Group Classes by Level, not Age

Posted on April 19, 2012 by

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There are many reasons why I wasn’t crazy about moving to P.S. 87 in Queens, New York, but I’d have to say the one that became most relevant to my daily torment, and thus this story, was the fact that when I transferred into the school at age 8 they put me in the “dumb” class. I’m not sure what the adults called it – they probably called it “the dumb class”, given what I now know about adults, and officially it probably had some unoffensive name – but we kids knew a dumb class when we saw one. The teacher was incompetent, my classmates were savages, and I was miserable.

At a certain point everyone involved in my education decided that what I needed was to be moved to a class headed by a terrifying disciplinarian named Anaheid K. Smith and inhabited by the relatively more sedate upper-level fourth-graders – kids who were bigger, older, and theoretically smarter than I was, and who would not tolerate my nonsense for even a single second.

I thrived in that class. I loved Mrs. Smith. For the first time in my life, I looked upon my classmates with something other than utter disdain. I began participating, answering in-class questions and turning in assignments that I wasn’t even obligated to do, just because everyone else in the class was doing them. I became so happy that I started telling my former classmates about how happy I was to have been put in the smart class with the older kids, until one day the teachers took me aside and told me that being in the fourth grade was a punishment, not a reward, and that if I didn’t stop bragging about it they would put me back in third grade.

Despite being surrounded by adults with a very confused definition of “punishment” and “reward”, I did really well for the rest of that year, and then next year, when fourth grade was where I belonged, I just stuck around with Mrs. Smith. It went swimmingly. So did fifth grade. I remain convinced that the main difference was that I was surrounded by kids who wanted to learn and who were given material that stimulated and challenged us.

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I remember asking my parents about the potential of formally just skipping me a year. This was not unheard of in New York schools; in fact, I would later go to High School with a kid who skipped two or three years of his K-12 education. He went to Harvard and I lost track of him for a while, but at a friend’s wedding a few years ago I found out he’d made a fortune doing quantitative analysis for a hedge fund. Most people would consider him wildly successful. My parents were advised not to skip me, and that was that.

I don’t regret who I am or how I got here, but certainly from the perspective of education outcomes my case is far from optimal – a kid who tested in the 99th percentile in every standardized test in every year of school making $4000 a year, but with at least three times that in ignored student loan debt. By any metric that an economist or social scientist would use, the education system in America failed to develop my potential. Would it have been better if I had been skipped a grade or two? Almost certainly. Every relevant experience I’ve had in my life confirms that idea.

The idea of grouping students by level rather than age has a few obvious merits and a few obvious flaws, but the strongest disadvantage it has is that it’s not how things are done. The general wisdom is that kids need, socially, to be around other kids their age, and that childhood intellectual development is uniform enough that you can design a curriculum for, for instance, an eight-year-old, and this is meaningful in that it is substantially different from what you would teach a nine-year-old.

I’m here to say, that’s hogwash. The MES knows that different students are at different levels at the same age – that’s why, for instance, they gave teachers the right to select the appropriate book level for their classes. Instead of assigning every fifth grade class English World 5, the MES told teachers to look at the books and pick the one their students were ready for. In my school, the fifth grade uses English World 3, which I think is the right choice for their average level, although of course there are some students who are bored by it and others who are lost.

But take this ‘age = level’ thing to its logical extent: imagine you had a group of adults who wanted to improve their English, and you said “Well, you four are 18-22, so you’re in the Beginner group; you three are over 40, so you’re in the Advanced group…” This method would be doomed to failure.

Administratively, however, the idea of grouping students by level is difficult enough to be unworkable for a number of reasons. Students have different aptitudes, for instance, so what do you do with a student who is level 1 in Nature and level 5 in English? Put her in level 3, where she’ll be lost in Nature class and bored in English? Assigning every student their own personal schedule is messy and logistically a nightmare.

No, I don’t think schools can manage something that radical. However, we’re here to work on English. In English, the problem becomes a little less intractable.

In my high school language class, you had to test to get in. Simple as that. If you couldn’t pass a test, you started at level 1. If you passed the level 1 test, you moved to level 2. If you passed the level 2 test, you moved to level 3. I took Spanish – four years of Spanish, starting at age 12, and I can still read newspaper articles in Spanish without looking up too many words, although my accent is terrible and my active vocabulary has atrophied as you might expect it to after 13 years of no practice. Your level in a foreign language didn’t reflect your level in other classes – so, you could be in, say, 10th grade, and be in level one, two, three, or even four. Even if you didn’t pass the test into the next Spanish level, you’d still move on to the next grade. If you wanted a “Regents Diploma” – a special diploma that reflected having passed a bunch of tests created and administered by an independent council in New York – you’d have to pass Regents Spanish, which I think you could do after level two or three; but you could graduate with a regular diploma if you just passed two years worth of classes, even if your actual foreign language ability did not reflect that.

I don’t know how feasible it is to implement even this kind of system in Georgia, and it probably wouldn’t do to have too high an age range in one class – you shouldn’t have first graders and twelfth graders in the same class, for instance – but I think a mix of students within three or four years of age (maybe less in lower grades) would be fine.

However, we can also address this on a personal level. We can split off students who need more personal attention or a review of material they’ve been left behind on. Whether the TLGV takes the upper or lower level students, the advantages just stack up. The more advanced kids get the attention and challenge they crave; the less advanced kids get to catch up and begin to realize that English is something they actually can succeed in. The smaller group sizes make discipline easier and reduce the amount of shouting the teachers have to do. And, best of all, it’s an officially recognized and sanctioned method of coteaching that TLG has given to us in training, which means not only are we still doing our jobs, but we have documents that we can show our coteachers that support that fact, in case they are skeptical.

One final thought: kids often rise, or fall, to the level of what you expect of them. (Adults do, too, but kids are especially attuned to adults’ cues that other adults have taught themselves to ignore). If you do split classes in some way, make sure not to make the same mistake my elementary school did – make sure not to let the kids start calling one class “smart” and the other class “dumb.” If you take the same exact child – say, me, for instance – and put him in a “dumb” class one day, and a “smart” class another day, you’ll see two different children – one unruly and unmanageable, the other interested and engaged. Every student needs to feel that their achievements are going to be recognized, otherwise they will quickly either withdraw, or act out for that recognition.

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