classroom diversity,

Advancing Students by Attainment: a specific proposal

Separated from Ken Wear's essay
on student individuality 6-9-07

Educators are well acquainted with the idea of units, where the total content of a course in, say, Civics, is broken into a sequence of grouped learning objectives; lesson plans then carry the subject matter forward in a logical and efficient manner. I am not a professional educator, but I suspect that the subject of, say, arithmetic, is almost universally divided into units, which are then organized into a progression and the progression in turn divided into grade levels. Thus units to a certain point in the progression belong to grades preceding, say, the fifth; certain units belong to the traditional fifth grade; and units beyond belong to higher grades; so there is a universality in the levels of achievement associated with completion of each grade. And reading, writing, spelling, health, . . ., are similarly broken into units.

Let us divide the school year into three quarters (with summer being a fourth quarter, with compressed schedules if desired). For each grade there is a traditional sequence of units in each subject. But let us take the units for first and second grade (in each subject) and retain them as six quarters' work or compress them into five quarters or stretch them into seven quarters. Similarly, combine third and fourth grades, and again fifth and sixth grades, and retain, compress and stretch units.

For convenience let us use the designations "A" (for Accelerated), "B" (for Basic) and "C" (for Challenged); each student will be assigned to A, B or C in keeping with his past achievement. At the end of each quarter each student will advance, but if his progress so indicates he may be reassigned to a faster group or to a slower group. If to the faster group there will be some units he must work through as an outside project (with help from the instructor, of course); if to the slower group there will be some repetition.

I see this as, educationally and socially, much to be preferred over repeating a whole year or skipping a whole year. Certainly it respects traditional organization of course materials so eighth grade represents a known level of knowledge and achievement. It is of course possible for a student to complete sixth grade in five years, or it could require seven years. Students who are slower than the slow group should be assigned to a group of like attainment, even if it becomes necessary to transport them to another location specializing in their needs. Likewise, students faster than the fast group.

The program as presented thus far may seem overly simplistic. I present some thoughts in order to forestall peremptorily dismissing the scheme entire.

For purpose of discussion let us use the convention of three characters to represent each group of units. The first character will be the grade level in traditional organization, as 1, 2, . . . 6. The second character will be A, B or C to reflect Advanced, Basic or Challenged. The third character will be the quarter of the school year.

Some students have greater facility for math, or reading, or . . ., so that, after, say, five years a particular student may be in 6A3 in math but 5C2 in reading. Those with different levels in different subjects may be assigned to library or research or computer or special projects if, because of course offerings (say, math 7A1 in the example is not available) and scheduling difficulties, they cannot be assigned to the next higher level. Or, if nearly all students in the fast group keep the same pace in all subjects, a little extra effort is warranted to keep all students in the group together. Similarly the middle group or slow group.

Designation of classes: Evidently the Basic group would warrant traditional designations as first through . . . grades and be denoted as 1B1, 1B2, . . . The Challenged group would be 1C1, . . . 1C4, . . . 3C2, . . . The Advanced group would be 1A1, . . . 2A3, . . . 5A1, . . . Each class must be offered each quarter if the program is to work at all. A more careful presentation of divisions of subject matter into units and student assignments to master these units appears in the tables below.

How large a school is necessary for this organization to work? Depends to some extent on target class size. With 24 students in each classroom and the Basic group consisting of half the students (a quarter Accelerated and a quarter Challenged) in that grade level, in the simplest implementation three or four teaching areas are needed for each grade of up to 96 students. (A campus structure where students may freely move from one teaching area to another would seem preferable to separate classrooms.) Because of disparities in learning rates, it should be accepted that class size may vary from, say, 18 to 30.

To achieve the best possible results from this scheme, classes for those students outside (below or above) this program, whether in the same building or transported to different locations, should be taught by instructors selected for this duty. Preferably, for the slower, specially trained instructors, and, for the faster, instructors of intellectual capability comparable to that of their students.

Kindergarten and pre-kindergarten may, if offered in this locality, provide the basis for grouping first graders. Lacking this basis for constituting the groups, all should start in the Basic group.

Of course, parents must be the first echelon of concern for the educational needs of their offspring. It is the parents who sense that their children need special attention, whether in remedial or in advanced study; it is the parents who must challenge the local educational system -- the teachers, the principals, the school boards and superintendents -- to make adequate provision for each child, including their own. It is parents who need to be informed of the assets and programs available that can be brought to bear on their own children's advancement. Hopefully, should parents fail, through unawareness of or lack of interest in, their child's progress, there will be others -- teachers, the extended family, neighbors -- who can -- and will -- accept the role of advocate.

If at all possible, parents should be part of any decision to change a student between groups. At mid-quarter, parent-teacher conferences would help immeasurably in motivating students to spend the effort necessary to retain their standings or move up, or retain their standings to avoid moving down. Initial assignments may be overly optimistic, or a student's motivation may change, or his genes may kick him into a different gear.

There you have today's thoughts on this option. Good or bad. (My first thought had been to compress or stretch each grade, rather than combining two grades as I have suggested above, but that would require a larger school.) Hopefully someone in authority will undertake an evaluation or, preferably, a test.

Expansion of basic concept:

There are obviously many ways such a program, of slower progress for slower learners and faster progress for faster learners, may be organized and operated. My preference would be to use busing to transport students to schools offering programs designed for their level of ability. However, this has seemed too simple an approach to have gained much in popularity.

As a general proposition, students whose abilities fall outside the limits envisioned by these suggestions should be assigned to study groups catering to their rate of progress, either slower (foundational) or faster (accelerated). Moreover, the learning environments there should set limits so that students who cannot achieve, or who over-achieve, have available special programs that provide for their educational needs. Over-achievers among the retarded might be promoted to work with the general student body in the slow section; under-achievers -- well, special efforts must be devised on an individual basis, possibly outside the local public school system. Under-achievers among the accelerated might be demoted to work with the general student body in the fast section; over-achievers -- well, again, special efforts must be devised on an individual basis, likely outside the local public school system.

Obviating the entire presentation below for the slow learners, since reading is the foundation skill, would be to assign students having a problem with reading to an extra period each day (or twice or once a week, depending) by extension of their school day. If this is not enough extra work thought has to be given to more novel approaches. (This admittedly causes extra bus problems -- small price to pay.)

Probably the simplest implementation of the suggested program would divide the work for two years into 210 units (unrealistically large, but for the sake of exposition). And the school year would be divided into three quarters of 13 weeks each with an extra quarter of 9 weeks (48 week school year) -- or three 14-week quarters plus a 7-week term (49 week school year). The extra quarter could be used by children, say, the slower group, to catch up with the middle group so as to commence the next school year in that group, or for the middle group to accelerate their pace for assignment to the faster group. Or that extra term could be used for catch-up with their own group for those youngsters having moderate difficulty keeping pace.

In a school system having kindergarten, the initial assignment in 1st grade would be in keeping with their performance in kindergarten; systems without kindergarten must start all first graders at the same level and distinguish between learning pace after Qtr1. And, in a system such as this, it would be common for a student to have a split assignment, partly among one learning speed for reading and partly among another for other subjects.

In these tables "A" represents the units in traditional grades 1 and 2; "B", 3 and 4; "C", 5 and 6.

1st grade----Qtr1--------Qtr2--------Qtr3-------ExtraQ*

2d grade----Qtr1--------Qtr2--------Qtr3-------ExtraQ

3d grade----Qtr1--------Qtr2--------Qtr3-------ExtraQ

4th grade----Qtr1--------Qtr2--------Qtr3-------ExtraQ

5th grade----Qtr1--------Qtr2--------Qtr3-------ExtraQ

6th grade----Qtr1--------Qtr2--------Qtr3-------ExtraQ

7th year----Qtr1--------Qtr2--------Qtr3-------ExtraQ

This presentation is admittedly simplistic, but it should demonstrate the general idea. A trial of the concept could be in, say, third and fourth grades, in a campus style student assignment where students may be regrouped during the day. With system-wide implementation size of student body may be reduced by pairing schools; because of the need for extra transportation it may be wise to teach during time on the bus.

Yes, there are inequities in free time with such a program. But each student must accept that he is what he is; the purpose of school is to prepare him for adulthood, and allowing inadequate school performance sets a poor example and provides a built-in handicap while inadequate challenge produces a colossal waste of ability.

What I have shown is a 600-student school using the simplest implementation. The only possibility for not holding a child back to repeat a grade lies in use of the ExtraQ. In order to shift a child between learning speeds, each class must be offered each quarter, so the student body may reach 1800. Or, two schools on the same campus could be split into grades 1-3 and grades 4-6, thus limiting student bodies to 900.

One underlying compromise may become necessary in such a scheme as this. Reading is the true foundation for all else; first attention must be given to reading. It would produce a tremendous improvement in educational outcomes were such a program be instituted for reading alone. It would be a much greater challenge to provide for slower or faster students in all subjects and allow for jumping between levels based on their individual altered paces in each subject. It may become necessary to accept some disparity in the total mastery of subjects other than reading. In subjects such as, say, health, reorganization of topics may include earlier in the sequence of units the most important topics. For the slower there may be some material simply not covered; for the middle group the entire body of knowledge would be presented, and for the fast group there may be need for further exploratory work. But a slight difference in topics mastered seems a much more humane and realistic approach than either promoting poorly-prepared students or holding back nearly-prepared students.

Math and science may be paired since it seems most likely that a student would advance equally well in both. Thus reading, math and science may take the first half of the day and other subjects the latter half.

I saw first hand, with my own children, the result of assigning all children of like age to the same grade level regardless of attainment (not intelligence or ability -- attainment). It was an educational nightmare.

Someone must take the initiative to bring sanity into classroom assignments, else we will continue to pump out illiterates from our schools and leave the brightest unchallenged.

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