Information for Parents About
Nongraded (Multi-Age) Elementary School

by Jeffrey M. Jones, M.D..,Ph.D.

Précis

Elementary and secondary students have traditionally been placed in graded classrooms corresponding roughly to their ages. This method of grouping students has been a useful administrative tool; however, it has also been a grouping method which efficiently establishes targets for student achievement and which is readily understood by parents. Enhancements within the traditional graded classroom allow attention to be given to children who are progressing at differing rates in their cognitive achievement (reading, mathematics, language, etc.). Nongraded (or multi-age) grouping refers to a practice in which students who would be placed in different grades are combined in the same classroom setting for perceived educational benefits. There are many different approaches to nongraded grouping. At one end of the spectrum of nongraded programs, one finds those such as the Joplin Plan, where students are placed in traditional grades for most of each school day, but nongraded grouping occurs for one subject, usually reading or mathematics. At the other end of the spectrum, one finds comprehensive nongraded programs or Individually Guided Education (IGE). These programs feature learning plans tailored to each student (individual learning plans), one-on-one teaching by the teacher or peers (other students), and intensive use of small group activities.

The variety of nongraded programs has made it difficult to gauge the effect they have on student achievement. Research studies comparing the nongraded and graded approach have used small numbers of students and reached varying conclusions. The quality of the research reported has varied greatly. Several educationists have reviewed reports in which achievement of students in nongraded and graded programs are compared. These reviews give us some insight into how consistently nongraded programs may benefit student achievement. Most studies of the nongraded approach have dealt with the primary grades (K-3). Thus we have only limited information to use in judging claims for the benefits of nongraded schooling for older students. The reviews of studies comparing nongraded and graded programs indicate that the nongraded approach may offer some benefit with respect to noncognitive student achievement (e.g., attitude towards school, social adjustment, and personal adjustment). One clearly cannot conclude that all nongraded approaches benefit cognitive achievement. In fact, when the magnitude of the effects (effect sizes) of nongraded schooling are determined for a large number of program evaluations without paying attention to the kinds of nongraded programs used, one cannot show with any confidence that nongraded programs have a beneficial effect on cognitive student achievement. However, when one examines the effect sizes for different kinds of nongraded programs, one finds that Joplin-like programs are likely to improve student achievement whereas more comprehensive, individualized programs are not as likely to do so. Thus, when grouping is done to enhance teacher-directed instruction, it benefits student achievement. However, when it is done solely to provide a framework for individualized instruction, one cannot be certain it will benefit student achievement compared to a traditional graded approach.

The published reviews of research on nongraded elementary school programs have analyzed data from studies done between about 1960 and 1985. Therefore, one can only speculate about the impact which innovations popular among some educationists today would have when incorporated into a nongraded educational program. However, the conclusions reached from reviews of past research on the nongraded classroom indicate that adding such innovations to a comprehensive nongraded program is likely to be deleterious to cognitive student achievement. For example, use of abstract outcomes, poorly defined competencies, or ill-defined standards and formal portfolios to demonstrate student alignment with outcomes in a nongraded classroom setting are likely to decrease emphasis upon the teacher-directed instructional methods that have been shown to work. Such innovations are also likely to overburden teachers undertaking nongraded teaching assignments. Both of these factors would lead to decreased student achievement in key subjects such as reading and mathematics.

What Do Educationists Mean When They Talk about Multigrade, Multi-age, or Nongraded Classrooms for Elementary Students?

Parents often express concerns about their children being in classrooms that include students who would traditionally be placed in separate grades. They have many questions. Is this an experimental program? Will my child's achievement be accelerated or inhibited? How will I know my child is performing at "grade level"? Is this part of outcome-based education or some other educational fad? Is it appropriate to use this approach throughout the elementary school? Educationists implementing the programs will naturally reassure the parents. They may cite research supporting the usefulness of this type of program. On the other hand, they may portray the program as "innovative" based upon more "modern philosophies" of education. Parents must be careful not to indict a nongraded program as harmful just because it appears to be new or different from what they encountered as students. On the other hand, educationists are known to promote use of programs which mix what is proven with unproven innovations or to promote what is truly experimental as proven. I think some information about the nongraded classroom would be useful for parents.

I will first provide some definitions and historical background. Then I'll describe the findings of several published review papers which have examined research studies of nongraded student grouping. Finally I will use the conclusions of these research reviews to provide parents with some guidelines to use in evaluating programs in which their children may be asked to participate.

Some Useful Definitions

One problem parents often face in listening to educationists is determining what the terms they are using truly mean. The terms may mean different things to different educationists and may not mean what parents think they mean. Therefore, I need to provide you with some definitions before we proceed further with this discussion.

Everyone can agree that graded classroom grouping refers to the traditional practice of grouping students by age and assigning a grade level to each grouping created. For example, all 8-year-olds are placed in the 3rd grade, all 9-year-olds in the 4th grade, and so forth. Such classrooms are usually heterogeneous in terms of the ability of students except perhaps for the most low-ability students. I will define multigrade classes as those in which students from two or more traditional grades are taught by one teacher in one room at the same time. Students in multigrade classes retain their respective grade-level assignments and their respective grade-specific curricula. Such classes are generally formed for administrative and economic reasons. The one-room rural school house might be considered an example of multigrade education. Multi-age grouping or nongraded (ungraded) grouping refers to a practice where both age and grade levels are deliberately mixed for educational purposes. The student is kept with the same teacher in the same class for a number of years, usually three. It is important to keep straight that multigrade classes are formed out of necessity, but multi-age (nongraded) are formed intentionally for their perceived educational benefits. I will use the term nongraded grouping to refer to the latter for the remainder of this presentation.

Nongraded elementary school can refer to a wide range of school and classroom organizational configurations. The main idea of the grouping scheme is the elimination of traditional grade levels in setting instructional goals. Students are allowed to proceed through some or all of a curriculum at their own rates. Sometimes nongraded grouping is done within traditionally graded classrooms for one or two subjects (usually reading or reading and mathematics). For example, the Joplin Plan is a program where students remain in separate graded classrooms for most of the day. The students are regrouped for a part of the day on the basis of a single ability irrespective of the grade level or age of the student. Thus the Joplin Plan is basically a graded school with an enhancement requiring limited nongrouping. In more comprehensive nongraded programs students are placed in a nongraded environment for multiple subjects. Yet another program could have students placed in self-contained multi-age classrooms according to their reading performance or general ability (this might be called nongraded tracking). It is remarkable that the term nongraded grouping can apply to all of the grouping configurations I have just described.

A Historical Overview: the Rationale for a Nongraded Elementary School

In rural areas of the United States and other countries the multigrade classroom was used as a necessity. The number of students available and economics dictated this approach. The consolidation of rural schools has continued unabated for the past 60 years in the United States so the "one room school house" is now largely a sentimental memory. The dominant organizational pattern for the vast majority of elementary schools during this century has been the grouping of children by age in classes of 25-30 students taught by one teacher, who in general teaches the class the same curriculum. On one level, this arrangement has served merely an administrative function. But it is also an efficient method which is readily understood by parents. It also tends to establish grade specific goals to be reached for reading, mathematics, language, and other subjects. Parents have some means for judging if their children's achievement is at "grade level." Within each classroom of a graded school, especially in the primary grades (K-3), it has become common for the teacher to divide students into small groups for brief periods of time during a school day and to differentiate instruction to the perceived (low, medium, or high) ability of the students. The idea here is to look at the skills the students need to achieve and to help students attain those skills. In addition to the basic classroom pattern, the graded school may provide classes for remedial and, occasionally, for advanced students. These classes range from all-day affairs to pull-out approaches. Thus, the graded school has undergone evolution over the past several decades. This is important to keep in mind because critics often assail it as a system which has been completely static in its organization since 1930.

While its durability says something about its usefulness, the graded classroom has been the object of continued attack over the years by a significant number of educationists. Its critics have claimed there are no demonstrated principles of learning and/or growth and development undergirding age related grouping. Advocates for the nongraded approach present the arguments summarized in Table 1.

Table 1 Arguments for Nongraded Primary Education
Voiced by Advocates of These Programs
[Modified from Ellis and Fouts (1)]
  • Chronological age and mental age do not always correspond.
  • Children are able to work at different developmental levels without obvious remediation, thus avoiding the social or emotional damage typically caused by retention.
  • Students stay with their teacher for more than 1 year providing for continuity of learning.
  • Age and achievement differences are accepted as normal by children.
  • Nongraded arrangements lend themselves to integrated curriculum.
  • The increasing diversity of contemporary society is more easily accommodated by nongraded programs.
  • Nongraded grouping leads to more positive student attitudes and behavior, with no loss of academic achievement.
  • Nongraded programs are more in keeping with the way children in naturalistic settings spontaneously group themselves for play and projects.
  • Nongraded programs avoid many of the drawbacks of traditional practices, such as retention and acceleration issues.
Many feel that perhaps the strongest motivation for use of the nongraded approach has been to provide an alternative to both retention (holding a child in the same grade for the following year) and social promotion (that is, promoting students regardless of performance). On the one hand, there is the sincere belief that retention is harmful to students, is applied inconsistently, and fails to account for variable development ("late bloomers"). A retained child will repeat the whole year of content he or she failed to learn the first time. Spending the second year going over the same curriculum seems to be a poor practice for low achievers. Advocates of nongrading argue it is better to allow such students to move more slowly through material and never have to repeat unlearned material. Of course the issue of adverse effects on student self-esteem with retention also arises.

It is interesting to note that the major implementations of nongraded schools have occurred during periods of time when there was intense interest by the public in improving standards and accountability in schools. It is logical to assume that as demands for performance to higher standards occur, social promotion becomes more difficult. The nongraded classroom offers educationists an escape from this troublesome problem. It is not surprising that major implementation of the nongraded classroom occurred in the early 1960s when the United States was reacting to the scientific advances made by the Soviet Union--the "Sputnik reaction." The demand for higher standards and accountability may be one of the stimuli for the greater popularity of nongraded classrooms in the 1990s as well.

The nongrouping programs used in the 1960s involved changes in grouping patterns but not fundamental changes in instructional methods. Teachers still taught overwhelmingly groups of students using traditional instructional methods. The curricular structure often incorporated a continuous progress approach. Here skills to be learned in subjects such as reading and mathematics are organized into a hierarchical series of levels covering all the grades involved in the plan. For example, the reading curriculum ordinarily taught in grades 1-3 might be organized in four levels per grade, for a total of 12 levels for the entire nongraded period leading to grade four. In a continuous progress model students pick up each year where they leave off. The hierarchical curricular organization could be used for reading and mathematics. However less special grouping would occur for subjects such as social studies or science.

Starting in the late 1960s the nongraded approach began to fuse with another innovation, individualized instruction. Increasingly, descriptions of nongraded schools began to include extensive use of learning stations, learning activity packets, and other individualized, student directed activities. Another typical attribute was team teaching. For example, two-six teachers might occupy a section of the school and take joint responsibility for a large group of students, flexibly grouping and regrouping students throughout the day. As time went on programs such as these were implemented in schools without classroom walls and tended to be called open schools rather than nongraded elementary schools.

The final phase in the evolution of nongraded programs was Individually Guided Education (IGE), which was developed by Klausmeier and others at the University of Wisconsin in the late 1970s (2). IGE affects all aspects of school organization and includes not just grouping. Individualized learning plans are prepared for each student, and students are constantly assessed to determine their continuing placements. Instruction can be delivered one-on-one by a teacher or peer tutor (classmate) to small groups, or (rarely) to large groups. Extensive use is made of learning stations at which students can perform experiments, work on individualized units, or do other individual or small group activities independent of the teacher. A typical program could involved 100-150 students, a unit leader, 3-5 staff teachers, an aide, and a teacher intern.

More complex programs are difficult to sustain and explain to parents, particularly if student achievement turns out not to align with the parents' expectations. Thus, although most schools now have some attributes similar to the nongraded school, the traditional graded school is again quite common in the 1990s. Of course we are now in a period where there is once again heightened concern about student achievement, particularly for basic reading and mathematics skills in the primary grades. As mentioned previously, one can expect this to be a stimulus for use of the nongraded approach. Moreover, the "institutional memory" of the educational establishment seems to be about 20 years. Thus the nongraded school can now presented as a "new innovation" to be pursued by "forward looking schools." This time around however the implementation of the nongraded school may gather to itself new fads. Unfortunately, in some cases the true agenda behind use of the nongraded approach may be to get the fads into place. Some of these fads have been derived from the outcome-based education (OBE) movement. OBE is characterized by use of abstract outcomes to drive the entire educational process. Thus, primary students may be asked to demonstrate multiple strategies in reading. This may amount to little more than code words for "we're going to use whole language." They may be expected to "demonstrate environmental awareness," etc. Intensive use of performance assessments so that they become essentially the mode of instruction is another feature. And the school may require use of formal portfolios to catalog each student's performances. Teachers have traditionally used packets of class work at parent-teacher conferences to show parents what their children have been doing in school. These formal portfolios are a step well beyond this. Teachers must spend large amounts of time planning performance assessments and group projects keyed to the outcomes and putting their students' assessment products into portfolios. The research on nongraded classrooms I will describe in the next section will show that the various forms of the nongraded classroom differ in the likelihood that they will improve student achievement. We don't have research to show what happens when the OBE approach is introduced into a comprehensive or IGE nongraded program. My opinion is that analysis of the available research on nongraded schooling indicates that incorporating OBE-style practices into the nongraded classroom is likely to be neutral at best and could prove destructive.

Parents need to be informed about the various nongraded programs which can be used and alert to detect exactly what is being presented as a nongraded program for their children.

(Continued)


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