Educators Anxiously Lay Groundwork For Nongraded Primary-School Classes

By Deborah L. Cohen — June 19, 1991 7 min read

When Fonda S. Crawford, a 3rd-grade teacher in the Somerset, Ky., school district, first learned of her state’s mandate to transform traditional K-3 classes into nongraded primary units, she admits to being “scared to death.”

Like many of her colleagues, she said, she could not help recalling failed “open classroom” experi-ments of the 1960’s and wondering, “How is this going to work?”

After attending an institute sponsored by the state education department last week on primary-school reform, though, the Hopkins Elementary School teacher said she emerged “in a lot better mood.”

“The more I’m getting exposed to what this is all about, it’s really opening my eyes,” she said.

Ms. Crawford is one of thousands of Kentucky teachers responding to the nongraded-primary mandate with a mixture of skepticism, trepidation, and enthusiasm.

The requirement may not have been one of most prominent aspects of Kentucky’s landmark school-reform measure, which became law a year ago this spring, but for the educators who will have to put it into practice, it is a profound change indeed.

Some teachers “don’t quite understand what the primary-school program is all about and they’re afraid of it,” said Cindy Heine, associate executive director of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, a citizens'-advocacy group. “But when people grasp it and see how beneficial it can be, they get pretty excited about it.”

In recent years, early-childhood experts have become concerned that an overreliance on “lockstep” teaching and testing methods are driving up retention rates in the early grades and increasing the chances of later school failure.

Research documenting the benefits of mixed-age and mixed-ability grouping was a “driving force” behind the reform legislation in Kentucky, where 22 percent of the children who entered kindergarten in 1986 had been retained by the time they reached 3rd grade, said Linda F. Hargan, an associate commissioner in the education department’s bureau of instruction.

While a growing number of schools nationwide are exploring multi-age grouping, the Kentucky mandate--which requires all elementary schools to start implementing K-3 units in the 1992-93 school year--is the most sweeping of its kind. (See Education Week, Dec. 6, 1989.)

The mandate “is a much bigger task than anyone in the legislature in Kentucky ever envisioned,” said Phillip L. Harris, professional-development director for Phi Delta Kappa, which has sponsored several training sessions on nongraded units for teachers in Kentucky and elsewhere.

“Our biggest fear is changing from our traditional teaching methods to a totally different program,” said Ms. Crawford.

To help alleviate such concerns for teachers and administrators, the state education department has spent some $400,000 in the past year on training programs related to the primary-school initiative.

Besides launching a wide range of staff-development activities--including an educational-television program--on the concept, the agency has held two institutes for teams of teachers and administrators from each elementary school. It has also awarded grants to groups of districts in key regions of the state to explore and offer feedback on the concept.

Many districts, meanwhile, have launched or are planning their own training sessions and workshops to orient their staffs to the primary initiative. Eastern Kentucky University, which has held several workshops on the topic, has agreed to supply or arrange training for a consortium of 22 school districts.

Many schools have used the past year as an “awareness” period in which to educate teachers and parents and plan curricula, scheduling, team-teaching strategies, and new systems to report student progress.

And several intend to start phasing-in aspects of the program this fall--such as mixed-ability grouping and team teaching--beginning with a few classrooms or subjects.

While many still have concerns and questions, those “who at first said it was a terrible idea ... have at least come to the point where they’re saying, ‘I want to try and see if this will work,”’ said Shelby B. Reynolds, instructional supervisor of the Rock Castle County school district.

Ms. Crawford said the recent institute exposed her to practitioners who have successfully launched such programs elsewhere and alerted her that “there are some methods we’ve already been doing” that fit into the nongraded approach, such as thematic units, whole-language reading, and hands-on mathematics.

One of the most daunting aspects of implementation has been the lack of requirements set out by the legislature, which left program design up to local schools.

In a state that has a history of prescriptive education regulations, “We’ve never had that kind of freedom before, and it’s blowing our minds,” said Julia Pratt, a 2nd-grade teacher in the Monticello Independent School District who will be one of the team leaders in her school’s primary program.

“The most difficult thing for [schools] to understand is that there is not one right way to do this,” said Ms. Hargan.

Others, such as Mr. Harris, also say the lapse in both research and practice in nongraded schooling since the 1960’s has left Kentucky educators with few guideposts.

“They wanted to go to some meeting and have someone hand them a working model they could take and put in their schools, and they weren’t getting that,” said Bruce Bonner, director of a laboratory school at eku that has applied for one of 14 state grants for schools to be resource sites.

To provide more guidance for districts, the department last week issued a program advisory that offers direction in implementation and defines seven “critical attributes” of pri8mary units, such as developmentally appropriate learning, mixed-age classes, assessments based on observation rather than formal tests, team teaching, and parent involvement.

The guidelines encourage districts to implement programs gradually over two to three years.

While many districts are well under way in planning or starting implementation, noted Ms. Heine of the Prichard Committee, others “are sitting back and haven’t done anything and are hoping it will go away.”

Besides concerns about scheduling, teaming, and tracking children’s progress, she and others note, some fear that mixed-age and ability grouping will not meet the needs of either gifted or slow learners.

Linda Hardwick, a 2nd-grade teacher in the Monticello district, said she fears mixed-age grouping will be tough socially or promote “bad habits” in younger pupils.

And Ms. Crawford said she wonders whether older children stand to gain as much as younger ones.

Ms. Pratt also noted that it has “taken a lot of explaining” to sell the idea to parents, who often are leery of mixing different age groups and nongraded progress reports.

Both parents and teachers are also unsure how pupils will fare when they move into standard 4th grades.

“A big problem is what happens at the end--did they pass or did they fail? You can cover that up for four years, but you have to be accountable at the end,” said Ken Henson, dean of education at eku

To address that issue, he said, the university’s laboratory school is one of several schools that are considering “carrying over” the nongraded approach into grades 4-6.

Ms. Hargan also argued that “supporting elements” of the reform law--from preschool and extended-day programs to family-support services--will help pupils achieve expected outcomes during the K-3 years.

In the Jefferson County school district, where two schools began piloting multi-age classes five years ago and several others are now implementing nongraded classes, many teachers initially were skeptical about where they would find the “time, effort, and energy” to do well, noted Patricia P. Todd, the district’s director of school restructuring.

But “all the early work” was rewarded, she said, as they began to see that the program’s flexibility “helps all children, no matter which end of the curriculum they’re on.”

Ms. Pratt and Ms. Hardwick of the Monticello schools also say the mandate has fostered collaboration and creativity among teachers.

As parents learn more, they also become more receptive, said Ms. Heine of the Prichard Committee.

“When you get to the nitty-gritty of what the intent is, they’re in agreement,” Ms. Heine noted. “My only fear is that we’ll expect too much too quickly and be too critical” when schools move slowly, she said.

Robert Anderson, co-author of an influential book on nongraded classrooms with the education researcher John I. Goodlad, said that two years may give schools time to “adjust themselves psychologically” to the nongraded philosophy.

But “to fully develop that may well be the challenge of a decade,” he said.

A version of this article appeared in the June 19, 1991 edition of Education Week as Educators Anxiously Lay Groundwork For Nongraded Primary-School Classes