Caution: Road work ahead

Commenting on states’ use of growth models to satisfy NCLB, Secretary Spellings reminds us: ‘…they must lead to all students achieving at grade level or better in reading and mathematics by 2014.’

What exactly is ‘at grade level’? Who decides?

Kati Haycock of Education Trust added this clarification: “Actually, the law sets a goal of all kids (or, actually, not quite all) PROFICIENT by 2014. Some states (–and, frankly, also the Secretary of Education) just like to use the term ‘at grade level’.”

Progressive reformers introduced grade levels, which are simply age-group divisions, into American public schools in the mid-1800s as a convenient way to organize students in the more efficient factory-model.

As my TLN colleague Nancy Flanagan observed,”How great it was to be reminded that someone had to think up both ‘grade level’ work, grades as a way of dividing children into like groups, and letter grades.  They’re by no means natural or effective, just a way to control children and make it easier for adults.  Interesting that the label is the same for all three, and a synonym for leveling roads.”

One of the many things I dislike about the grade level system is how it creates boxed thinking on the part of teachers. We begin to define our teaching within the box to which we have been assigned.

For example: If I’m the 6th grade teacher, I want my students to come to me “ready” for the 6th grade, according to whatever my curriculum guide says a 6th grader should do. And I deeply resent it if I have students who are not ready for that yet. “You expect me to go back and teach ‘3rd grade’ level information???”

I have always been interested in the concept of children moving through the educational process without grade levels, and wonder what our schools would be like if that were the norm. I do think we should have objectives, learning goals, etc., but why should every student have to meet them on the same calendar as everyone else?

I know this is not a new concept, but it strikes me as odd that we spend so much time and energy remediating and lamenting students’ non-readiness because we try to push them through the system regardless of whether they have learned or not. Without the stigma of grade levels, a student could move quickly through language arts, but at a slower pace through mathematics. The exit goals could stay the same–but the paths to it could be so much more productive and less stressful, especially as our classrooms extend beyond our brick and mortar classroom boxes.

Roads can only be patched for so long.

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