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Should Schools Do Away With Grade Levels?

Because all children do not learn at the same pace, teachers are generally forced to follow a curriculum that teaches to the lowest common denominator.  While this method may indeed meet the needs of the kids who need more time to master a particular skill, it can slow down and even frustrate a child who is ready to move on to the next challenge.  But in a classroom full of students of varying abilities, it’s the only way to ensure that nobody gets left behind. Or is it?

Some school districts around the country are trying a different approach to the standard grouping of students based on grade level.  Rather than have each student spend a year in each grade, students of different ages are grouped together based on their ability in each subject.   Students work within the groups on assignments that are specifically tailored to their skill level.  As soon as a skill is mastered, the student moves on to the next level.  Those who need more time can have it.  Those who don’t, aren’t held back.

This grouping by skill level isn’t a brand new idea.  Montessori schools have always done this and many smaller private schools do it.  But now the idea is being embraced by some larger public school districts who are desperate to turn around their failing schools.  Last year, the Adams County School District in Denver successfully implemented such a program and this fall, Kansas City is giving it a try.  Kansas City Superintendent John Covington believes that the time has come to rethink the way students are taught.

“The current system of public education in this country is not working.  It’s an outdated, industrial, agrarian kind of model that lends itself to still allowing students to progress through school based on the amount of time they sit in a chair rather than whether or not they have truly mastered the competencies and skills.”

And research would seem to indicate that this new method holds promise. In evaluating test data for over 3,500 students in 15 school districts in three states, Marzano Research Laboratory finds that students who were taught this way were 2.5 more likely to score at a level that indicates they have a good grasp of the material they need to know to pass reading, writing, and mathematics exams.

My own child was a Montessori student for three years before moving into public school.   Not only is she a fast learner who quickly masters new skills, her late September birthday makes her one of the oldest students in her grade.  My biggest fear when moving her from private to public school was that she’d be bored and frustrated.  And she is.

Her public school’s inability to meet the individual needs of all students is never more apparent than when she and her best friend do their homework together.  While her friend, who struggles to master new subjects, becomes frustrated at the difficulty of the work, my own child breezes through it complaining all the way about what a waste of time it is.  Neither child is doing the work they should be doing.

If there is a drawback to this idea, I sure can’t see it.  What about you?  Would you support this kind of change in your child’s school?

Image: Orange42/Flickr

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