Robert Blair, the principal of Southside Primary School in Shelbyville, Kentucky, thinks his state’s requirement that schools place young students of different ages in the same class is a good idea. He likes the family atmosphere multiage classes create in 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. “It’s the only way to go with little children,” he says.
But a good number of Blair’s colleagues around the state feel otherwise. In one University of Kentucky study, roughly half of the primary teachers surveyed in the spring of 1995 said they would get rid of ungraded classrooms if it were up to them. Earlier this year, state lawmakers seemed to move in that direction. They approved a measure that effectively weakens the mandatory practice, which had been a cornerstone of Kentucky’s sweeping school-improvement package. The policy shift allows local school councils to decide “the extent to which multiage groups are necessary” to meet the state’s education goals.
Ironically, the dissension in Kentucky over multiage classrooms comes at a time when research is building a stronger case for the practice. “There’s been a lot of research done, and some of it has been longitudinal, 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. Uphoff was once skeptical about multiage classrooms. “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 existed in this country at least as long as the one-room schoolhouse. According to Robert Anderson, a professor of education at the University of South Florida, single-grade classrooms did not emerge as a way of life in American schools until Horace Mann, the prominent 19th-century educator, created the first grade school. The prospect of factory work was pulling people from farms to cities, and children were going to school in greater numbers. “It was necessary to find ways of packaging large numbers of kids,” Anderson says, “and they came up with the age-graded arrangement.”
Multiage classes enjoyed a slight resurgence in popularity in the 1950s as interest in team teaching and open classrooms grew, but it wasn’t until the late 1980s that educators began to think of the ungraded classroom in and of itself as a way to improve learning. The arrangement was compatible with a wide range of new reform ideas--among them that children learn in different ways and at different paces and that they learn better when they work cooperatively in groups and engage in active, hands-on projects.
“At this point in this century, we know so much more about how children grow and develop and about motivating kids,” Anderson says. “The idea of 1st graders being relatively homogeneous--that doesn’t work anymore.”
To supporters like Anderson, grouping children in mixed-age classes has several advantages. For one, it gives younger children the chance to work with older, more experienced students, stretching them academically. But older children also gain, Anderson says. By teaching what they know to younger peers, they reinforce what they themselves are learning.
“In medical school, they say, ‘See one, do one, teach one,’ ” says Diane McClellan, an education professor at Governor State University in University Park, Illinois. “Well, children nowadays are not having many opportunities to teach other children something.”
Advocates of multiage grouping believe that allowing children to remain in the same classroom for several years--a practice known as looping--also enhances learning. Teachers, they say, don’t have to spend as much time in September getting to know their students and finding out what they learned the previous year. What’s more, few children in a multigrade setup get retained. Studies have shown that students who are held back a year in school stand a greater chance of dropping out.
Lilian Katz, a professor of early childhood education at the University of Illinois at Urbana, says she sees less competition among kids in these more heterogeneous settings. “Children in same-age groups participate in a lot of one-upmanship,” she says, “but that doesn’t happen with mixed-age children.”
On the downside, critics and proponents alike agree that multiage classrooms mean more work for teachers. And while the parents of some older students in such settings worry that their children are not fully challenged academically, the parents of younger ones fret that their sons and daughters will be intimidated by the skill, size, and behavior of the older kids.
The critics found support recently in a major review of international research on the topic. Simon Veenman, a researcher at the University of Nijmegen in the Netherlands, examined 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 those in which students of varying ages had been shoved together for economic reasons. Only 12 of the studies he examined fit neatly into the first group. Veenman found that, regardless of the motivating factor, mixed-age classes offer no real academic advantage over single-grade classrooms. He did, however, find that students in multiage classes scored slightly higher than students in traditional classrooms on measures of self-esteem and attitude toward school.
His conclusion: “These classes are simply no worse, and simply no better, than single-grade or single-age classes.”
Veenman’s study, which was published in the winter issue of the Journal of Educational Research, drew quick criticism. “The problem I find with his article is really with his selection of studies,” says Barbara Pavan, a researcher at Philadelphia’s Temple University who in 1992 did her own review of multiage studies. She contends that Veenman left out a lot of North American studies that point to more favorable outcomes. He excluded, for example, a number of studies in which the teachers had received special training on how to teach in the new mixed-age settings.
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 ungraded programs had higher achievement-test scores than peers in traditional classrooms. In 33 percent, such students performed just as well as regular-classroom students. In only 9 percent of the studies, she says, did they do worse. As for students’ self-esteem, confidence, and attitude toward school, Pavan found that ungraded 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.”
Another problem with Veenman’s study--and with most others on this topic--is that there is no way of knowing if the classrooms examined reflected progressive multiage teaching practices. Proponents of ungraded programs argue that classroom logistics are not enough; they must be coupled with reform philosophy. “If kids are grouped forever in ‘X’ reading group and they’re not treated more specifically, then that’s not multiaging,” says Barbara Nye, a senior research scientist at the Center for Basic Skills at Tennessee State University in Nashville.
Nye and her colleagues at the center are following 1,500 Tennessee students as they move from kindergarten through 4th grade in ungraded 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 is more hands-on and less reliant on textbooks than in traditional classrooms. Two years into the study, the results mirror Pavan’s. “Our analysis shows that students are doing as well 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 McClellan of Governor State University. “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 mixed-age classrooms in Illinois. Her findings, like Nye’s, are preliminary. But she has found that children in ungraded classrooms are more likely than their peers in traditional settings to include others--particularly less popular children--in their games.
“A mixed-age group is, by definition, a more 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 4th graders’ reading and writing scores are improving more rapidly than those of 8th and 12th graders. Of those three age groups, only the 4th graders have been legally required to be taught in multiage classrooms.
What’s more, Julia Roberts and her colleagues at the University of Louisville’s Center for Gifted Students have just completed a study that seems to challenge the notion that multiage classrooms limit learning for the oldest 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 matched the others geographically and economically. Students in the out-of-state classrooms, however, were enrolled in 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 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 to other reforms. In addition to ungraded primary schools, the state has adopted a new testing system that relies heavily on portfolios of student work. Schools are rewarded or sanctioned depending on their students’ progress on the tests.
Still, the question remains: Given the good news about multigrade classes, why has the Kentucky program been so controversial? “What happened in Kentucky is an example of what happens when a legislature mandates something,” Anderson says. “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 that such resistance to the mandate has led to widespread variations in the program’s implementation around the state. They discovered, for example, that the percentage of primary teachers adhering to the idea that students should be allowed to make continuous progress at their own pace is dropping. In 1994, when the researchers first surveyed teachers, 55 percent said they ran multiage classrooms supportive of that notion. 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.”
According to Blair, the principal at Southside Primary School in Shelbyville, 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.”
A version of this article appeared in the September 01, 1996 edition of Teacher as Mixed Bag