked you to write a policy brief?

Narrator answered: Vera: Certain advantages to being at certain Research universities.

Vera comments: okay. what's that word? evasive?

Vera asks: who is going to read your policy brief? is it going to be presented at a certain somewhere other than your blog?

tweisz said...

Ira - I am surprised at how often some of your posts come right at a time when I have been thinking along the same lines. I think that not only do our schools need to change so that none of our students are left behind, I also am coming more and more to think that our special ed students can be the real inspiration for our model of how we change and adapt our schools. When we think of what our schools need to promote 21st century learning, the things we actually think of would be an ideal fit for these students, and all students - I just blogged about this in a round about way as well http://tracieweisz.blogspot.com

pporto said...

What a timely post. I was just having a discussion along these lines with my parents who both attended one room schoolhouses up through eighth grade. They emphasized the peer teaching and collaboration that went on.

Mallory Burton said...

I just started reading Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. His first chapter is about Hockey players in Canada. Apparently the best predictor of hockey skills is having a January, February, or March birthday! These kids are bigger, get picked more, get to play more, get better coaching, etc. He suggests that if we had two different cut-off dates for minor league registration, we'd have twice as many good hockey players in Canada. This is similar to the situation that arises in our schools with kids who turned 5 right before the registration for kindergarten date.

Anonymous said...

I run a small private school with mixed age classes. This is what I tell parents when they ask why we don't do much direct all-class instruction. "When you teach prepositions, for example, a third of the class can do it already without any instruction. A third don't even know what a noun is and aren't ready for the lesson, and MAYBE a third actually get something out of it and learn." In other words on any given day in any typical classroom, a third are BORED and a third are LOST meaning two-thirds are MISERABLE!! Real education reform is SMALL SCHOOLS, SMALL CLASS SIZE and MIXED AGE CLASSES with INDIVIDUALIZED INSTRUCTION. We do it (www.thenewclassicalacademy.org) and it doesn't cost any more (about $8000 per year per child) than the state of NC spends in public school to FAIL at educating a child. All of Obama's current reforms are band-aids and gimmicks. They won't work.

Kelly Homolka said...

For some real examples from mixed age classes read my blog: http://thenewclassicalway.blogspot.com/

Thanks for the work you are doing Ira. I found your blog from your editor's selection comment on the NYT David Brooks article (he should stick to politics, since he obviously doesn't know anything about education!)

irasocol said...


As you and others here demonstrate, there is no shortage of "proof of what works" - within the US and elsewhere - so, these are conscious decisions. A nation which embraces standardized testing, grade retention, KIPP and TFA, but not multi-age open classrooms, individualizable technology, and proper support for teachers and teacher training, has made the decision to keep most children away from success. http://speedchange.blogspot.com/2008/04/not-getting-to-universal-design.html

We have to ask those from David Brooks to Arne Duncan - do they really want the competition (inherent in American capitalism) which would come from the success of much wider range of children? They will say "yes," but their actions suggest the opposite.

- Ira Socol

- Ira Socol