Our current system of educating young children is based on age – and nothing else. Age grading was developed in 1848 and hasn’t been really challenged since. So, for over 160 years, we’ve put five-year-olds in kindergarten, six-year-olds in first grade, seven-year-olds in second grade, and so on. (Even one-room schoolhouses divided students by age.) This is all regardless of each student’s strengths and weaknesses in individual subjects. Being passed from one grade to another was based solely on if the student passed a majority of the subjects satisfactorily – and those ‘passing’ grades are highly subjective, especially in the lower grades.
There are exceptions; some parents decide to hold their children back so they are older than their classroom peers, some parents push their children forward, perhaps skipping a grade so they are younger than their classroom peers. However, on average, each grade of school is based on age and all students, regardless of their abilities, are grouped with others their same age.
The thinking behind age grading is that most seven-year-olds can learn what we classify as second-grade material, while a five-year-old probably couldn’t comprehend it and an eight-year-old would grasp the concepts very quickly and thus become bored. For a majority of humans, this approach has worked adequately. Not truly successfully, but adequately, for 160 years.
But it has become abundantly clear that this approach needs to be reconsidered. We are at a crossroads in education, needing to keep up with technology while preserving some form of logic thinking. Educators have done an adequate job with the technology; students take numerous standardized tests via computer these days, but have dropped the ball on having students think logically. And then Common Core came along and tossed everything we knew out the window.
Truly, if you believe that the only way to conceive of 5x3 is to only think of 3+3+3+3+3, then we definitely have failed, with a big fat ‘F’. Logic dictates we can solve the problem with five 3s or three 5s – that’s logic. But Common Core teaches students that the correct breakdown of 5x3 is 3+3+3+3+3 and that 5+5+5 is wrong. No, it’s not wrong; it’s an additional way of solving the problem and should never, EVER be marked wrong. Marking it as wrong, even when it’s right, just makes the student distrust both his/her own thinking, but to distrust the educators as well.
So, Common Core (and its parent statute, the No Child Left Behind law) is a failure, as most educators and parents would agree. But with no understudy in the wings, we are stuck with it, frustrating students, parents, educators, and administrators alike. So where do we go from here? What is the NBT?
First, I believe we need to re-think the age grading. While some schools offer honors courses at the grade-school level, with the lack of funding and cutbacks most districts have to deal with, these honors courses are few and far between. There is also the mainstreaming of those with mental and emotional disabilities that create chaos when dealing with a classroom of twenty-five to thirty eight-year-olds.
(Please note that I am in NO WAY saying those with disabilities should not get an education, to the best of their ability to learn.)
What is needed is ability grading. Starting at six-years-old, test the student on his/her abilities. If he/she tests at a third-grade reading level, put the student in a third-grade reading class. Don’t make the student suffer through two years of reading below what they already know – it just frustrates the student and can make them act out.
I’m stating this because I lived it. In the fourth grade (nine-year-old) I was tested on my reading ability. I was reading at a high-school freshman level. There was minor talk about moving me up a grade, as most of my other scores were above my level as well, but as I was already one of the youngest students in my grade, it was decided to keep me in with my peers. (I also was admonished back in the first-grade for writing cursive because ‘it hadn’t been taught yet.’) I wonder where I’d be today if I’d been able to truly learn at my level. (It got so bad that I never had to take home a textbook my entire senior year to study and still graduated with a 3.98.)
With ability grading, a six-year-old student may be in a third-grade class for reading, but be in with their own age peers for math. Having them change classrooms based on their ability might take some major scheduling, but with today’s computers, it shouldn’t be the detriment in getting our students to learn at their own level in various subjects. Grade school teachers would be assigned based on their ability to teach that subject – just like in high school.
For example, a teacher is certified to teach math for grades one through six. The typical school day can be divided up into six or seven periods; first period, the teacher teaches first-grade level math to any student who tests at that level. Second period, second-grade math, again to any student who tests at that level. Of course, the hope is to not have a ten-year-old in a first-grade math class, but if that’s what is needed, that’s what should happen.
All this takes into consideration the almost-perfect bell curve of human intelligence (which most educators and politicians tend to ignore – thus the ‘No Child Left Behind’ act which has to be the most stupid piece of legislation to come out of the Bush administration; well, behind the Patriot Act, that is.) There are those who will excel, typically your top 10% of intelligence, then there will be those that just will never get it, no matter how much money you throw at them, those will be the bottom 10%. The remaining 80% of us fall right in the middle, some of us on the lower end, some of us on the higher end.
Thus, knowing that 10% of human intelligence will just never ‘get it,’ we need to re-think our goals for our education system. No matter how you cut it, not everyone will go to college, even if college was free. For those, we have factory, manual labor, and some technical jobs, and a lot of those with lower intelligence excelled in that type of work. We need to acknowledge this, not ignore it. There is nothing wrong with manual labor or factory work and we need to stop demeaning these types of jobs.
And for those students on the top end of the scale, we need to challenge them. If that means we have a seven-year-old learning math at a sixth-grade level, then so be it. As stated, we need to get rid of the ageist theory of learning and play up our students’ strengths and give them extra tools to shore up their weaknesses. While teachers would still learn how to teach at an ‘x’ grade level, we wouldn’t call students by what grade they are in (no more, ‘wow, he’s smart for a second-grader’ or ‘she doesn’t seem to be getting it for a third-grader’). They are grammar students and that is it.
Somewhere around the age of ten or eleven, we would then test them again to see who might be ready for junior high and who might need more schooling before moving up (as I realize most school districts have different buildings for different grades at this time; an ideal situation would be of course, to have K-12 campuses, but that’s a pie-in-the-sky ideal in today’s economic climate.) Then a couple of years later, test again to see who is ready for the high-school classes. A final exam around the age of seventeen to determine, a) if the student is ready for graduation and b) where they should go from there (junior college, tech/trade school, university, or additional high school courses). Thus, the student is only subjected to three ‘standardized’ tests throughout their entire public educational career instead of the dozens required today.
Lastly, while advancing with peers is a time-honored tradition, I think we place way too much emphasis on it. I truly believe that if we challenge our students, give them tools to learn, to expand their knowledge, to truly learn logic at their appropriate level, we could eliminate some of the issues students currently face. Some students become bored and act out; some get frustrated because they just don’t understand the material and act out. Playing to their abilities in each subject can eliminate some of the boredom and frustration and the students can channel their energy into this new-found empowerment. I know nothing will ever stop the bullying completely, but I believe this approach can decrease the occurrences and possibly the severity.
I would love for this to become a pilot project somewhere. It would take time and money, neither of which are in abundant supply when it comes to education. To receive any meaningful results, it would need to be at least a ten-year project with funding that can’t be cut off before the results (as happens quite frequently these days when there is a major political change).