Really, what’s up with those people in Kansas? There they go again, pushing some crazy-ass notion, out of step with the nation… Except, um, maybe this time they’re onto something.
GT listservs are humming with the news that Kansas City, Missouri schools are experimenting with the elimination of grade levels, following on the heels of the schools in Colorado and Alaska. Here’s the Kansas story as it appeared in EdWeek the other day.
…Students—often of varying ages—work at their own pace, meeting with teachers to decide what part of the curriculum to tackle. Teachers still instruct students as a group if it’s needed, but often students are working individually or in small groups on projects that are tailored to their skill level.
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.
Students who progress quickly can finish high school material early and move forward with college coursework. Alternatively, in some districts, high-schoolers who need extra time can stick around for another year. Advocates say the approach cuts down on discipline problems because advanced students aren’t bored and struggling students aren’t frustrated….
Now the “drawing pictures of pennies” gives me pause, but I’m guessing (hoping) this is a lower elementary lesson, a simple example the reporter latched onto to make a point. Further into the article it quotes a student who “used to get bored after plowing through his assignments. He had to bring books from home or the library if he wanted a challenge because the ones at his old school were one or two grade levels too easy.” His parents moved him into the district specifically for the experimental approach, and are thrilled: “I wish school was like this when I was growing up,” said the dad.
So yes, that cry of “Hallelujah!” you’re hearing across the nation at this news is from parents of GT kids, frustrated beyond belief by the arbitrary barriers posed by lockstep age/grade-based education. You know, the “but what will we do if we run out of curriculum?”
Could the Kansas experiment ever happen in Montgomery County? Let’s just say I’m not holding my breath. Note that these initiatives are happening in school systems described as “bedraggled” and “low performing” with “abysmal test scores.” That alone could make the idea a non-starter here in Lake Wobegone, where we’re an urban school district only when it suits our purposes. Or, one could expect the PR jujitsu approach favored by the good Dr. Weast, wherein–wait for it–it’s touted that MCPS is already doing this! “We have blah, blah, blah number of X graders taking Y grade math–in elementary school! Blah, blah, blah number of X graders taking Y grade math–in middle school! Highest number of AP tests in the nation…” Well, you get the point.
But that’s not to say that this approach isn’t needed. The current GT screening and articulation process, and the piloted SIPPI process both operate under the official notion that “students may accelerate learning and participate in advanced-level course work at their local schools.” (This from the MCPS Strategic Plan, Our Call to Action). Sounds lovely, but eyeballing sample screen shots of the Course Placement and Articulation data screens shows that in cases where a grade level of acceleration is recommended (and the school and MCPS recommendations always jibe) the only areas where acceleration can take place are math and reading, with the recommended intervention/remedy for reading being William and Mary. Local GT advocates remain unconvinced that there is a “continuum of services” available at local schools, rather that–as one advocate waggishly put it–MCPS’s identification and articulation process is “a bridge to nowhere.” If there is acceleration available, it is only within strictly drawn parameters. As the Singam case and others show, it takes extraordinary pressure, or a principal willing to buck the system (equally extraordinary) to accommodate the more-numerous-than-one-would-suspect outlier kids who need more than in-grade William and Mary or one or two years of math. And let’s remember that the whole idea of what constitutes “grade level” is suspect, with MCPS itself having admitted that that a child performing just fine at grade level would not be prepared to meet it’s vaunted 7 Keys to College readiness.
I would love to see MCPS embrace true experimentation of the kind happening in Kansas, Colorado and Alaska. Charter school anyone? Oh, never mind.