Where Have All The Nongraded Schools and Classrooms Gone?

(Feel free to sing this to the tune of Where Have All The Flowers Gone

By Peter, Paul, and Mary.  Give special emphasis to the line

"Oh, When Will They Ever Learn")

Nongraded schools have been around a long time, even before the graded school and classroom was introduced in the 1840's by Horace Mann, secretary to the Massachusetts Board of Education. 

I've put his name here because I need someone to blame for our educational shortcomings.  I know it's simplistic thinking on my part. 

Mann looked to Europe for guidance and examples of highly functioning school systems that lead to an educated and productive workforce.  Thus, an assembly line model where children of the same age are assigned to a grade level and learn specific curriculum designed for that grade was introduced.  Teacher training schools began to focus on preparing teachers to teach primary, intermediate, or junior high or high schools.  Teachers began to specialize in a particular age (grade) group and sometimes on a particular subject.

On the other hand, Nongraded education is the practice of placing, grouping and teaching students of varying grades, ages, skills, needs, and gifts in the same classroom.  The individual child becomes the focus and drives program, curriculum, and the teaching that occurs.  Teachers, naturally, have a different philosophy about teaching and learning and certainly need a broader range of skills and knowledge.  They particularly need a deep understanding of human growth and development, learning/teaching styles, and how learning occurs.  They must be able to group students according to skills, interests, and knowledge rather than age, and still address social and emotional differences between each student.  They do all this while they maintain an eye on helping each student become a self-directed, autonomous learner.  Once they reach this level, and it can and does occur in elementary school, the teacher can become more of a guide-on-the-side, so-to-speak, and guide rather than be in charge of everything a student learns.

Another premise of a nongraded program is that learning is continuous and often does not occur in the formally designed time frames we find in graded classrooms.  Each student is different and learns at different rates and in different ways.  Here a teacher's knowledge of human growth and development, learning styles, and multiple intelligences, is vitally important.

Think about how a child learns to talk and walk.  Nobody sets out a plan and time frame to teach their children to talk and walk.  They do it when they are ready.  They babble and cry and one day say "dada."  Sorry Mom!  They are carried around until they crawl around.  One day they just get up and stumble around taking those first steps.  So, I ask, why can't reading and math and a ton of other things come when kids are ready for them? 

I believe in choice.  Parents, children, and even teachers should have a choice in the kind of schools and programs available to them.  Every state and school district should have diversity among their offerings because, well, it's their right and they pay for it.  Graded, Nongraded, and the new kid on the block, Charter Schools (which can be graded or nongraded,) all have their place.

So, if I am correct in my thinking, where have all the nongraded, multiage and continuous progress schools gone?  They once were a big part of our educational system, especially from the mid-seventeenth to the mid-twentieth century. Today, the number of schools in the United States is shrinking.  In Australia, New Zealand, Netherlands, Germany, Finland, and Canada the concept is growing and, in many cases, has become the norm.  These are countries that outscore us in Math, Science, and Reading.

One would think that academic and social research studies do not support nongraded programs.  However, research studies (J. Goodlad, R. Anderson, B. Pavan), as a whole do support nongraded education as a viable alternative to graded education.  Again, generally, research studies show that academically, students in nongraded, multiage programs do as well, if not better than students in graded classrooms.  This means that we can stop worrying that our children will be harmed in nongraded programs with well-trained teachers and good leadership.  And, as frosting on the cake, socially the nongraded programs lead to improved student attitudes toward school, peers, and schoolwork, along with fewer discipline issues and better attendance. 

So, where have all the nongraded schools gone?  I believe it is a mult-faceted problem with many issues.  Here are some:

  • No Child Left Behind requirements and testing
  • No extensive training programs for teachers and administrators in university programs featuring nongraded and multiaged theory and practice
  • No general support from school systems for innovation and diversity in program offerings
  • It is harder to teach multiple ages and there are not a lot of support systems in place
  • Sometimes the classroom environment needs changing and there is little money for it
  • Teachers need a variety of curriculum and school districts usually go for a set adoption of texts for each grade level, leaving little funds for schools that need a variety of materials and use a complex variety of approaches
  • We need better research and more long-term studies.

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In summary, nongraded schools are still in use across the United States and in other countries, but frankly, not always well designed, implemented, supported and appreciated as good for kids.  Instead of being treated and utilized as a viable and researched based pedagogy for any school and grouping of students, it is relegated to small rural schools, multiage programs, or, gasp, as an alternative for failing schools and programs: a program born of desperation.  This is, of course, just my opinion.

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Note:  Joe Rice, is a 26-year veteran teacher, reading specialist, preschool through 8th school principal in public education, and has an additional 17 years as head of a preschool through 12th private independent school.  During these years, he founded and led a magnet school dedicated to nongraded and multiage education in Washington State and led a progressive multi-dimensional school in Hawaii