Ageless Grade Levels?

grade levels

This month’s post could easily have been titled “Education’s Long, Divisive Debate of Teaching to a Child’s Developmental Age versus Chronological Age” — but I thought that might be too long ūüôā

No matter what you title this debate the question remains the same: Why do we continue to divide up students by how old they are versus how many skills the know?

My Classroom this Year

In Special Education, we have a variation of the same problem. Many of our self-contained classes are mixed grade/age/ability/learning difference levels.¬† For example, I currently teach 6th, 7th, and 8th graders in our Autism-Core Class. I am teaching state required common core standards that must be scaffolded according to my students’ needs as well as integrating their IEP Goals as the overarching compass of our units. My students range from ages 10-14, with ELD (English Language Development) Levels of 1-5 and a few EO’s (English Only) learners sprinkled in. When assessed, my students are reading anywhere from a 3rd-7th¬†grade level. Math is a little higher, probably because it’s universal in any language and more concrete in content.

Now, some educators would balk at the learning makeup of my classroom and advocate for grade-level specific classes. But I say, this is how it should be.

We Started Off with 1 Teacher for All Grades

If you’re a “Heartie” or a fan of shows like “Little House on the Prairie”¬† or “Anne of Green Gables” (I love her!) or even just remember a little of your Frontier History, you’ll note that there was one teacher for all of the kids in the town. That teacher was responsible for instructing whole group lessons in all core content areas and differentiating was required across K-12 subject-matters.

Really it was an administrative decision based on funding and student enrollment. There was one teacher that needed to teach to everyone.

Age Division is Partly Based on Administrative Necessity

It’s just plain easier to put all of the 9 and 10 year-olds together and call it Fourth Grade. The reality is that when working to place so many students, particularly within the public school setting, it is more convenient to group by ages and then, if the school and district chooses, to branch out from there. Some schools have various differences within the age level programming, such as Gifted and Talented, but few public schools structure their groupings with a focus on mixed-age levels determined by skill mastery.

Yet there are more supporters of this type of class groupings within the last 10 years than was previously thought (a few snippets of the conversation below):

What’s really frustrating, though, is that it seems like everything from text-books to games to a student and parent’s mindset is categorized by ages and grade levels in place of skill mastery. Due to the limited to no-retention policies, a fifth student who has not yet mastered their multiplication tables will go on to sixth and seventh and eighth grade and possibly be more behind in that skill area as the years go by.

Here’s What I Want¬†

What I would like to see in the span of my teaching career is a move away from grouping students by chronological age and grouping students more by what they know. If a 3rd grader is ready to go on to 5th grade reading but needs more time in 2nd grade math, then let that be our guide in how to structure classes and provide the right support, intervention, instruction and content for that student.

With technology, our society is becoming more and more individualized. My hope is that education jumps on board and begins to guide a student throughout their academic career by what they know instead of how old they are.

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Terry Tutors Specialized Education Services, Inc. is a 501(c)(3) charitable and educational nonprofit with a focus on providing wraparound academic, behavior and advocacy support services for struggling students in southern California. Learn More at TerryTutors.com

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A Development-First Approach to Learning

be-you-tifulAcceptance versus tolerance. What to change versus what to keep. How to improve without losing the core of what makes you, you? We pose these philosophical questions to ourselves and often think the answers will reveal themselves as time goes on and life continues. And as our confidence in our own abilities improves, so does our interpretation of ourselves.

The Current Problem: Teaching to the Middle

In education, we struggle with these thoughts as well. Standardization has proven incomplete to assess the whole child and although we’re trying (ie: Common Core)¬†we haven’t been able to agree on a better path of testing.

The classroom is about averages. There is a standard-bell-curve approach to teaching. We know there will be some kids who dip below while others excel in that subject. Mostly, however, we teach to the middle.

But what if we could approach the classroom just like we approach our own self-development?

Currently, the system is set up so that once you turn five, you are¬†automatically¬†moved forward, up the educational escalator, until you’re 17/18. We agree that retention is not a viable option anymore due to its negative social implications,¬†yet we also agree that not all students are ready to move on¬†to the next grade even though they are the “right” age.

This herding issue creates major problems during formative years as well as after graduation. For example, a student may naturally struggle in peer-to-peer play but excel in reading or vice-versa. Yet we move that student to the next grade level, not because they are truly ready to transition but because we want them to be with their initial class. We are afraid they will be left behind. A spiraling-effect ensues, thus creating a student who struggles in multiple areas.

A Real Solution: Measuring According to Development instead of by Age

On the educational escalator, we fail to place emphasis on development and by doing so we fail to embrace a whole-child approach to teaching and learning. Teachers, parents, and other students have a profound effect on a child’s social-emotional development, which¬†helps a child’s cognitive abilities. Transitioning when the child is ready developmentally versus transitioning when the child is a certain age makes more sense.

Turning six doesn’t automatically mean she’s mastered all areas of development and is ready to be successful in first grade. Heck, turning 36 doesn’t mean I’ve automatically mastered how you’re supposed to be in your 30’s (whatever that may look like).

The range of development, the spectrum of differences, is a concept we learn to accept when we have more life experience. When life has kicked us around a bit and we’ve had to learn the hard way.

Our educational system is a reflection of our culture. In our culture, we place so much emphasis on achievement by a certain age, when in reality we may hone those social-emotional-physical-cognitive pieces of development at different ages.

And that’s ok!

Christine Terry, J.D., is the Founder & Executive Director of Terry Tutors Specialized Education Services.

She created the One Wraparound Service for The Struggling Student, which includes Academic Support, Behavior Management, Special Education Advocacy and School Placement services. Christine truly loves helping struggling students realize their inner potential and the possibilities that await them in and out of the classroom.

Everyone is Special. There is No Normal and That’s a Good Thing

special40 years ago a public school’s Special Education program resembled more of institution than a classroom. Today, with the inclusion model in full force our Special Education programs seek to mainstream even the most severe children.

Extra Attention Paid to Special Students Takes Away from Rest of the Class?

Some educators and parents disagree with the inclusion methodology because there will inevitably be extra-needed attention paid to that one special student while the rest of the class waits for the teacher to get back to general lesson.

I understand their point. Inclusion looks good on paper but it doesn’t always work in practice. However, that argument is too linear for today’s classroom because the times really are a changin’.

There are More Special Ed Students in General Ed Classrooms Than Ever Before

The push and pull of the special education spectrum is ever-changing, and today’s classroom includes a greater number of Special Education students than ever before.

The National Education Association agrees:

Over the past 10 years, the number of U.S. students enrolled in special education programs has risen 30 percent. Three out of every four students with disabilities spend part or all of their school day in a general education classroom. In turn, nearly every general education classroom across the country includes students with disabilities. Each school and school district must determine the best way to conduct programs and figure out how to pay for them.

This trend isn’t ending anytime soon.

The fact of the matter is that with new diagnosis, new cognitive neuroscience research, new identified learning disabilities, and new psychological re-classifications (like the updated DSM-V, which does away with Asperger’s and instead diagnosis Autism with various severity levels) there will be more kids in the general education classroom receiving special education services.

This is not a bad thing because it means science, psychology, and education are beginning to merge, pinpointing how each individual learns best.

The More We Understand How Best Our Students Learn, The More We Realize There is No Normal

Was there ever really a “normal”, per se? Our education system seems to think so with its “normalized ranges” and standardized testing. The term normal has been replaced with the softer “grade level” and “developmental” verbiage. Although the nomenclature has changed, our generalized viewpoints have not. Our education system still believes there is a normal standard of achievement.

But normal is a variance. It is not concrete. It is not a one-size-fits-all ideal.

So the quicker we understand that each of the 32 kids in the class learns differently, the quicker we can get on with helping them identify and use the best tools and strategies to understand the lesson respectively.

Normal never was but different will always be. And that’s a good thing.

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Christine Terry, J.D., is a Special Education Advocate & Founder of Terry Tutors. She created the One Comprehensive Wraparound Service for The Struggling Student.  Want to Know More? Head on over to TerryTutors.com.