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Published in Print: November 1, 2003, as Split Level

Split Level

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Multigrade classrooms are falling out of favor.

Cathy Jackson liked the way the 8-year-olds sometimes modeled positive behavior for the 6-year-olds in her multiage classroom in Louisville, Kentucky. But beyond that, this Bowen Elementary School teacher didn't see many benefits to the state's efforts to mix two or three primary grade levels in single classrooms following the 1990 Kentucky Education Reform Act. "If you had [high-achieving] 1st graders with the 2nd graders, that would be great," she says. "But you never know what you're going to get."

Her principal, Stephen Tyra, agrees. Since he arrived at Bowen in 1995, he has allowed his teachers, most of whom managed multiage classrooms, to gradually return to teaching a single grade. "Every chance we saw to return to a more traditional setting, we took it," Tyra says. "A teacher can plan for a straight grade with much more depth."

The shift away from multiage grouping at Bowen Elementary is far from isolated. Throughout Kentucky and across the country, the use of the teaching approach which gathered significant momentum in the 1990s is declining. An annual survey conducted by the Kentucky Department of Education shows that since the 1998-99 school year, the percentage of the state's public elementary schools using only a single-grade configuration has doubled, to 48 percent.

Multiage grouping has existed for as long as one-room schools have, and to some extent its current decrease in popularity can be attributed to the faddish nature of educational practice remember the enthusiasm for, then the backlash against, the "open classrooms" of the 1970s? However, some argue that this time around, the standards movement is hastening the idea's demise. "Many teachers report that it is getting harder and harder to have a multiage classroom with grade-specific standards," says Jim Grant, executive director of Staff Development for Educators, a Peterborough, New Hampshire, company. "The testing movement has created a lot of mischief."

Take Norton Elementary, also in Louisville. Unlike Tyra, Norton's principal, Lynne Wheat, is a fan of multiage classrooms, arguing that they encourage students to push themselves. "When children of like abilities are grouped in a setting together, they will only do as well as they have to," she observes. "But when they are grouped by multi-ability, they want to shine." Throughout the year, kindergartners may move into a 1st, 2nd, or 3rd grade class, and higher-level 3rd graders sometimes join 4th grade classes if teachers believe they need to advance in a certain subject. "That's the beauty of multiage," says Wheat. "There are no walls. Kids are constantly moving."

Despite general satisfaction with the approach, Wheat says the state's emphasis on test scores is making it harder to keep the multiage program intact. She's considering separating out a few 3rd grade classes so teachers and students can spend more time preparing for the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills, a national test given to that grade under the state's accountability system. "The pressure is out there, and you feel the heat," she says.

While testing pressures may make it more difficult to operate multiage classrooms, the concept itself also has quirks. Vast differences in social and physical development can create problems. Older students at Bowen Elementary, Tyra says, often took joy in spoiling holiday fantasies for their younger classmates. "It certainly blows Santa Claus, doesn't it?" he says. Many parents dislike multiage classrooms because, too frequently, teachers overseeing mixed groups teach "to the middle" and the bright older kids aren't challenged sufficiently.

Such concerns led to a 1998 revision in the Kentucky law, giving local school councils the power to decide the extent to which multiage grouping should be used, effectively making it easier for schools to opt out.

Some argue, however, that schools are phasing out the approach just as teachers are getting the hang of it. Ellen McIntyre, an associate professor of education at the University of Louisville, says state teachers have learned more about varying instruction to meet students' needs. She also claims multiage grouping has boosted academics by promoting a greater emphasis on writing in the early grades. "It was a way to nudge people toward more developmentally appropriate practice," McIntyre says. "I'd go through It all again for what it's brought to Kentucky."

—Linda Jacobson

Vol. 15, Issue 3, Page 11

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