kitchen table math, the sequel: Forget Grade Levels?

Monday, July 5, 2010

Forget Grade Levels?

I saw this in our paper yesterday.

Forget grade levels

It's interesting to see how ed school thought can be spun any which way.

"The current system of public education in this country is not working" said Superintendent John Covington. "It's an outdated, industrial, agrarian kind of model that lends itself to still allowing students to progress through school based on the amount of time they sit in a chair rather than whether or not they have truly mastered the competencies and skills."


Students progress through school only if they allow them to progress. When I grew up, kids were held back or had to go to summer school. Apparently, since then, they've moved to an "industrial, agrarian kind of model". This is really stupid thinking.

With this new model, are they going to continually keep kids in second grade if they don't pass the proficiency test? Speaking of which, I assume that these are minimal grade level state tests. However, it might force schools to actually try to get kids to pass the exam and not just "trust the spiral". It will force them to deal with the issues sooner rather than just pass the problems along and then blame the kids or parents or poverty.


"This system precludes us from labeling children failures," Covington said. "It's not that you've failed, it's just that at this point you haven't mastered the competencies yet and when you do, you will move to the next level."

What about the 12 year old who still hasn't gotten past the 2nd grade material? What about differentiated learning? That's not a "factory model". However, both models have the same core philosophy. The onus for learning is on the kids and there is no direct teaching. At least the approach descrbed here allows kids to accelerate out. I don't know what they are accelerating to or around, but it at least forces schools to define what is required knowledge and skills for each grade. Unfortunately, we know what those standards are.


"Greg Johnson, director of curriculum and instruction for the Bering Strait School District in Alaska, recalled that before the switch there were students who had been on honor roll throughout high school then failed a test the state requires for graduation."


Incompetence. How is that going to change with the new model? They will show kids the state tests for each grade and leave it up to them to meet the low cutoffs. Then they will have kids who meet the low state graduation requirements when they are 14. What next? They will have kids stuck as sophomores. What next?

Will they have low and high grade level standards, not just pass/fail cutoffs? What will high grades mean for kids? Will they properly map the math required (and test grades) for algebra in 8th grade back to Kindergarten?

At least this model forces schools to deal with these issues. With differentiated instruction, their heads are completely in the sand - or somewhere else.

20 comments:

gasstationwithoutpumps said...

I got a much more positive message from the article than SteveH did. Placement by achievement is a much more sensible model than placement by age. Having kids at roughly the same level in each class makes teaching the class much easier, no longer requiring super-teachers.

There is nothing in the article that implies there will be no direct instruction. I think that is SteveH's projection of his own fears.

Picking the appropriate tests to determine mastery can be a challenge, but without the need to pass everyone on to the next level for political reasons (the way they do now), the tests will have less pressure to be super easy. Students will probably finish school at around 16-19, with different levels of mastery (as they do now, but without awareness of the differences).

concerned said...

Beautiful post!! The questions you pose are very thought provoking! Thanks SteveH!

Concerning not knowing "what they are accelerating to or around, but it at least forces schools to define what is required knowledge and skills for each grade" - I couldn't agree more!

And I love the closing...
"At least this model forces schools to deal with these issues."

I think that we agree that "these issues" regarding math are "properly map[ping] the math required for [success in] algebra in 8th"

But please correct me if I'm wrong...

Lisa said...

I don't know that I can pass judgement on their plan without particulars. It might help brighter kids move more quickly. I do wonder about the ones who don't progress. Our high school has implemented "Algebra That Works". Unit tests must be passed before you can move on in the course. My dd tutored some of those students. Many had been in one unit all year. They were never going to get done with enough math to graduate. I don't know how they will be dealing with that problem. You can read about the program here.

Lisa said...

Sorry, link
http://www.hccsc.k12.in.us/huntingtonnorth/HuntingtonNorth/AlgebraThatWorks_files/Background%20Information%20on%20Algebra%20That%20Works.pdf

Anonymous said...

I see what (I suspect) made SteveH suspicious -- the description of tasks:

"For instance, in a classroom learning about currency, one group could draw pictures of pennies and nickels. A student who has mastered that skill might use pretend money to practice making change."

OK, why do students need to master drawing pictures of currency? That was the kind of task that, in the old-fashioned classroom, was provided to keep kids who were done busy while the rest of the class caught up. Now it is a gatekeeper task?

And if the teacher is working with a few students at a time, what are the rest of the class really doing? It could be great for high achievers, or it could be a great excuse for leaving them to sit educating themselves in a corner. Do we really need to send kids to school for unschooling?

As usual from these articles, though, there isn't enough info to really assess the change.

ChemProf said...

Sorry - hit the button early - the above anonymous is me.

Allison said...

--"This system precludes us from labeling children failures," Covington said. "It's not that you've failed, it's just that at this point you haven't mastered the competencies yet and when you do, you will move to the next level."

Sorry, I don't see this moving in a positive direction. The emphasis on caring about what's said, rather than what's learned, is painful to me. Maybe the article is at fault in its presentation, but one can pretend that systems that don't teach are better just by remove the failing label. Now no one ever fails! See, the achievement gap shrinks again.

Steve, I am much more skeptical. You said at least this model forces schools to deal with these issues, but of course, nothing forces them to do so. I'm sure that people thought differentiated instruction forced schools to deal with these issues too. But nothing requires schools to defined what is required knowledge and skills for each grade if GRADES don't dot hat. Clearly a continuous slope system is the opposite of clearly defining what knowledge is required per grade.

A school with high expectations and a demanding curriculum can afford to forget grade levels. A school lacking those has really already forgotten grade levels anyway.

SteveH said...

There may be hope with this model, so I've been trying to find more details (with great difficulty).

This is what the Kansas City, Mo. schools are using for a model - Adams County School District 50, in Denver.

Standards Based Education

It's surprising to see the term SBE pop up in this situation.

Even with this web site, details are elusive. At least they focus on some key changes in philosophy. The first is that they do not trust the spiral. Kids have to pass tests to move on. They ensure mastery. They actually seem to believe that the material on the tests is important. They also put the kids' names up on the board, so they encourage competition.

Since each child is at his/her own level, it seems unlikely that there will be very much group direct instruction. It's also not clear what happens when kids finish grade level work before the end of the year. There may be a detailed explanation somewhere on the site, but I haven't found it yet.

It also looks like everything is based on the state standards. There is no indication of whether or how they set higher standards. They don't say much about this will work for high school. I'll keep looking.

Anonymous said...

Isn't this Kumon?

SteveH said...

"Isn't this Kumon?"

We wish! Same idea, wrong standards. The top end isn't driving this change, but maybe their break with no acceleration will change that. Otherwise, they will have many 6th graders who qualify for high school but aren't ready yet for honors courses.

Anonymous said...

Actually, the old "industrial, agrarian" model included features of this new system. Children actually could progress through the grades more quickly or less quickly than their peers. That didn't end until the '60's and
'70s. I actually taught in a K-3 department that used this system for reading. There were, I believe, 12 levels and children moved on to the next classroom (i.e. the next level)when they showed mastery of what was being taught in their current classroom. However, I think that the somewhat random activities described in the article, and the lengthy description of children working on their own, are a red herring. When all of the children in a classroom are within a few months of each other in terms of achievement, you can actually do quite a lot of direct instruction, because all of the kids will benefit from the same lessons. At the same time, since you don't have to differentiate for a wide range of readiness levels, there is more time for the hands-on and literature-based instruction that makes school a richer experience.

SteveH said...

On the plus side, it eliminates the silliness of wide mixed-ability learning groups and trusting the spiral. It also has specific skills that have to be learned and mastered (show proficiency?) before one can move on.

These changes are good.

On the down side, state proficiency levels are notoriously low. It's not clear that they have a curriculum path to a proper course in algebra. At some point, curriculum paths will branch off, and it will be more than just a difference in speed of coverage. Once kids get to high school this approach would only apply to those in trouble of not meeting the low state standards. I don't see anything that talks about how honors students are allowed to learn at their own speed in high school. As the material gets more difficult, independent study becomes a very poor model for learning. Teachers really should have knowledge and experience to impart. Can you imagine a college professor who hands out the syllabus and testing schedule, tells students that they have to take charge of their own learning, and then tell them the office hours?


There is also talk of having kids teach other kids. Apparently, it's OK to have kids as sages on the stage. Maybe it's different if they are sitting. However, it seems like they keep that sort of teaching within nearby levels of learning.

There is not much talk about the issue of individual progress or group progress. It appears that they try to keep as many kids as possible in the same level. From a practical standpoint, this would allow the teacher to at least efficiently introduce new topics. If all kids get onto separate levels, then education becomes strictly independent study. I don't know how they avoid this from happening over the years. Can a student really push the system to take a proficiency test whenever he/she wants? They must allow students to jump to a new room with older kids. It could be that a child is not part of the peleton or even a breakaway group. He/she could be on his/her own. (Can you tell that it's Tour de France time?)

The web site also goes on and on about how this technique contrasts with the perennial bogeyman of traditional teaching. They say nothing about how it contrasts with more recent cherished educational ideas; those ideas which caused the problems they are trying to fix.

At least they are now allowing kids to do actual acceleration based on specific tests for specific skills. This should open doors for alternate, more rigorous, curriculum paths.

concerned said...

By golly! I think you've "nailed it" again SteveH. I'm amazed at your insightfulness!

This passage:
"it eliminates the silliness of wide mixed-ability learning groups and trusting the spiral. It also has specific skills that have to be learned and mastered (show proficiency?) before one can move on.

These changes are good.
(yep, I agree!)

On the down side, state proficiency levels are notoriously low. (uh-hu...) It's not clear that they have a curriculum path to a proper course in algebra. At some point, curriculum paths will branch off(yep), and it will be more than just a difference in speed of coverage."

I hope you guys remember who I am and some of the experiences I've recalled on my own education. But anyway, I'm extremely bad at recalling historical facts. Since grades were always very important to my parents, I used to memorize stuff for the test, then it was dumped from my memory banks for some reason...I don't know why. It wasn't that I didn't want to remember.

Anyway,I think many people can relate to that situation or for some subjects... In math, I seemed to be able to remember what I needed at the time. Had some low grades through college though because I had very limited time to spend "studying" - I worked jobs alot and had my first child before I was through with my degree. So much had elapsed between my programming class (fortran with the punch cards) and a course called numerical analysis that I had to get special permission from a very special instructor to take the class. I had to simultaneously try to learn Cobalt while taking the course. I did fine - I think the grade was a B.

Sorry to divert, SteveH may be the only one that understands that last paragraph (?)

Anyway, I think it is time to come to the realization that children/people can learn from many different things... and it's individual for each of us.

I personally work best with soft music, coffee, and a cigarette :D

Anonymous said...

Good article from ASCD about "five large urban school districts have raised achievement and closed achievement gaps using approaches that make such obvious sense, it would amaze parents to know that these aren't the norm everywhere"
http://www.latimes.com/news/opinion/commentary/la-oe-zavadsky-broad-20100707,0,6034052.story

Lyics to the song that just played on my radio:
http://www.lyrics007.com/Smash%20Mouth%20Lyrics/All%20Star%20(From%20Shrek)%20Lyrics.html

I also really like the song unwritten a whole lot. Most people do, it was incredibly popular - and has started playing now.

I like the phrase about conditioning. Made me think about the "theories" taught in ed school - never believed in that stuff...

I did have a very excellent professor though that taught me a lot about how books may become outdated someday - or rather, the way we share information...

This is "concerned" but I'm on my other email account right now and don't want to switch over...

momof4 said...

I think that public schools waste an enormous amount of time, both within classes (artsy stuff, groupwork etc) and across the school day (assemblies, announcements, special observances etc.).

One of my kids had block scheduling, a current favorite, in high school and even in his all-honors classes he said half the period was wasted because most kids couldn't handle a full period of new material all at once - so they really only covered a semester's work even though it was supposed to be a full year's class. A HS teacher relative said the same; only by lecturing could the material be covered and most kids couldn't handle it. I suspect it may be worse at the MS level. The result is that none of the kids are covering the material they should be doing and the kids at the top, who could handle the material at lecture pace, are unnecessarily slowed.

ChemProf said...

I've never understood the logic of block scheduling, except for lab classes. I was always taught that most people can only focus on new material for ~45 minutes at a time, which is why the classic lecture is 50 minutes to an hour. Discussion classes or labs might be longer, but you need a break or a change of topic after about 45 minutes.

My own experience has borne this out. I had an upper division chem class I taught in a 75 minute period. After 45 minutes, we BOOKED because they would just write down whatever I said and figure it out later. The first part of class, they were engaged and thinking, but they couldn't focus the whole time. If they can't, I don't know why you'd think that MS or HS students could.

momof4 said...

I don't know the history; what was the driving force behind block scheduling? From what I observed, it caused serious problems in math and foreign languages because of "off" semesters between courses. Taking extra courses wasn't allowed, even though some kids could have done it and graduated early.

Anonymous said...

Block scheduling, except for the purpose of having labs in science classes, allows for projects, field trips, and a certain amount of in-class tutoring for students who need it. In our school, there was a move to adopt block scheduling by the science teachers, since double period labs were being eliminated. But the science teachers were educated by the math and foreign language teachers, who knew that daily 45-minute classes were necessary for their students. So we didn't go to block scheduling. Even the English and History teachers, who could have thought up activities to fill 75-minute classes, didn't necessarily think that block scheduling would work well.

K9Sasha said...

I don't see anything that talks about how honors students are allowed to learn at their own speed in high school. As the material gets more difficult, independent study becomes a very poor model for learning.

I "homeschooled" my son for high school. Homeschool is in quotes because I taught him for the first two years. The second two years, I found the material and he taught himself. It was successful. He was accepted at every college he applied to, and was on the college honor roll last year - his freshman year.

Can you imagine a college professor who hands out the syllabus and testing schedule, tells students that they have to take charge of their own learning, and then tell them the office hours?

That's not much different from my whole college experience. In lecture classes of 300+ students it's purely up to the student to study the material. The whole grade was based on two midterms and a final. This was the status quo for the majority of my college classes, not just one or two.

Catherine Johnson said...

For instance, in a classroom learning about currency, one group could draw pictures of pennies and nickels. A student who has mastered that skill might use pretend money to practice making change.

Sorry- late to the party.

That was the line that got me.