Special Report
School & District Management

Should Older and Younger Kids Be Grouped Together?

By Alyson Klein — November 05, 2019 8 min read
Grouping students of different ages, but similar abilities, can be a feature of personalized learning, but the impact of this approach still needs study.
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Lincoln Elementary decided to take its personalized-learning approach to what the Belvidere, Ill. school saw as the next logical step: creating multi-age classrooms, initially by combining kindergarten and 1st grade, for the 2018-19 school year.

The benefits, as Principal Beth Marchini and her teachers saw it, were obvious.

The school’s youngest struggling learners could get extra time to master kindergarten material. More advanced “lowers” (the new term for kindergartners) could jump into 1st-grade-level math or reading as soon as they were ready. And high-flying “uppers” (formerly known as 1st graders) could serve as mentors and role models for the lowers, who were brand-new to school.

The multi-age-grouping approach should be a key feature of personalized-learning initiatives, some personalized-learning advocates say. But the jury is still out on the impact it actually has on student learning.

A year in, Marchini sees promise in the approach, which is now also being tried with combined 2nd and 3rd grades.

“While it’s not perfect, it’s definitely a step in the right direction,” she said. “Structurally, we needed to make a change so that we could set up a system where we could begin to remove some of that time element” for mastering material for our kids.”

The process has required the school to rethink not just curriculum but scheduling, classroom organization, data, and teaching methods, Marchini and her staff say. “This is messy, and it’s not comfortable,” she said. “We’re really teaching in beta.”

For now, there’s little to support the idea as having either a positive or negative impact on student achievement. That is the case even though some personalized-learning experts see multi-age grouping as a necessary step for ensuring that instruction is tailored to each student.

“It is more difficult to do effective personalized learning without multi-age. Multi-age creates a structure that’s aligned with the strategy,” said Jim Rickabaugh, who previously served as director of the Institute for Personalized Learning, a nonprofit based in Pewaukee, Wis., that helps districts navigate personalized learning.

But, he added, a shift in teaching and learning has to accompany the changes in grouping.

“We really think of school as instruction, how we’re going to organize for instruction, not how we are going to organize for learning.” That challenges the “underlying assumptions of how schools work,” he said.

‘It’s a Lot of Work’

The organizational hurdles associated with moving away from a school system that’s centered around grades may be a big part of the reason why the strategy isn’t used widely. Nearly 60 percent of K-12 teachers said their school doesn’t group students of different ages together, according to a nationally representative survey of nearly 600 educators conducted by the Education Week Research Center this year. Just 30 percent said their school tries the approach “sometimes,” and only 12 percent reported consistently using multi-age groups.

Indeed, even teachers that are fans of a more individualized approach to instruction say that putting children of different ages in the same classroom would be a tough logistical lift.

The benefits to students of using multi-age grouping were obvious, says Beth Marchini, the principal of Lincoln Elementary.

Michele Kitanov, who teaches 6th grade in the Triton Regional school district in Massachusetts, said that years ago, she was at a school that considered multi-age grouping but ultimately decided it wasn’t a good fit.

“It’s a lot of work, it’s a whole different mindset,” she said. Nowadays, it might be worth reconsidering that decision, given the growing expectations for a more personalized approach to learning, she said. But pulling off multi-age classrooms would be very difficult, given that “standards are so directed at the grade level,” Kitanov said.

To be sure, multi-age classrooms aren’t new to the era of personalized and competency-based education. The one-room schoolhouse, a staple of the early American education system, used a multi-age model by necessity. It’s also been a hallmark of the Montessori movement, which started more than a century ago, and emphasizes a more personalized approach to learning.

In the 1990s, Kentucky, a pioneer in education redesign, called for schools to group elementary students by ability rather than grade level. But the state moved away from that policy, in part because teachers complained that it was difficult to figure out how to appropriately group students.

“It’s an old idea, but it’s an old idea that’s becoming more relevant because of the personalization push,” in K-12 education,said Jonathan Plucker, a professor of talent development at the Johns Hopkins University School of Education in Baltimore.

‘Surprisingly Thin’ Research

The research on whether multi-age grouping actually contributes to improved student achievement is “surprisingly thin,” Plucker said. There isn’t much data investigating its impact on schools, either positive or negative, he added. “This is a great example of something that’s becoming hot, but because it is so understudied, we can’t give good advice to districts.”

But Plucker suggests there is a good reason why schools might at least want to give multi-age grouping a shot: Classrooms typically have students whose abilities are at a range of grade levels, even if they are all the same age.

“Our model now is to have a classroom where they are all roughly the same age, but ability and achievement is all over the place,” Plucker said. “How do we move to a system where we have a much tighter range of ability and achievement and the students ages’ are all over the place? That’s the key question with personalization.”

Trying to group students by ability, rather than age, isn’t easy. But the Kettle Moraine district near Milwaukee has been at it for more than half a dozen years. Schools in the district may combine kindergarten with 1st grade, 2nd with 3rd, and so on, or they may combine 1st grade with 2nd, or 3rd with 4th. Middle schools have classes that span three grade levels. Teachers typically “loop” with their students, meaning that children will stay with them for both grades and get new classmates after the first year.

It was a bumpy adjustment at first—including for families—but it’s been worthwhile, said Laura Dahm, who taught in multi-age classrooms in the district for nearly a decade and is now its director of instructional coaches.

“We always say elementary school and youth sports are the only places that are grouped by age,” she said. “We work with people of different ages, we sit around the dinner table with people of different ages. We have kids who will walk when they are ready to walk, be potty trained when they are ready to be potty trained. But in kindergarten, they all have to be ready to read on the same day.”

The multi-age structure gives students more time to master grade-level content, Dahm said. Older students in the classrooms can serve as mentors, teaching younger students routines like how to line up and store materials in a cubby, so that the teacher doesn’t have to do it. And it’s easier—and carries less of a stigma—to customize instruction for individual students.

“It started to be less about what does every 2nd grader need and more about what does this child need,” Dahm said. “We have really grown to a point where there was no value associated with what grade level you were on.”

Older students bullying younger students has not been an issue, she added. In fact, because the teacher spends so much time building up the learning environment in these multi-age classrooms, students tend to “stand up in new ways to ‘protect’ the climate of the classroom,” and are more likely to self-regulate their behavior, she said.

Curriculum Misalignment

The Waukesha STEM Academy, a charter school also near Milwaukee, has gone beyond combining a grade or two. The school has what Principal James Murray describes as a “full-blown competency-based” system for its K-8 students. Students move on in the school’s continuum as soon as they are ready.

But it took a lot of work, including enlisting a coder and developer to create the online platforms and adaptive systems needed to track student progress.

Educators at Lincoln say older students have more opportunities to mentor younger ones in multi-age classrooms.

“Kids needed the resources to move forward when they were ready,” he said. “We built a lot of that from the ground up because we couldn’t find anything that was already built at that time. We drew it out on napkins and we started building spreadsheets and wrote codes with it.”

The sheer logistical challenges of carefully tracking each student’s achievement data to make sure that he or she is in the right spot based on ability is something teachers at Lincoln Elementary in Illinois have grappled with. In fact, even just making sure teachers’ schedules line up in a way that makes multi-age grouping possible has been tough.

Morgan Peterson, who teaches a 1st grade of both English and Spanish speakers, said that she was paired last year with the kindergarten teacher next door. By the end of the year, she said, a handful of kindergartners were meeting regularly with her students for reading group. And some of her 1st grade students went down to the kindergarten for extra help.

The arrangement seemed to benefit those students, but there were still plenty of bumps. “There’s some misalignment of the curriculum,” Peterson said. “In 1st grade, we are working on writing words and writing sentences. And kindergarten is working on writing letters. It’s a huge difference; there’s a big gap.”

This year, the exchanges aren’t as easy to facilitate, in part because Peterson’s schedule doesn’t neatly align with the kindergarten teachers she’s paired with. But overall, she thinks the shift has forced her and her colleagues to look more closely at student data and use it to personalize learning.

“This model truly allows us to be more responsive to individual student’s needs,” Peterson said, “We can get where we want to be, but there’s a lot of growing pains and some hurdles along the way.”

Coverage of whole-child approaches to learning is supported in part by a grant from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, at www.chanzuckerberg.com. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the November 06, 2019 edition of Education Week as Older and Younger Learning Together

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