Executive Perspective                Page 48


Tearing Down Grade-Level Walls


 Daniel Domenech

I always have had a vision of what school should be like. In my early years as a superintendent in the late ’70s, I would write vision statements for our district that depicted the school of the future.

Over the years, I have wondered why education continues to adhere to what is in essence a model born in the early 20th century. Our grade-level structure, where we group students by age and place them in a classroom with a teacher, is still the modus operandi today in spite of everything we know about child development and psychology and the advances in instructional technology.

K-12 education lives on as if etched in stone, never to be broken. Consequently, we find ourselves arguing still about class size, homogeneous versus heterogeneous grouping, the integration of special education and special-needs students, the ability of one teacher to have the experience to adequately instruct the students in all the subject areas at the elementary level, remediation, after-school programs, summer school and the pervasive achievement gap.

The grade-level structure is written in the law. School districts are required to test students at this grade level and that grade level every year. There are numerous states that have laws requiring that students repeat the same grade level should they fail to pass the state test. We continue to treat students as hordes, rather than as individuals.

Individualized Focus

My vision is incredibly simple, we move away from grade levels and focus on the individual child. I recently was at an event with Yong Zhao, the respected scholar, author and speaker. He showed us a picture of the Google driverless car and challenged us to create a vision of the future where all cars were driverless. How would that affect our world if people no longer needed to drive? No need for driver’s licenses or driving schools. No more speeding tickets. Our imaginations soon took us to a brand new world shaped, incredibly, by driverless cars.

Apply the same exercise to an education system that focuses not on teaching children en masse, but an organizational structure that focuses on the individual child. No grade levels, no remediation programs, no class size issues, no overcrowded classrooms, no problems with kids who do not speak English. The focus is on the individual child and the system adapts to educate that child, not the other way around.

Twenty years ago that would not have been possible, but today, as with the driverless car, truly personalized education can be a reality.

So much of the focus on education reform centers on improving the same organizational structure we always have had rather than creating an entirely new system. There are fringe elements, outliers, that speak to the possibilities. Totally online programs have grown in popularity, and many parents have pulled their children out of school to have them educated at home on a computer. Online programs are not entirely the answer because the students are not experiencing the quality of instruction nor the socialization and collaboration components that are so critical in today’s world. But the possibility is there that children do not have to be in a school building 100 percent of the time to learn.

Teacher Caseloads

The individualized education program, or IEP, that for years has been a component of how we educate our students in special education, is a viable model if we were to expand it to all students. Teachers would become directors of learning who would be assigned a caseload of students for whom they would develop IEPs. The way we staff our schools would change dramatically with the teacher heading up a differentiated staffing team that would be deployed to support each student according to their needs and apply the appropriate grouping (one-on-one, small group, large group) to conform to the instructional strategy prescribed by the teacher.

Flipped classrooms and blended learning is taking place, and school districts are using technology to personalize instruction. Attempts to individualize learning and to organize according to the needs of the student rather than by grade level go back 50 years, but persistent rules and regulations at the state and federal levels have impeded any real progress.

How wonderful it would be if reformers called for doing away with the grade-level structure and for providing each child with instruction that is appropriate to her ability level at every moment, not when it happens to occur in a class of 25 by happenstance. Like the car without a driver, let’s imagine the school without grade structures.

Daniel Domenech is AASA executive director. E-mail: ddomenech@aasa.org. Twitter: @AASADan

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