Friday, March 13, 2009

Grades and Levels

Bob Somerby at The Daily Howler is one of the few people out there talking honestly about education. His post today got me thinking. In response to President Obama's call for higher standards for our schools, he says:

Let’s say some state has set its fifth-grade standards at a traditional fifth-grade level. To pass the state’s math test in the spring, a fifth-grader has to show she can do pretty well with traditional fifth-grade math.

For some fifth-graders, that standard would be much too easy to serve as any sort of goad. They would be working beyond that level on the very first day of the school year!

But, for many struggling fifth-graders, that standard would essentially be unattainable within that fifth-grade year. Our question: How would this second group of kids be served by raising the state’s fifth-grade standards—to traditional sixth-grade level, let’s say? Presumably, the state of Mississippi has lots of fifth-graders who are working at such lower levels. How would these kids’ interests be served if Mississippi adopted tougher, “world-class” fifth-grade standards?

People who haven’t spent time in low-income schools often have a mistaken notion: They imagine that all kids in a certain grade are more or less alike. But they aren’t—not even close! Some fifth-graders are light-years ahead of others; those higher-achieving kids should be taught at the highest level they can manage. But it’s crazy to think that kids who may be years behind them should be taught the same material—should be “held to the same world-class standard.”

You can make them try to do it. But they’ll cry—their tears will be real tears. And they, and your dreams, will all fail.

This got me to thinking - why do we have our kids separated by grades? They should be divided by ability, not age. Children shouldn't be in second or third grade, lumped together with 20 other kids of similar age but vastly different abilities. They should be taught with other children of the same ability to master a certain level of difficulty.

Within reason, of course. We don't need to put 14 year olds in with 8 year olds. But I think we could put 7-9 year olds together, if they are all capable of learning the same material at close to the same rate.

What we have in this country is an ancient system of education designed to accomodate the timetables of agrarian society - from the length of the school day, to the length of the school year, to the way our children are grouped together for learning. But outside of the official school system, teaching by ability level is the way people are taught, whether it is art camp or gymnastics or karate. Or college, for that matter. It is the most natural way to learn, and by forcing children into completely artificial learning structures based entirely on birth date, we set up many of them for failure before they even get a chance to start.

Isn't it long past time to begin promoting children by level, rather than age? Such a system would at first appear to be identical to the current grade system. But within a few years children of different ages would be spread throughout the levels of a school, learning at a pace that more closely matches their ability to learn. And those who are falling behind could be more easily identified and addressed before they fall too far behind to recover. Meanwhile set the highest levels at somewhere around a current undergraduate education, and let our education system take our children all the way through college. The only hard age-dependent measure I would use is a graduation age - say, 21 years of age, at which point the student is assign a level of proficiency that will say to future employers, in very clear terms, here is what this person achieved.

In my opinion, this is the sort of innovative thinking that needs to be done if the schools are going to be improved. We know that demanding "higher standards" for students and teachers isn't the answer, because politicians have been demanding higher standards for decades now. It's like we're trying to navigate 21st century seas with 19th century technology.

The ship has sailed as far as it's going to sail, and moving the deck chairs every year isn't going to get us to that distant green shore. It's time to think about building a new ship - maybe one that flies.


PeskyFly said...

Jeff, my mom-- a highly regarded teacher turned school technologist-- has endured my rants about this same thing before. There's more than just academic ability at play here there are also development considerations. Still there's no question that matching a standard to an age can be troublesome for all of the reasons you mention. A completely counterproductive, retrograde system.

Jeff said...

My mom was a teacher, too.

If I were devising the system, I would take development into consideration along with academic level. Not all kids able to do advanced work are emotionally or socially prepared to compete with older students.