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Mixed Blessings

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To Robert Blair, the principal of Southside Primary School in Shelbyville, Ky., placing students of different ages in the same class is simply "the only way to go with little children." He likes the family atmosphere the practice creates for his K-3 school, the collaborative spirit it fosters in children and teachers, and the sense of security students get from staying with the same teacher for three years.

But a good number of Blair's colleagues around the state feel otherwise. In one University of Kentucky study, roughly half the primary teachers surveyed last spring said they would get rid of ungraded classrooms if it were up to them. And a proposal the state legislature approved this year effectively weakens the mandatory practice, which has been a cornerstone of Kentucky's sweeping school-improvement law. Beginning immediately, local school councils are free to decide "the extent to which multiage groups are necessary" to meet school-reform goals.

Ironically, the dissension over multiage classrooms in Kentucky comes at a time when research is building a stronger case in support of the practice.

"There's been a lot of research done, and some it has been longitudinal research, and you begin to get some clues in terms of 'Are there gains and do they last?'" says James Uphoff, a professor at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, who was skeptical of the theory-driven claims made by proponents of multiage classrooms five years ago. "Now," he says, "the theories of five, six, seven years ago are being supported by hard data, and that is very encouraging."

Multiage classrooms have been around in this country at least as long as the one-room schoolhouse. According to Robert H. Anderson, a professor of education at the University of South Florida, single-grade classrooms did not come to be a way of life for schools until after Horace Mann, the prominent 19th-century educator, launched the first grade school. Then, the prospect of factory work was pulling people off the farms and into the cities. And children, no longer needed to help work the farms, were going to school in greater numbers.

"It was necessary to find ways of packaging large numbers of kids, and they came up with the age-graded arrangement," Anderson says.

Multiage classrooms enjoyed a slight resurgence in popularity in the 1950s as interest in team teaching and open classrooms grew. Schools also saw the arrangement as a way to cope economically with growing school enrollments as the post-World War II "baby boom" generation grew to school age.

It wasn't until the late 1980s, however, that educators began to think of ungraded classrooms--in and of themselves--as a better way to teach.

The arrangement was compatible with a wide range of new reform ideas-among them the notion that children learn in different ways and at different paces, the belief in cooperative-learning techniques that require children to work together in groups, and the emphasis on more active, hands-on teaching approaches.

"At this point in this century, we know so much more about how children grow and develop and about motivating kids," says Anderson. "The idea of 1st graders being relatively homogeneous--that doesn't work anymore."

"Children aren't born in litters," he adds, quoting Lilian Katz, another prominent proponent of ungraded classrooms. "Why do we treat them that way?"

To supporters like Anderson, grouping children in mixed-age classes has several benefits. The obvious advantage for younger children is a chance to stretch academically as they work with older classmates. But older children also gain because they can reinforce their own learning by teaching what they know to younger peers.

"In medical school, they say, 'See one, do one, teach one,'" says Diane McClellan, an education professor at Governor State University in University Park, Ill. "Well, children nowadays are not having many opportunities to teach other children something."

Learning might also be enhanced for everyone because teachers would have to spend less time in September finding out what their students had learned during the previous year.

Supporters of multiage grouping also reason that allowing children to remain in the same classroom over a period of several years--a practice known as looping--would mean that fewer children would be retained in grade. They point to studies showing a clear link between staying back a year in school and dropping out later on.

Plus, says Katz, a professor of earlychildhood education at the University of Illinois at Urbana, "when you ask a 7-year-old to be patient with a 5-yearold's bumbling efforts to read, you have the beginnings of parent education."

Katz also claims to see less competition in these more heterogeneous settings.

"Children in same-age groups participate in a lot of one-upmanship, but that doesn't happen with mixed-age children," she says.

On the downside, critics and proponents agree that multiage-classroom arrangements mean more work for teachers. Teachers also sometimes complain that learning suffers when they must cope with a wider range of ages and abilities than they are used to seeing. And the claims that students learn by teaching others notwithstanding, parents of older students often worry that their children will bump into a glass ceiling beyond which they can learn no more. Parents of younger children--particularly kindergarten parents--fret that their sons and daughters will be intimidated by the superior academic skills and the behaviors of the bigger kids.

Critics of mixed-age classes found support recently in a major review of studies conducted around the world on the topic. Simon Veenman, a researcher at the University of Nijmegen in the Netherlands, reviewed 56 studies of mixed-age classrooms from 12 countries. He separated the studies into two groups: "multiage" classrooms in which students were mixed for educational reasons and "multigrade" classrooms in which the motivation for blending grades had been primarily economic. In the former category, he placed only 12 studies. But, regardless of the group, he found, mixed-age classes offered no real academic advantage over singlegrade classrooms. He did, however, find that students in multiage classes scored slightly higher than students in traditional classrooms on measures of self-esteem and their attitudes toward their school.

His overall conclusion: "These classes are simply no worse, and simply no better, than single-grade or single-age classes."

The Veenman study, which was published in the Winter issue of the Journal of Educational Research, is already drawing critics.

"The problem I find with his article is really with his selection of studies," says Barbara N. Pavan, a researcher at Philadelphia's Temple University who did her own review of multiage studies in 1992. She contends Veenman left out a lot of North American studies that pointed to more favorable outcomes. He excluded, for example, studies in which teachers received training on teaching in their new mixed-age settings.

Pavan is also critical of Veenman's decision to include studies, such as those involving rural schools with four teachers, in which the split-grade arrangement grew more out of administrative necessity than well-intentioned reform.

For her own review, Pavan chose 64 studies conducted after 1967 in the United States and Canada. Of those, she says, 58 percent found that students in nongraded programs had higher achievement-test scores than peers in the traditional classrooms with which they were compared. In another 33 percent of the studies, students performed just as well as regular-classroom students. And in 9 percent of the experiments, they did worse.

As for students' self-esteem, their confidence in their academic abilities, and their attitudes toward school, Pavan found that nongraded schools produced superior results in 52 percent of the studies.

"In more than half of the studies, there was statistically significant achievement and better mental health," she says. "I think that's pretty good."

Some of the studies Pavan reviewed also showed something else: Students tended to do better the longer they were in a multiage program.

Another problem with Veenman's study--and with most others in this area--is that there is no way of knowing if the classrooms examined reflected true multiage teaching practices. Proponents of the idea say ungraded programs are more than a matter of classroom logistics. They are a philosophy.

"If kids are grouped forever in 'X' reading group and they're not treated more specifically, then that's not multiaging," says Barbara A. Nye, a senior research scientist at the Center for Basic Skills at Tennessee State University in Nashville. She and her colleagues at the center are following 1,500 Tennessee students as they move from kindergarten through 4th grade in nongraded classrooms.

In the seven schools participating in the study, children work in small, flexible groups that are mixed in terms of both age and ability. Students progress at their own speed, and the learning that goes on is more hands-on and less reliant on textbooks than in traditional classrooms. And observers regularly visit the classrooms to determine the degree to which they reflect those criteria.

Thus far, the researchers have followed the students for two years. And their results mirror Pavan's.

"Our analysis shows students are doing as well as or better in terms of both academics and academic self-concept," Nye says.

"I don't think that we can begin to say the case is closed for mixed-age grouping," says Governor State University's McClellan. "But I do think there's a growing body of research that's supportive of mixed-age grouping--particularly if it's done well."

McClellan's own research is focusing on the social aspects of ungraded programs. She is studying 300 students in 1st through 5th grades in mixedage classrooms in Illinois.

Her findings, like Nye's, are preliminary. But she has found that children in multiage classrooms were more likely than their peers in traditional classrooms to include other children--particularly less popular children--in their games.

"A mixed-age group is, by definition, a less diverse group," McClellan says, "so a child with Down syndrome, for example, is less likely to be seen as so different."

In Kentucky, results from the state's testing program show that, in writing and reading, 4th graders' scores are improving more rapidly than those of 8th and 12th graders. Of those three groups, only the 4th graders are legally required to be taught in multiage classrooms.

In addition, Julia Roberts and her colleagues at the University of Louisville's Center for Gifted Students just completed a study that could begin to shatter the idea that multiage classrooms harbor glass ceilings for their best and brightest students.

The center tracked four primary school classes in Kentucky over three years and compared their achievement with four out-of-state classes that were matched in terms of geographic similarity and the percentage of students poor enough to qualify for the federal free-lunch program. Students in all of the out-of-state classrooms, however, were being taught in more traditional, single-grade settings.

Even though all the students had started out at the same level, the top 20 percent of students in the Kentucky classrooms significantly outscored their out-of-state counterparts on standardized tests in four key areas: word identification, reading comprehension, mathematical calculation, and mathematical problem-solving.

"It's really good news," says Roberts, who is still analyzing other findings from the federally funded study. "Not only are our kids doing OK; they're doing well."

What is difficult to know about the Kentucky data is how much of the good news is due to the multiage arrangement and how much due to other aspects of the state's new primary program. Besides nongraded primary schools, the state has moved to a new testing system that is based, in part, on portfolios of student work. And schools are rewarded or sanctioned depending on how well their students progress on the tests, among other changes.

"What happened in Kentucky is an example of what happens when a legislature mandates something," Anderson says of the controversy there. "I remember going to meetings in Kentucky and one elementary principal sat in front of me with his arms crossed and said, 'This is going to happen over my dead body.'"

University of Kentucky researchers have found, in fact, that resistance to the mandate has led to widespread variation in the way that the primary programs have been implemented around the state.

They found, for example, that the percentage of teachers adhering to the notion that students should be allowed to make continuous progress in multiage programs is decreasing. In 1994, when the researchers first surveyed teachers, 55 percent ran classrooms supportive of that idea. By last spring, however, the percentage had dropped to 39 percent.

"In the other classrooms, either part of the instruction was whole group, or what's happening in many of the schools is that they're going back to ability grouping," says Connie Bridge, the university's associate dean for education reform and research. "You also might find all 2nd graders working out of the 2nd-grade book."

At Southside Primary School, Principal Blair says all that is required of his colleagues across the state is a little "stick-to-itiveness." Eventually, parents and teachers will come around to the multiage approach.

"I've been a principal for 28 years," he says, "and this, in my opinion, is the way you do it."

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