Friday, January 21, 2011

The Problem with the Graded Schools

One-hundred-ten years ago, the Superintendent of Public Instruction for Michigan recognized in his annual report of 1901, the inherent problem of a ridged graded school system that expects every student to pass through grade levels on the basis of age alone:

Another question is that of grading and promoting pupils. Close grading assumes that every pupil can do nearly the same school work in the same time. We think we understand the normal five-year-old, sixyear-old, seven-year-old, and know how much reading, numbers, language, science, etc., he ought to compass. Having arranged the course of study accordingly, we attempt to fit every pupil into it. But every teacher finds that pupils do not easily fit into these grades, and then begins a struggle distasteful to pupil and nerve-destroying, sometimes conscience-destroying, to teachers. The questions of aptitude, intellectual development, character-building, are made subservient to "making the grade." Then follows the inevitable cramming process, and the resulting destruction of originality, personality, and self-reliance—a devastation that never ought to be truthfully charged against any institution, much less an educational one.
On the other hand, there are those pupils who by nature or because of environment have a grasp and comprehension that is far beyond that of the normal child. Such find the work too easy. They make no great efforts, and are thus defrauded of the best results of study. The easygoing work makes them easy-going pupils. They become indolent; they are put to sleep. In this manner many a brilliant intellect has been lost to the world. If it is an injury to the dull child to stretch him to the grade, it seems a crime to the brilliant one to cramp him into it. (p. 49)

Despite his reasoning being representative of a limited understanding regarding differences in a child's intellect of the time, generally he was spot-on as to the serious flaw in the one-size-fits-all graded system.

Yet, we still employ this relic of our infatuation with what was seen as the efficient industrialization or our education system and scientific management of schools. We've even made it a key factor determining whether our schools are considered successful or not.  High stakes tests for students at specific grade levels and "on time" graduation ensure that graded schools will be around for many years to come.

Guess we need to think about it a little longer.  Let's not be hasty, after all it's only been 110 years!
Even as far back as 1862, the concept of promoting students from one grade to the next was to be based on demonstration of learning rather than age. W.H. Wells, Superintendent of Public Schools in Chicago wrote this in his popular tome, "A Graded Course of Instruction for Public Schools:"
No pupils should be advanced from one grade to another, till they are able to sustain a thorough and satisfactory examination, by the Principal, on all the branches of the grade from, which they are to be transferred, including the oral lessons, use of slate, etc. They should be able to read any of the pieces they have gone over, with proper expression; explain the meaning of any of the words; give the names and uses of the different marks used; and spell any of the words, both by letters and by sounds. In the Grammar divisions, the examinations should be both oral and written. When practicable, all promotions from one grade to another should be made at the commencement of a school month.
Whenever the scholarship of a pupil falls behind the rank of his class, he should be sent into the class next below, unless by extra effort he is able promptly to regain his position. (p. 106)