Once-Popular ‘Multiage Grouping’ Loses Steam

By Linda Jacobson — September 10, 2003 8 min read
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Cathy Jackson appreciated the way the 8-year-olds sometimes modeled positive behavior for the 6-year-olds in her classroom here. But beyond that, this Bowen Elementary School teacher didn’t see many benefits to Kentucky’s statewide effort to implement a multiage primary program.

“If you had high 1st graders with the 2nd graders, that would be great,” she said. “But you never know what you’re going to get.”

Stephen Tyra, the principal at this 730-student school on the east side of town, agrees. Since he arrived at the school in 1995, he has allowed teachers to gradually return to teaching a single grade. Before then, most teachers taught a mix of two or three grade levels—all within one classroom.

“Every chance we saw to return to a more traditional setting, we took it,” Mr. Tyra said. “A teacher can plan for a straight grade with much more depth.”

The shift away from multiage grouping that has taken place at Louisville’s Bowen Elementary is not isolated. Throughout Kentucky and across the country, the use of the teaching approach—which had gathered significant momentum in the 1990s—is declining. An annual survey conducted by the Kentucky Department of Education shows that since the 1998-99 school year, the percentage of the state’s public elementary schools using only a single-grade configuration has doubled, from 24 percent to 48 percent.

Jim Grant, the executive director of Staff Development for Educators, a Peterborough, N.H., company that provides staff-development services, is a well-known advocate of multiage grouping. He blames the slip in support on grade-by-grade academic standards and the consequences tied to not meeting those targets as measured by state tests.

“Many teachers report that it is getting harder and harder to have a multiage classroom with grade- specific standards,” Mr. Grant said. “The testing movement has created a lot of mischief.”

‘Feel the Heat’

Even though his teachers each have just one grade level now, Mr. Tyra, the Louisville principal, explains that his school is still following the 1990 Kentucky Education Reform Act, which says that the primary program should include “multiage and multiability classrooms.”

His teachers accomplish that objective, he said, by combining classes for special activities and by moving children who are strong or weak in a particular subject into classes that better meet their needs. And some teachers add, with a laugh, that in reality, any class will include older and younger students, with some having more advanced skills than others.

Still, Bowen Elementary School’s interpretation of the law might be falling short, a memo from Kentucky Commissioner of Education Gene Wilhoit suggests.

“A properly implemented primary program does not adhere to placement of students by age and grade level,” said the memo, distributed last spring in response to state data that showed more schools were moving away from using multiage grouping. “Instead, teachers organize learning and group their students according to each student’s individual needs and developmental level.”

Only a few miles away from Bowen Elementary, the teachers at Norton Elementary School are doing what they can to stay true to what state legislators originally intended: Children would move through the primary program at their own pace.

“It’s pretty individualized, but the concept [the children are studying] is the same,” said Kim Slusher, who teaches 1st through 3rd graders at the 720-student school. All her pupils, for example, might be studying poetry, but books would be targeted to their own reading levels.

Children at Norton are routinely shifted within the classroom for various activities, a practice that eliminates the perception of a low, medium, and high group, teachers at the school say. Throughout the year, kindergartners sometimes move into a 1st through 3rd grade class. And higher- level 3rd graders sometimes join 4th grade classes if the teachers believe they need to move ahead in a certain subject.

“That’s the beauty of multiage,” said Norton’s principal, Lynne Wheat. “There are no walls. Kids are constantly moving.”

Even so, she acknowledges that the emphasis on school test scores has made it harder to keep the multiage program intact. In fact, she’s considering separating out a few 3rd grade classes so teachers and the students can spend more time preparing for the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills, a nationally normed test given to that grade that is a feature of the state’s accountability system.

“The pressure is out there, and you feel the heat,” Ms. Wheat said.

She also pointed out that what the Kentucky Education Reform Act says about “developmentally appropriate educational practices” and multiage grouping doesn’t match well with “the accountability that we’re forced to adhere to.” (“KERA: In Midlife Crisis or Golden Years?,” this issue.)

‘Stunning’ Benefits

Certainly not a new concept, multiage grouping has existed for as long as one- room schools have. More contemporary forms of “nongraded” education date to the 1970s, when practices such as the “open classroom” gained adherents.

Schools have flexibility in how they group the grades. But the most common grouping is 1st through 3rd graders. And some research shows that there can be benefits.

“When you see it done well, it’s pretty stunning,” said Lillian G. Katz, the co-director of the ERIC Clearinghouse on Elementary and Early Childhood Education, a federally financed research center housed at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Indeed, blending children of different ages encourages them to take more responsibility for their own learning, because they won’t all be at the same place in the lesson, some studies have shown. In addition, some studies of children in multiage age classrooms have found that older students learn leadership skills and develop more tolerance toward classmates who are still learning a particular skill.

And because pupils in a multiage class will often have the same teacher for two to three years, anxiety over adjusting to a new classroom in the fall is reduced, teachers at Norton Elementary School say.

Proponents of multiage classrooms also say that the structure exposes younger children to knowledge and activities that would not have been introduced in a single kindergarten or 1st grade class.

“In a mixed-age group, younger children are capable of participating and contributing to far more complex activities than they could initiate if they were by themselves,” Ms. Katz wrote in a 1995 article on such practices.

Ms. Wheat of Norton Elementary adds that blending ages allows students to push themselves.

“When children of like abilities are grouped in a setting together, they will only do as well as they have to,” the principal said. “But when they are grouped by multiability, they want to shine.”

Problems Seen

While the demand for test-based accountability might explain why some schools are phasing out multiage grouping, Ms. Katz notes that, as with many educational practices, interest in the method builds and fades about every 25 years.

Concerns about the failure of teachers in multiage classrooms to effectively challenge their oldest students are not new and are the reason many parents have problems with the approach.

“Parents weren’t too hip on having their bright kid tutor all day,” Mr. Tyra of Louisville’s Bowen Elementary School said.

In her research, Julia Roberts—a professor at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green who specializes in the education of gifted students—found that the multiage program in Kentucky did not significantly affect achievement rates.

Too often, teachers overseeing mixed groups teach “to the middle,” she said.

“When you’re younger, it’s great for the kids,” Ms. Roberts said. “But when a child is the oldest, it’s fairly rigid.”

Sometimes, it’s the nonacademic aspects that seem to cause the most disruption. Older students, Mr. Tyra said, often took joy in spoiling holiday fantasies for their younger classmates. “It certainly blows Santa Claus, doesn’t it?” he said.

Beyond such concerns, some administrators have found that vast differences in social and physical development are too hard to manage in one class.

“It’s especially pertinent when you have 8-year-olds with 10-year- olds—puberty starts to kick in [for some of the older children],” said Galen Hoffstadt, the principal at the 675-student Luther Jones Elementary School in Corpus Christi, Texas. She previously worked at a school in the same district that used multiage grouping.

Similar concerns actually led to a revision in the Kentucky law in 1998, which stated that local school councils would decide the extent to which multiage grouping should be used, making it easier for schools to opt out.

Even Ms. Wheat of Norton Elementary School, a proponent of multiage grouping, adds that placing a new teacher in a multiage class can be overwhelming, and that it’s better for the teacher to develop her skills in a single grade first. She said the state expected teachers to do multiage grouping whether they wanted to or not.

“We threw them in the pit all at once,” she said. “So folks dug in their heels and resisted.”

A lack of adequate training is a big reason the multiage program has not flourished, said Annette Bridges, the manager of the early-childhood branch of the Kentucky education department. “It was a professional-development issue from the beginning,” she said.

Mr. Grant of Staff Development for Educators argues that Kentucky should never have attempted to require multiage grouping on a statewide basis in the first place. Such changes, he said, should be implemented at the school level, with plenty of teacher and parent input.

But even if schools in Kentucky continue to phase out the approach, teachers in the state still have improved their practice, said Ellen McIntyre, an associate professor of education at the University of Louisville.

For instance, she said, there’s a greater emphasis on writing in the early grades, and teachers have learned more about varying their instruction to meet students’ needs.

“It was a way to nudge people toward more developmentally appropriate practice,” Ms. McIntyre said. “I’d go through it all again for what it’s brought to Kentucky.”

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