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The Slowdown of the Multiage Classroom

What was once a popular approach has fallen victim to NCLB demands for grade-level testing by Priscilla Pardini

Multiage education, hailed as recently as 10 years ago as a promising way to restructure schools and boost student achievement, has fallen on hard times. Interest in the issue has waned, with new research on the topic virtually nonexistent and attendance at national multiage conferences a fraction of what it once was.

Schools across the country are cutting existing multiage programs, or choosing not to begin new ones. Even the state of Kentucky, which in 1990 heralded ungraded primary education as a linchpin of its sweeping school reform effort, has seen the scope of its multiage initiative reduced by half.

Some trace the decline of multiage education to No Child Left Behind and its emphasis on standardized, grade-level testing. "[President] Bush's high-stakes testing has paralyzed the movement," says Jim Grant, one of the country’s best-known consultants and authors on the subject.

Others say it's not the standards movement per se that's to blame for the smaller number of multiage classrooms these days, but rather a general decrease in interest in programs that focus on the affective side of children's education.

"We've seen a pendulum swing toward academics and away from approaches that pay attention to what's happening to students emotionally and socially," says Susan Kinsey, a professor of early childhood education at Governors State University near Chicago.

Still others contend that multiage education has fallen out of favor because it means more work for the classroom teacher. After all, a typical multiage class includes children up to three years apart in age and even more disparate in terms of ability. Launching multiage programs also can be divisive, particularly in schools that house a mix of traditional and ungraded classrooms. And explaining the program's philosophy, mission and day-to-day operation to parents has proven difficult. Bruce A. Miller, senior evaluation advisor at the Portland, Ore.-based Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory, views the shift from a traditional to multiage approach as nothing less than "an evolving, long-term change at the deepest levels of teacher beliefs about how humans learn."

To be sure, the movement still has strong advocates, among them Kenneth Schatmeyer, a professor of teacher education at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio. The beauty of the multiage approach, he says, is that "when you do away with grade levels, it forces teachers to look at the individual needs of each child." He adds: "There's no research that shows that gradedness helps children at all. In fact, if anything, it's completely the antithesis of developmentally appropriate practice."

What's more, multiage programs are still going strong in many areas. Consider, for example, Sycamore Elementary School in Claremont, Calif., which has embraced the multiage philosophy ever since it opened in 1890.

“Let other schools do what they must," says Principal Tom Cooper, "but Sycamore will be ever-insistent in promoting the principles of multiage education.”

Stephen Daeschner, superintendent of the Jefferson County Public Schools in Louisville, Ky., also remains a believer. "We are very supportive of the philosophy of mixing up kids," Daeschner says. "And we've generally found that when a teacher understands the concept and how to teach multiage kids, we get better results out of those classrooms than straight-grade classes."

One-Room School

The multiage movement traces its origins to the one-room schoolhouses that dotted the rural American landscape from the mid-17 th to the mid-19 th centuries. Although born of necessity, such schools were in fact "very healthy," says Robert H. Anderson, a professor of education at the University of South Florida in Tampa and one of the earliest proponents of programs that deliberately mix students of different ages together in the same class.

Anderson, an AASA member since 1950 who also taught at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, has been researching multiage education for more than a half-century. He describes the one-room schoolhouse as an "accidental prototype of nongradedness" that served children well. "Older kids helped younger kids and [in the process] got insights into how the human mind develops and grows."

As the nation's population and its public schools grew in size, students were divided into grades according to their age. "It was more convenient," concedes Anderson. "Everyone could use the same textbook, the same curriculum. And teachers didn't have to know as much." But according to Anderson, what schools gained in convenience, they lost in terms of effectiveness. "Creating homogeneous groups never works," he says. "It's artificial. In any group of 6- or 7-year-olds you already have a tremendous range of ability levels."

Over the years, administrative expediency prevailed and the practice of dividing students into grades based on their ages became common practice. Unfortunately, says Anderson, who in 1996 co-authored one of the authoritative books on the subject, Non-Gradedness: Making It Happen, “The bad habits of the last 100 years continue to dominate the way people think about teaching and the way schools of education train teachers."

There were some exceptions to the practice of grouping students solely by age. Those included instances where one teacher taught two or more grades in the same room at the same time. Known as "splits," "combination classes" or "multigrade" classes, such arrangements can still be found today, but they differ from true multiage classes in that they are generally set up for administrative and/or economic purposes rather than educational merit.

To be sure, there have been a few multiage programs that emerged over the years that were educationally grounded. Most notable — and still popular with a sizable number of parents and educators — is the Montessori approach, which calls for children to be exposed to a wide range of educational opportunities while learning at their own pace. Others include the Open Education movement of the 1960s, which grouped and regrouped children throughout the school day based on their needs, and Individually Guided Education, which surfaced in the late 1970s and called on students to work their way through personalized learning plans.

Richer Environment

Today's multiage movement traces its philosophical roots to the guiding principles of early childhood education, which stresses the importance of developmentally appropriate pedagogy. "It's very much a child-centered approach that assesses children's understanding and chooses curriculum pieces to fit their needs," says Sandra Stone, director of the National Multiage Institute, based at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. "The emphasis is on the child rather than on the curriculum."

Although that attitude can guide teacher practice in single-grade classrooms too, it's more likely to happen in a multiage setting. "If you're a 3 rd-grade teacher, you tend to focus on, 'This is what I teach,'" says Stone. "If you're a multiage teacher, you focus on 'These are the children I teach.'"

Schatmeyer says teaching a single-grade class can give teachers a false sense of security. "They feel they can use the same textbooks, the same basal reader," he says. "Many teachers go with what the manual says. They follow the script." But when schools do away with a grade-level designation, he adds, "It forces the teacher to look at the individual needs of each child."

According to the Metropolitan Omaha Educational Consortium, that means constantly monitoring student growth in multiple subject areas and designing activities that move students through the curriculum at their own rate. Other key elements of multiage teaching include the use of cooperative learning, flexible grouping and integrated, thematic units of study. Students are encouraged to be independent, to make their own decisions and to share what they learn with others.

Schatmeyer says being a member of a multiage classroom is like being a member of a big family. "Older kids work with youngers just like they do at home," he says. Stone agrees. "You see more sharing, more turn taking, more caring for one another."

Stone, who teaches classes in multiage and early childhood education, says a multiage setting provides a richer learning environment. "Children bring multiple perspectives and hear multiple perspectives," she says. Anderson likes the "good spread of physical, mental and social experiences" that different-aged children bring to a classroom setting. "That's the way the rest of life is," he says.

Prevalence Overseas

By the early 1990s, interest in multiage education was running high, and a growing number of school districts were putting such programs in place. Jim Grant, founder and executive director of Staff Development for Educators, a Peterborough, N.H.-based company that provides staff development services, recalls that a national conference on multiage education about a decade ago drew 2,800 people. The movement, with its emphasis on developmentally appropriate practices, clearly held appeal for reformers looking for ways to restructure schools, a popular school reform notion at the time.

In response, Stone founded the National Multiage Institute in 1995. The institute offers graduate-level courses — predominantly for teachers, but also administrators — in multiage practices. It sponsors trips for educators who want to visit multiage classrooms in places such as Australia and New Zealand. Although there is currently no state-level certification process for teachers working in multiage settings, Stone is establishing university certification for students who complete 12 credits of academic work in multiage education.

No one is tracking the number of multiage classes operating nationwide, but Stone believes the number peaked in the late 1990s. Multiage classes continue to operate in every state and in public, private and charter schools, Stone says. In almost all cases, schools that offer multiage classes do so along with traditional, single-grade classes.

Even when interest in multiage education was at its height, the number of such programs was small, points out Christopher Roellke, chair of the education department at Vassar College. (Based on research in 12 states, DeWayne A. Mason and Janet Stimson put the number of nongraded and combination classes at 5 percent in 1996. That figure included programs set up in rural areas in response to sparse population.)

Roellke says multiage education is more prevalent in Canada, Europe and parts of Asia, and while some of that interest may be philosophically driven, he says use of the approach abroad is also largely because it is an economical way to deliver education in less heavily populated areas. Stone points out that the U.S. Department of Defense has put multiage education programs in place in Europe and Asia for the children of members of the U.S. Armed Forces. The move, she says, grew out of a five-year early childhood education initiative.

The movement's biggest boost may have come in 1990 when the Kentucky Education Reform Act embraced the multiage philosophy and mandated that every school in the state provide an ungraded primary program. Children were to be given the opportunity to progress from kindergarten through 3 rd grade at their own pace.

"It was so exciting to me," recalls Lois Adams Rodgers, who as deputy commissioner of the Kentucky Department of Education in 1990 oversaw the ungraded primary initiative. "So often we put walls up around a grade level, even though within those grade levels you have a whole range of abilities [and] strengths. This was an opportunity to tear down those artificial barriers."

In 1991, the Oregon State Legislature went so far as to call for a feasibility study on a mandated, ungraded primary program but never put such an approach in place.

Inconsistent Findings

Research conducted during the 1980s and early 1990s helped validate the multiage approach. When it came to the impact of multiage grouping on student achievement, study results were mixed. While some found students in multiage classrooms performed better on standardized achievement tests, others found students in single-grade classes performed better. Researchers speculated the inconsistency was due in part to varying definitions of multiage education. More than half of the studies found no statistically significant difference between the two approaches.

Lisa Gross, spokesperson for the Kentucky Department of Education, says the overall accountability index for 4 th graders increased by 13 points between 1993, when the ungraded primary programs were put in place, and 1998. The index is based in part on performance-based achievement tests. Gains also were recorded in seven content areas.

But if the link between multiage education and improved student achievement was found to be less than definitive, the approach was shown to foster gains in other areas. Students in multiage settings were found to have higher self-esteem, more positive self-concepts, less anti-social behavior and better attitudes toward school than their peers in single-grade classes.

Kinsey, the Governors State University professor, is encouraged by those findings and believes even if studies haven't yet conclusively linked multiage education with immediate increases in academic achievement, other long-term research may. "Multiage pays particular attention to what's happening to children emotionally and socially," she says. "And if it's encouraging cooperation and promoting leadership and confidence, it's also motivating children to learn."

Kentucky ’s Disappointment

Despite the promise multiage education seemed to offer, however, the movement has definitely lost steam. A review of the literature reveals very little now being written about — and virtually no research being done on — the subject. Grant reports that a national conference on multiage education today would likely draw only 600 or 700 people. Because no central body tracks the number of multiage classes in operation, it's impossible to quantify the decline. Yet even Stone admits, "There's no doubt that the rate of growth has slowed."

The movement's biggest blow likely came in 1998 when Kentucky relaxed its ungraded primary mandate in response to requests from teachers and administrators who wanted more flexibility in how they grouped children. Dodson says that as a result of the move, about half of Kentucky's public elementary schools have abandoned full-time multiage programs.

Rodgers, now deputy executive director of the Council for Chief State School Officers, says she was "distraught" over the decision and argued against it. "Multiage education is such a sound educational practice. And there were schools in Kentucky that were just terrific models. People were using developmentally appropriate practices to help kids move along at their own pace."

Nevertheless, she believes that putting such programs in place proved overwhelming for many site administrators and teachers. "Often we're afraid of this thing we don't think we understand," she says. "We don't realize that we live it everyday, given the varying ages and varying abilities of kids" in single-grade classrooms. "Yet when you formalize it and call it 'nongraded' or 'multiage,' people don't understand it anymore."

Cultural Challenge

True multiage programs have proven difficult to put in place. Kinsey notes that in some cases, teachers are not teaching across ages. "They're tending to teach 1 st graders this and 2 nd graders that," she says. That's the result of teachers not understanding the underlying theory of nongradedness, and evidence of inadequate staff development, says Wright State University's Schatmeyer, who has studied factors that promote and impede the switch from graded to multiage education.

Parents also can find it hard to understand the workings of a multiage classroom. Those with older children in the class sometimes fear the curriculum is not challenging enough and that their children will spend all their time helping the younger children. Parents of younger children worry that the curriculum is too difficult and that the older children will dominate the class. Rodgers says one problem in Kentucky was parents' dissatisfaction with the "continuous progress reports" that replaced traditional report cards.

It can be particularly difficult for multiage programs to succeed in schools where they operate alongside traditional classrooms. Teachers "are not of the same mind . . . not in synch with one another," says Schatmeyer, adding, "It sends mixed signals." Stephen Palmer, principal of Shay Elementary School in Harbor Springs, Mich., studied the relationship between multiage and single-grade classrooms in seven Michigan elementary schools. His findings: Such schools face "numerous organizational, school culture and leadership challenges."

Kinsey believes it was Kentucky's decision to mandate multiage programs that undermined its success there. "My guess is they probably didn't have the kind of support system in place they needed to make it successful," she says. A better approach would have been to gradually "bring people along" by providing them with ongoing, quality professional development on the subject. Roellke agrees. "So much of the process relies upon local capacity and willingness to adopt a multiage approach," he wrote in "The Promise of Multiage Grouping," an article he co-authored with Elizabeth Kappler for Kappa Delta Pi Record in 2002.

Such an effort demands strong school leadership. "The principal makes or breaks the program," says Schatmeyer. Miller, author of Children at the Center: Implementing the Multiage Classroom, calls leadership, strong teacher commitment to the needs of children and support from parents and others the key "prerequisites for success" of any multiage program.

NCLB’s Impact

Others see No Child Left Behind as largely responsible for the decline in multiage education. "It’s been killed by President Bush and No Child Left Behind. The standards are too rigid.” says Grant, whose proprietary firm runs training programs and publishes materials for multiage educators. " It used to be easy to put two grades together with the same teacher for two years. But very specific grade-level standards has made that difficult."

Grant, a presenter at previous AASA national conferences, contends teachers and school administrators are shying away from multiage programs because they feel compelled to "teach to the test," adding, it’s "easy to understand and sympathize with teachers whose jobs are on the line because their test scores are going to be published." Superintendents, he says, " are in a terrible quandary between doing what's morally right and what their school boards and departments of education dictate."

Miller, who interviewed numerous educators for his guide to multiage education, agrees. "If you haven't met standards, do you take on [that task] in an innovative context? No, you probably use something more traditional until you get your feet on the ground."

NCLB imposes a rigidity that curtails the use of "more progressive curriculum reforms," says Vassar's Roellke. "When you start to have testing requirements placed at various age levels, it's much more difficult to provide flexibility when it comes to curriculum and [delivery] models. This is an example of how the law places constraints on and diminishes the opportunity for creativity at the local level."

Looking down the road, Stone, with the National Multiage Institute, predicts "unfortunate fallout" from NCLB's testing requirements. But meanwhile, she urges administrators whose schools offer multiage education to hold their ground. "Go with good practice," she says.

Holding Firm

More than six years after Kentucky relaxed its mandate on multiage education, about 85 percent of the primary grade classrooms in Jefferson County, Ky., remain ungraded. "We basically encouraged our teachers to stay with it because of the results we were getting," says Daeschner, superintendent of the 98,000-student district since 1993.

His advice to fellow superintendents interested in the practice: Make sure teachers moving into multiage classes are properly trained. "That's the caveat," he says. "If you are trained appropriately for a multiage classroom, there is an advantage for the kids. If not, they're better off in regular classes."

Other school officials say multiage education is holding its own in their districts, too. Roberta Berry, superintendent of the Crete-Monee School District in Crete, Ill., says three of the district's four K-4 elementary schools offer multiage classrooms. And she expects that next fall, when the schools are expanded to include 5 th grade, their multiage programs will expand as well. She says students in the multiage classes perform as well academically as those in traditional classes while displaying stronger affective, social and leadership skills.

Berry has no patience with those who say they aren't able or willing to put multiage education in place because of NCLB. "That drives me crazy," she says. "Standards are here to stay. Why are we fighting it tooth and nail? Just make sure the curriculum aligns with the test, and that the standards are embedded in all your activities."

Tom Cooper, the principal at Sycamore Elementary School in Claremont, Calif., says although he and his staff are totally committed to multiage education, it is getting more and more difficult to run a multiage school, given the testing requirements imposed by NCLB. But in the end, says Cooper, "When you teach kids well, they'll do fine, regardless of the method of assessment. I'd say don't worry about it."

That's the kind of attitude that keeps Roellke optimistic about the future of multiage education. "Progressive-minded administrators who believe strongly in multiage and have a vision of how to implement it and a staff to pull it off don't need to worry about test scores," he says. "If the teaching is high quality and the curriculum is comprehensive, test scores will fall into place."

Priscilla Pardini is a free-lance education writer in Shorewood, Wis. E-mail: pardini@execpc.com