We sing a song in my class that borrows the tune of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” and goes like this:
Special, special, special me,
I’m as special as can be.
There is no one quite like me.
I’m as good as I can be.
Special, special, special me,
I’m as special as can be.”
We might declare that the anthem of education, were it not for the fact that we totally disregard its premise the minute we enroll students in school. Of course I can’t seem to find a catchy tune for “Now I’m five so I’m just like everyone else.” Doesn’t quite roll off the tongue.
Your great grandparents most likely attended a one-room school house where one teacher taught everyone from first grade to eighth grade, although many students only remained until sixth grade. Work and marriage often took the older ones away by the age of thirteen to fifteen.
Students in one-room schools were assigned separate tasks and skills for their grade levels, but were also exposed to everything else in the room and were allowed to do more advanced work when they had completed their own. Older students tutored younger ones. The system worked quite well until increasing populations required communities to divide students into more manageable groups.
Grade levels have been around for centuries and have been adapted and adopted by districts in a variety of ways. I went to 1st-8th elementary campuses most of my life, despite many moves. Now we have districts with divisions at elementary, intermediate, middle, or junior high school. But it doesn’t matter how they are separated, the foundation of the “graded” school begins with a child’s date of birth.
Adults like for things to be orderly, efficient, and manageable. Starting all of our five-year-old children in the same grade and expecting them to complete the same tasks and learn the same concepts and emerge in May or June with the same knowledge base seems perfectly reasonable. Keeping them together and moving them through the system at the same pace for eight or ten or twelve more years seems orderly and efficient…unless you know anything at all about children.
In the seventies my daughter attended a non-graded school and seemed quite happy in the system, but because we moved before the school year was over I didn’t get a chance to fully evaluate the results. And as a young mother I suppose I didn’t have much experience on which to base a comparison, but I felt that the basic ideas of the program were sound. Students were grouped by their assessed knowledge and skills and when they had learned a skill or concept they moved on to the next one. Small groups were constantly changing within a larger one and four teachers worked as a team to coordinate the learning of their group. Classes were held in a huge open room with dividers rather than walls. It sounds chaotic, but in fact was not. When I visited it seemed like everyone was working and learning. It was sort of like public education meshed with Montessori. The children were not placed in a traditional classroom until they reached the level of third grade.
That vision of an alternative school system has often replayed itself in my mind during the past few years as I watch new students enter my classroom. I know in my heart that at least three or more of them are not ready for the rigors of kindergarten, and I can tell you who they are by the end of the first week. By the ninth week of school I can usually predict who will need to be retained. I’m seldom wrong.
The problem is that the very foundation of education is wrong. Children are not alike. They never will be. I once had a student enter my classroom without any knowledge that the alphabet even existed, and another who could read at a first grade level by the time she was four. Unfortunately both of those students were in the SAME class strictly based on their date of birth. Tell me why that makes any sense at all. And while those are extremes, similar disparities occur each and every year. We cannot continue to accept the fantasy that every five-year-old is ready for school. We need to find a way to start children on their educational path and move them through the system based on an assessment of their readiness, not a number on a birth certificate.
Overhauling the grading system of most districts would require major changes and we all know how much we enjoy major changes. However, at some point we must reconsider what we are doing and find a system that respects, supports, and encourages the individual abilities and learning styles of our students. There has to be a way to let each child learn at their own pace and move on to new skills as quickly as they can. We have put so much emphasis on putting children with disabilities into regular classrooms, and “no child left behind” and “everyone can learn” that we have done a disservice to the very children we were trying to help. Now everyone is expected to reach the same goals at the same time and they are being punished for not doing so! If you don’t believe me, carefully read Oklahoma’s Reading Sufficiency Act.
If our goal is to have each child reading with fluency and comprehension by the third grade then we need to stop herding them like cattle and treat them like people...special people.