Dividing students by arbitrary birthdate ranges doesn’t make sense, advocates say
DEVENS, Mass. — It looks like a typical class in a suburban high school. The teacher, Barbara Curtin, discusses the differences between mean, mode and median while her students at the Francis W. Parker Charter Essential School sit in clusters of three or four at tables around the room. A second teacher, Lorin Hill, is there to help. All fairly standard, but for one dramatic difference — the mix of students.
Curtin’s class includes both ninth- and 10th-graders. Sometimes she even has a precocious eighth-grader or two and struggling 11th-graders. That’s because Parker offers what may be the nation’s most ambitious and comprehensive take on multiage education in middle and high school, breaking grades 7 to 12 into three divisions, with each division blending two grades together.
Multiage education is not a return to the one-room schoolhouse of yore, in which students of all ages learned different subjects in one space. Instead, students from (typically) two grades learn together in an environment that, advocates say, encourages cooperation and mentoring while allowing struggling students enough time to master material. A long-time staple of Montessori schools, multiage classrooms spread to progressive elementary schools in the 1990s, although their use was always just one ingredient in a mix intended to provide more personalized instruction.
But the movement lost traction in the 2000s, when the No Child Left Behind era imposed more grade-level standardized tests.
“The move to standards-based education with testing on grade level has made multiage classrooms really challenging,” says Diane Friedlaender of the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education at Stanford University.
Today, multiage classrooms remain an anomaly in America. Little new research is being done on them in elementary schools — and the results are inconclusive — while virtually no research has ever been done on multiage classrooms in middle and high schools, likely because so few exist. (Though there are no hard numbers, educators acknowledge the total is minuscule.)
Yet multiage advocates say the traditional approach of dividing students into single grades based on an arbitrary birthdate range is illogical. Children spend much of their time outside school on sports teams or in arts programs that are more age-flexible than classrooms. Little League baseball teams, for instance, might group 5- to 8-year-olds in one division and 9- to 10-year-olds in another, allowing children to “play up” or “play down” based on their skills. Then the same kids go to school and are segregated with others of the exact same age, but not necessarily the same development, and they are all expected to reach certain benchmarks and move on at year’s end, no matter what.
“It is hard to understand why schools have such a rigid adherence to that structure and don’t think about child development at all,” says Friedlaender.
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Sandra Stone, author of the 2004 book “Creating the Multiage Classroom” and a consultant on the topic, believes multiage education could be “more valuable” for older children “given the wider range of growth, both physical and emotional, as they are finding out who they are.”
Adds Friedlaender: “People in charge think more about the developmental needs of children at the elementary level so they make space for multiage classrooms there, but with older children they think more about academics.”
The traditional way is more convenient — for some, says Dan Condon, associate director of professional development at the Eagle Rock School & Professional Development Center in Colorado. “High school is set up to serve the adults and staff members’ schedules,” says Condon, whose school offers multiage education for students ages 15 to 21 who are not on track to graduate. “It’s not set up to help young people succeed.”
Multiage education, say its proponents, puts learners at the center, socially and academically. On the social side, younger children look for guidance to older students who know the ropes, while the older students in the classroom organically learn about mentoring, leadership and collaboration.
Paula Dallacqua, who is in her first year of teaching a combined ninth- and 10th-grade class at Fannie Lou Hamer Freedom High School in the Bronx, says she tried to create specific moments for mentoring but soon found she was forcing the issue.
“Those relationships form naturally,” explains Dallacqua, “and the students don’t even always identify it as ‘I am mentoring now.’ ”
Fannie Lou Hamer is a small public high school that uses several progressive educational philosophies; the school’s innovations have led to it being named a “Gold” School of Opportunity by the National Education Policy Center in 2015 and a “model school” by the Center for Reform of School Systems in 2016. While it merges the ninth and 10th grades, it returns to traditional grade structure for students’ final two years, by which point, it is hoped, struggling students will have had time to catch up.
Frank Williams, 15, says that when he entered the school last year he was skeptical of the concept but found his elders provided critical guidance. “Building a relationship with older students helps you know what to expect, and they give an example of how to stay on track,” Frank says. “If there were any situations, I had 10th-graders right there to show me how to maneuver through them. My maturity level skyrocketed.”
Now Frank is in 10th grade and he passes on his wisdom to the ninth-graders. “He helps me with my math,” classmate Kaleb Stobbs says.
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Although the ninth- and 10th-graders are mixed together, teachers try to ensure that students in the second year are still challenged. At Parker, math teacher Dawn Crane says a student in the first year of a multiage class might be asked to solve a problem using two different types of functions while a second-year student would be expected to use three different types.
Meanwhile, for those who lag behind, multiage education provides a crucial practical and psychological boost by blending two grades, says Nathan Larsen, assistant principal at Fannie Lou Hamer.
“If ninth grade ends and you are only three-quarters of the way toward mastering the material in a traditional school you will be left back, but here you stay with your class and have time in the second year to catch up,” he says.
Extra time is helpful in any school, says Larsen, but it’s crucial at Fannie Lou Hamer because here, in one of the nation’s poorest congressional districts, 50 percent of the children live in poverty and students “frequently come in with gaps in their education — they are overage and undereducated and they have missed out on stuff.” (More than half the students also grow up in households in which English is not the main language.)
Friedlaender adds that poor and underserved children frequently struggle with the perseverance required to catch up. “They’ve had so much trauma and heartache in their lives and it becomes survival instinct, so a psychological wall goes up when things don’t come easily,” she explains. “Just saying that you have the ability to master the material and have the extra time can help them develop the capacity to persist.”
Parker principal Todd Sumner says that many of his students also have learning issues — one-third have diagnosed learning differences and another 10 to 15 percent have disabilities. Despite that, 95 percent of Parker graduates have gone on to college and 96 percent of those students attend four-year colleges, with more than 85 percent attaining their degree within five years, the school says.
Sumner says that approximately three-fourths of his students spend two years in each division but some need more time and return to their division for an extra semester or even an entire extra year. Others may breeze through a division in a year and a half.
For multiage classrooms to work, schools need to set their curriculums and teaching schedules differently. Curtin and Hill will teach one curriculum to this year’s crop of ninth- and 10th-graders. Next year they will teach a different curriculum to a new set of ninth-graders merging with the rising 10th-graders they had the previous year. The following year they’ll return to the first curriculum, so that each group gets both years’ worth of material. Students who return for extra time have thus seen the material before and ideally have a better chance to grasp the concepts the second time around. (Larsen adds that for poor children, whose schooling is often plagued by change, either in their home lives or by teacher turnover, this looping and being around older kids offers a vital stabilizing effect.)
Sumner allows that the age-segregated world does intrude in the form of standardized tests — his students typically take the state test in eighth and 10th grade and the SAT or ACT in 11th grade, no matter where they are within the school’s three divisions.
While he believes that multiage education is beneficial to all students, Sumner says it is most helpful for those who are struggling with a certain subject.
He adds: “The world is already taking care of the kid who is accelerated, but the kid who is a semester behind is especially well served here” once they buy into the idea that everyone learns at a different pace. “You can see that they stand up straighter after a while and say, ‘I’m not a dumb kid. It may take me a little more time but I’m going to get there.’ ”
Andrew Welton, 17, is a student at Parker. He explains matter-of-factly that he is a junior but is still taking Division II classes with the ninth- and 10th-graders because “I was a bit of a train wreck coming into the school.”
“I wanted to go ahead with my friends — they’re my buds — and it wasn’t the best feeling in the world, but by taking the extra time I think I really managed to figure out some of the issues I was going through,” he says.
There is challenging work for the teachers as well, since they must buy into the concept of teaching nonsequentially. Sumner says this fits with his school’s commitment to inquiry-based education, which teaches students certain key skills instead of facts that they can “regurgitate” on command.
“We’re leaving a lot of things out — we acknowledge that,” he says, explaining that their approach prioritizes depth over breadth. Students do not cover American history from the beginning to the present day, he says, but instead “learn to think like a historian and to understand the social, economic and political drivers of any situation, so they know what the right questions are to ask about any period in history.”
Crane, the math teacher at Parker, says that math teachers in traditional schools are often uncomfortable with the notion of teaching algebra and geometry in nonlinear fashion, alternating units in both subjects over the course of each year’s curriculum. They see them as separate subjects, but, Crane says, “The way we’re doing it, there is a connection from algebra to geometry and we build on that with each unit.”
Multiage classrooms might be an easier sell for teachers, administrators and elected officials around the country if there were definitive research supporting the claims of its advocates. In fact, most studies of multiage classrooms date to the 1990s. At that time, a widely cited overview concluded that “Studies in which the cognitive or achievement effects of multi-age and single-age classes were compared indicated no differences between these two types of grouping.”
Sandra Stone claims that the reason there have been so few studies over the last two decades is that most research has been centered around testing and curriculum. Friedlaender adds that the old research may have been skewed by small, especially rural, elementary schools that resort to multiage classrooms for budgetary, not philosophical, reasons — it is cheaper to have one teacher for two grades — and do not provide the extensive teacher training necessary. And, of course, none of the studies involved adolescents.
Ultimately, although supporters of multiage education remain passionate about its potential benefits, they tend to agree that, as Friedlaender says, “it is not a cure-all.”
“Multiage education is a catalyst or an additive for what we are trying to do here but it is part of a larger ecosystem,” explains Larsen.
Both Larsen and Sumner see multiage as one ingredient among many others found in progressive schools: a small-enough student load to allow teachers to personalize instruction; a structure that allows teachers to really get to know each student; and project- and inquiry-based learning that is driven by questions and discussion, not textbooks and lectures. Schools that buy into these approaches can also flourish without multiage education, but advocates say it enhances the mission.
“We know every school is different and every faculty is different,” Sumner says, “and we would be slow to say, ‘Just do it like we do it.’ We would say, ‘Here are the processes we use to arrive at what works for us, you might want to think about asking these questions.’ ”
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about High School Reform.
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