Education Opinion

Should Schooling Begin and End Earlier?

By Theodore R. Sizer — March 16, 1983 5 min read
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In January, New York Commissioner of Education Gordon M. Ambach announced that his department is studying a plan to have children begin their schooling at age 4 and graduate from high school at age 16. The 12th grade would be phased out. Below, Theodore R. Sizer argues against the proposal, and F. Champion Ward supports it.

Laval Wilson, superintendent of schools in Rochester, N.Y., has on the wall of his office a large photograph of three boys and three girls, all of whom were born in October, 1969. The picture was taken when the youngsters were about 12. They made a hilarious sight: Some were tall, some were short, some had curves, some didn’t--a real mixture of “children” and “young adults.” Prominently inscribed under the picture is the pointed question: “They don’t grow alike, so why should they learn alike?” Mr. Wilson feels so strongly about the conclusion of this rhetorical question that it is printed on his business cards. Mr. Wilson and the rest of us know that each of us grows at varying rates over time. Our birthdates mark the starting blocks in the race of life, but not a good deal more.

It is for this reason that I find New York State Commissioner of Education Gordon M. Ambach’s challenging idea of starting children in school a year earlier--at age 4--than at present to be ill-advised: It takes no more account of the significant variations in the rate of human development than does the present system.

Yes, some children are demonstrably “ready” for school at age 4, but some are not. The same can be said for 5-year-olds and 6-year-olds. And yes, some 16-year-olds flourish in the semi-autonomy of a college campus. However, some do not, and indeed some 18-year-olds do not. Thus, to argue pro and con about the “schoolability” of 4-year-olds is a misleading exercise: People vary too much for that.

What I wish Commissioner Ambach had proposed was a plan for more flexibility, for allowing children to enter school, and to progress within it, when ready and at a speed appropriate to each. I wish he had called for an end to that pernicious form of “tracking,” called age-grading, by which we process children. It hurts many students and wastes the time of many more.

The differences among youngsters become starkly evident when they reach the chronological ages of those children in Laval Wilson’s photograph. These youngsters don’t develop socially or intellectually any more consistently than they do physically. The celebrated Harvard College Committee on General Education in a Free Society asserted in its 1945 report that "... a group of representative 13-year-olds will show a span of some seven years in ability. About 5 percent of them will be as bright as the average 16-year-old, another 5 percent no brighter than a 10-year-old.” Definitions of “brightness"--or aptitude or readiness or achievement--have sharpened since then, but the Committee’s general point remains firmly proven. Categorization by age is, at best, a very crude device for serving students and at worst both harmful and wasteful.

Some people take longer to learn things than do others, but “most students (perhaps over 90 percent) can master what we have to teach them ...” So argues Benjamin S. Bloom, after reviewing several decades of his own and others’ research. “We believe that each student should be allowed the time he needs to learn a subject.” The task for educators, Mr. Bloom concludes in All Our Children Learning, “is to find ways of providing whatever time is needed by each student.” Having any set of lock-step, age-graded expectations flies in the face of this evidence.

Mr. Bloom is not alone. Julian Stanley of The Johns Hopkins University has long attacked, on the basis of his research with intellectually precocious children, “the age-in-grade, Carnegie-unit lock step of schools.”

He concludes in an essay in New Directions for Testing and Measurement: “In my opinion, age-grading for instruction in academic school subjects has crept insidiously upon us as we have moved from tutorial instruction and the one-room schoolhouse to the current situation. It needs to be reversed.”

Age-grading is a modern invention that arose just before the turn of the century from bureaucratic necessity rather than from convictions about human development.

It is neat and objective. It makes arguments easy for educators (“No, Mrs. Jones, your Bobby, precocious and outgoing though he is, can’t enter kindergarten this year because his birthday is in January, rather than December.”).

All manner of practices hang on it, from the switch from elementary to junior high or middle school to the junior prom. It dismays some students (“You’re below grade level, therefore you’re a failure.”) and inflates the egos of others, often for cruelly short periods of time. (We all know the 12-year-old presumed whiz kid who became merely a very competent scholar in senior high school--and felt defeated.)

The most familiar outcome is the youngster who is not challenged by the work of his or her own grade, and drifts through the year, doing some work, getting A’s, but remaining largely uninspired.

If one could quantify and put into dollar terms the time wasted in school in this way, there would be a national outcry. Age-grading contributes to that waste. Bureaucratically tidy though it may be, it hurts kids--because human development itself isn’t tidy.

Unfortunately, we often treat youngsters in school the way old Army doctors treated their patients. For the headache, it was two aspirins and lots of liquid, whether the cause of the malady was a hangover, a brain tumor, or an infected tooth. Mercifully, modern doctors, both in and out of the Army, have accepted the confusions of life and make distinctions among individuals. Many of the distinctions they are forced by reality to make require personal judgment--with which others can disagree. But good doctors still make such subjective judgments, as fairly as they can, because they know they must.

Educators should start doing the same thing. This will involve child-by-child negotiation, true personalization. It will take time--that most precious of a school’s resources--and it will lead to confrontations. School boards will have to set out reasonable, defensible criteria for student admission and progress in schools.

These tasks, as well as that of administering the new promotion system, are difficult and inevitably controversial. Moreover, the boards would then have to stalwartly support the administrators and teachers who must make the specific admissions and promotion decisions.

This won’t be easy. Age-grading, like giving two aspirins to everyone with a headache, is easy. It’s too bad it’s so wrong-headed.

In sum, I oppose Mr. Ambach’s new plan with no less fervor than I oppose the status quo. I wish we educators could accept the rich diversity of youngsters that is reflected in the photograph in Laval Wilson’s office, and build better schools where the growth and mastery of each student is made most important, with his or her chronological age relegated to the semi-important status it deserves.

But I applaud Commissioner Ambach for raising the “age” issue, even as I criticize his particular proposal. Perhaps the proposal will prompt a closer look at a more fundamental, though inconvenient, reality--that we herd children through our schools with far too little attention to their individual pace of learning.

A version of this article appeared in the March 16, 1983 edition of Education Week as Should Schooling Begin and End Earlier?


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