First Stirrings of a New Trend: Multi-Age Classrooms Gain Favor

By Deborah L. Cohen — December 06, 1989 15 min read

A character from Dr. Doolittle, the “pushmepullu,” guards the entrance to Lake George (N.Y.) Elementary School’s “green cluster,” one of several classrooms specially arranged for instructing children of varying ages together.

The name of the two-headed creature in papier-mache captures what is happening in this and other experimental primary-grade settings where age and competitiveness have been deemphasized.

To proponents of ungraded or mixed-age classrooms, letting pupils develop at their own pace helps those at differing ability levels push and pull each other along.

Programs built on such a philosophy shun the restriction of individual grade levels. They offer, instead, flexible groupings that encompass a two- to four-year span, allowing movement between levels for those pupils ready to advance or needing more help in a subject.

Lilian G. Katz, director of the ERIC clearinghouse on elementary and early-childhood education at the University of Illinois, says the arrangement is “emerging as a possible trend for a number of reasons.”

Conventional grading, she explains, assumes “that if you put children with the same age group, you can teach them all the same thing, at the same time, and on the same day, and that’s an error.”

“We’re missing a bet by trying to educate children in litters,” Ms. Katz argues.

Many schools experimented with ungraded classes in the 1960’s, often unsuccessfully. But the concept is drawing renewed attention today as a way of curbing ability tracking and grade retention, two factors a growing number of educators identify as the detrimental precursors to failure for some young children.

Experts also see ungraded units as a way to steer schools away from competitive and overly academic instruction in the early grades and toward methods grounded in hands-on learning, play, and exploration.

With school-reform efforts focusing more and more on the importance of the early years, notes Vito Perrone, director of teacher-education programs at Harvard University, there has been growing recognition of the “need to provide children with a very strong base ... out of which they can move confidently” into the upper grades.

“People are asking how to assure that the early years are not years of failure,” says the Harvard educator. One way, he suggests, is to ''think about the primary years as a developmental period where some children will move more rapidly than others.”

The National Association for the Education of Young Children promoted that view in its 1987 guidelines on “developmentally appropriate practice,” which have gained broad recognition in the field.

Taking the concept a step further, the National Association of State Boards of Education issued a report last year calling for new primary-school units to provide developmentally paced learning for 4- to 8-year-olds. The National Association of Elementary School Principals is expected to issue similar recommendations next year.

“Virtually every policy report is suggesting that approach is a more developmentally sound way to deal with individual differences among children at that age,” says Harriet Egertson, administrator of the Nebraska Department of Education’s office of child development.

“When you open up the curriculum so it deals with a wide age range,’' she insists, developmental disparities become “a boon rather than a bane.”

Many schools in British Columbia now have ungraded K-3 units, and the provincial government there, acting on the recommendations of a royal commission on education reform, has mandated such units for all primary schools by 1990. The plan would extend the continuous-progress model through the upper grades by the year 2000.

But while some middle schools here have moved toward more flexible grouping in recent years, few elementary schools have yet “fully embraced a primary ungraded unit,” Mr. Perrone notes.

Many have, however, taken what he describes as “steps along the way’': teaching more than one grade together, and keeping pupils with a teacher for two years instead of one.

In addition, several states, among them Arizona, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, and Texas, have recently curtailed paper-and-pencil standardized tests in the early grades, and some are reinstituting more play-oriented kindergartens.

To move developmental theory into the early grades, some states and districts also are eyeing ungraded units.

For example:

The Pittsburgh school system plans to explore the concept of multi-age grouping for K-3 pupils at eight schools next year as part of a five-year plan to restructure its schools.

A California task force on school readiness last year urged a reshaping of classrooms for 4- to 6-year-olds, to offer “integrated, experiential programs,” “drastically altered” assessment methods, smaller classes, and better training of early-childhood teachers. A new elementary-school task force named by the state superintendent is expected to draw on the readiness panel’s work.

The Florida legislature is expected to reconsider next year a measure that would encourage more “developmentally appropriate structures” in the early grades, including ungraded K-3 programs, and discourage retention in kindergarten and 1st grade. The bill died this year.

Oregon lawmakers are also expected to reintroduce a measure that would encourage districts to enhance primary programs for at-risk pupils, with developmental primary units offered as one option.

Ungraded classrooms, researchers point out, date back to the “one-room school” that was the norm up until the 19th century.

As the author-educators John I. Goodlad and Robert H. Anderson note in The Nongraded Elementary School, the current system of grouping pupils by grades developed partly in response to the public-school movement’s demand for efficient ways to organize large numbers of children.

They and other educators also cite the role of European instructional influences, teacher-training schools, the textbook industry, and standardized testing in institutionalizing a system predicated on mastery of specific items at specific grade levels.

Critics of the system have argued that it fails to accommodate wide variations in children’s rates of learning, and have decried the use of “social promotion,” retention, and grade skipping to place students who fall behind or move ahead of their grade-level peers.

Most recently, educators and child psychologists such as David Elkind, author of The Miseducation of Young Children, have raised concern about the effects of rigid academic programs and early grade retention on young pupils, whose developmental patterns vary widely and who are particularly vulnerable to being stigmatized as slow learners.

To eliminate the need for such practices, proponents of ungraded schools advocate a “continuous progress” model that allows pupils to advance from one concept skill level to the next as they are ready, regardless of age or grade.

Mr. Goodlad and Mr. Anderson cite 1970’s research showing that standardized achievement-test comparisons “tend to favor” nongraded programs, and that pupils in those programs may have improved chances of good mental health and positive school attitudes. The ungraded model, they suggest, is “particularly beneficial” for minorities, boys, underachievers, and low-income pupils.

Comparisons of achievement in graded and nongraded programs are inconclusive, maintains Bruce A. Miller, a rural-education specialist with the Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory and author of a new handbook for rural educators on multigrade classrooms. But data on attitudes and peer relations, he says, have “tended overwhelmingly to favor multi-age grouping.”

The amount of current hard data on that topic is limited, but advocates cite research highlighting the pitfalls of retention and the benefits of methods often used in multigrade settings.

“When you combine the evidence from cross-age studies, mixed-ability grouping, and cooperative-learning literature, you’ve got a super case for mixed-age grouping,” Ms. Katz says.

Despite scattered forays into open schooling, team teaching, and individually guided education--all approaches that tap elements of the continuous-progress model--graded schools remain firmly entrenched.

In “The Multigrade Classroom: A Resource Handbook for Small, Rural Schools,” Mr. Miller notes that multi-age grouping arrangements have played a powerful role in rural schools out of “economic and geographic necessity.” But in the educational mainstream, Mr. Goodlad and Mr. Anderson write, “nongrading never became a movement as such.”

Of 200,000 one-room schools identified in 1918, for example, fewer than 1,000 existed in 1980. Elements of the ungraded approach did become “driving forces in school organization” in the 1960’s and 1970’s, according to Mr. Miller, but most “efforts to recapture the ideal of the one-room school were unsuccessful.”

Experts say a considerable number of classrooms with two or more grades remain. But as of 1986, Mr. Goodlad and Mr. Anderson report, there were no statistics available on the use of nongrading, “either separately or as a component of programs.”

NASBE may be able to offer more data and case studies on multi-age grouping in the early grades next year, as part of a project on primary schools and reform it has undertaken with a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

But in general, say the authors Goodlad and Anderson, “the language of current educational reforms makes only rare references to the various synonyms for nongrading.”

The “ungraded primary units” being promoted today bear little resemblance to earlier ventures, and, in the view of many experts, may stand a better chance of success.

“When you start thinking about kids developing in similar ways but at different rates, it makes you question” practices that “put kids in a batch and expect them to be the same,” observes Lynn Stuart, primary-education coordinator for the Cambridge, Mass., public schools.

Multi-age classrooms, she says, offer “real potential for a naturalistic, lifelike setting where kids can learn from each other.”

Some educators have shunned the term “ungraded,” notes Carolyn H. Cummings, a consultant for the NAESP, because “it brings back the open-classroom idea ... that got such a bad rap originally.”

Because the open-classroom idea became linked with other 1960’s fads, Ms. Egertson explains, “there was a lot of counterculture associated with [it] that made people uncomfortable, even though that wasn’t the background of the movement.”

“This time,” she suggests, “it’s a much more mainstream movement.’'

Sharon Meinhardt, early-childhood-education coordinator for the Georgia Department of Education, recalls that “a lot of people perceived it to be without structure, [a situation in which] everybody was pretty much turned loose to do their own thing.”

This misperception stemmed largely, she says, from the failure of early-childhood specialists to “articulate the structure that undergirds a good program.”

Laura Mast, a consultant for the North Carolina Department of Education, adds that in earlier trials parents were not sufficiently informed about such efforts--or sold on their merits. “We didn’t truly educate our public as we were moving along--particularly in knowledge of child development,” she says.

The open-classroom movement also suffered from what Susan Bredekamp, director of professional development for the NAEYC, calls a “misinterpretation” that it required “literally tearing down walls.” That approach became untenable for many teachers because of the noise level and confusion, she notes.

“The true conception did not have anything to do with space, but with a conceptual difference” in how children learn, Ms. Bredekamp says.

Efforts at multi-age grouping stand a better chance now, says the NAESP’s Ms. Cummings, because “we have considerably more information about how children learn.”

“We’re trying to reinitiate that process with a great deal more knowledge,” adds Ms. Mast.

Other experts warn, however, that several obstacles must be overcome for the “reinitiation” to succeed.

The NAEYC has stopped short of promoting ungraded units, for example, depicting them as merely “one strategy to implement developmentally appropriate primary-grades curricula,” according to Ms. Bredekamp.

“You can still achieve an individualized curriculum” in graded classes, Ms. Bredekamp says, “if there is good communication between teachers ... and you don’t have rigid expectations or promotion standards.”

“We have to recognize the fact that not everybody is trained to work with multi-age grouping,” she adds. “Teachers have been trained to think in terms of discrete grade structures,” she suggests, and may not be prepared for major structural changes.

Ada J. Hand, a child-development consultant for the California Department of Education, points out, for example, that teachers who raise objections to the state readiness panel’s proposals tend to say, “I have three years of developmental stages in my class as it is--don’t give me more.”

Such concerns, she contends, stem from “a lack of understanding of developmental stages,” and could be allayed with proper training.

Studies on the effectiveness of multi-age grouping show, Mr. Miller says, that “the most critical variable is the skill of the teacher.” Ungraded methods generally require better organizational skills, more work, and more support from administrators, he maintains.

“In the absence of that [support], it is very difficult to make that kind of radical change,” says Sandra Feldman, president of the United Federation of Teachers in New York City, a district pilot-testing ungraded K-3 units at two schools.

Such undertakings are not necessarily more costly once they are established, says Robert J. Ross, principal of Lake George Elementary School. But, he adds, “There is no question that it takes more time in planning.”

Some also note that textbooks have foiled efforts to regroup children.

Mr. Goodlad and Mr. Anderson have argued, for example, that texts keyed to grade levels “nurture conformity and tempt teachers to cover material whether or not it is appropriate to the wide range of individual differences among pupils.”

The early ungraded movement, they say, did not “succeed in weakening the stranglehold of the publishing industry, whose fortunes were geared to selling complete sets of textbooks for each grade level.”

The lack of curriculum materials for ungraded approaches “makes it really difficult for teachers who are inclined to do it and don’t have the confidence to strike out on their own,” Ms. Egertson agrees. But, she adds, some materials for whole-language reading, manipulative math, and technology-based writing are suitable for a mixed-age approach.

“The more publishers respond, the better we’ll be able to bring it to the forefront,” she concludes of the new movement toward multi-age primary units.

But some experts question whether curriculum development has advanced enough to support multi-age grouping. They also fear, Mr. Perrone notes, that the push for national goals and uniform testing programs could work against such reforms.

Others argue that the ungraded approach is itself flawed.

Its backers have not, says James K. Uphoff, director of laboratory experiences at the College of Education and Human Services at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, “publicly acknowledged what the literature of the 1960’s said about ungraded multi-age units--that 30 to 40 percent of children will take not four years, but five years to get through grades K-3.”

William Thompson, executive director of communications for the Philadelphia school system, says that when that district tried continuous-progress models several years ago, officials found the reverse--that too many children were being “moved along” without adequate preparation.

“We did not find that to work over time,” Mr. Thompson says, “and we don’t anticipate going back.”

Proponents, however, are confident that one major drawback for earlier attempts at multi-age grouping--their misalignment with trends fostered by the reform movement--may be receding in importance.

In the 1960’s, Mr. Perrone notes, educators were exploring “real books and activity-oriented approaches” associated with developmental approaches, but the “back to basics” movement of the early 1970’s “undermined a lot of the interest.”

An increased emphasis on testing and the “push downward” of formal academics to earlier ages that continued in the 1980’s also discouraged ungraded approaches.

In North Carolina, for example, schools had taken early steps toward continuous-progress formats for grades K-3 as far back as 15 years ago, Ms. Mast recalls. But the “strong push for test scores and teacher-performance appraisal that came with the accountability movement sort of washed that out,” she says.

More than 60 percent of the state’s 5-year-olds had been in continuous-progress programs, but the proportion has dropped to 7 percent.

Phil Blackwell, director of elementary instruction for the Cobb County, Ga., schools, says that state mandates “specifying at what level certain things should be taught have made it more difficult to be nongraded.”

While the mandates were intended to help raise the performance of some districts, he says, they “did not enable us to be as progressive as we once could be.” His district has nonetheless persisted in exploring developmentally appropriate approaches.

Mr. Perrone, among others, points out that the reforms being promoted as schools move into the 1990’s could be more hospitable to multi-age classrooms. “There is much more commitment to providing teachers and individual schools more room,” he says, and there is optimism that schools will be “given more autonomy” to experiment.

Multi-age grouping also holds more promise now, Ms. Egertson argues, because it brings together practices at the forefront of current reform thinking, including team teaching, cooperative learning, literature-based reading, and reductions in “pull-out” programs for remedial and special-education students.

By grouping children more flexibly and gearing instruction to meet a wide range of abilities, “we are better able to meet the needs of all kids right in the classroom,” says Susan Spangler, director of elementary curriculum for the Millard, Neb., schools.

Where earlier ungraded classrooms tended “to group children by their similarities of ability, rather than what grade they were in,” Ms. Katz points out, current efforts focus on “maximizing and capitalizing on differences between children.”

Others say the growing diversity of the student population works to the ungraded movement’s advantage.

“The changing demographics, more than the philosophical arguments, will force us into a search for school practices designed to accommodate these individual differences without loss of educational quality in schools,” conclude Mr. Goodlad and Mr. Anderson.

“The environment right now is probably more conducive than it has been for 15 years to developmental programs in the early years--and to an ungraded primary as one direction,” Mr. Perrone concurs.

A version of this article appeared in the December 06, 1989 edition of Education Week as First Stirrings of a New Trend: Multi-Age Classrooms Gain Favor


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