Challenging Assumptions in Public Education: Do Grades 1 Through 12 Really Make Sense?

Grades 1 through 12 have been around for as long as anyone can remember. One of the first assumptions we need to challenge is whether or not this is the best way to organize teachers and students in our schools and classrooms. Does the structure support our objectives as educators? Is it consistent with our purpose?

When we ask such questions, we must always take a moment to remind ourselves of our primary purpose because the way we organize our resources must support that purpose. It is amazing how many organizations discover, after asking such questions, that one’s purpose has evolved but the organizational structure has remained static.

In primary and secondary education, whether in public schools or private, our essential purpose as educators is to help students master the academic subject matter we have selected for them to the best of their ability.

Toward this purpose, individual states have established academic standards that designate what academic subject matter is to be presented, in what sequence, and at what age. These academic standards include clearly delineated check points along the academic path so that we can verify, through annual standardized testing, that the students are progressing on schedule.

Most educators would agree that the best way to achieve that purpose or objective is to:

• Create a warm, nurturing environment in which teachers and students are able to bond;

• Maintain the lowest possible ratio of teachers and students; and,

• Pull parents in as partners, sharing the responsibility for the education of their children.

What we strive to do is help each student learn the subject matter well enough that they can demonstrate mastery. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines “to master” as:

“to learn (something) completely; to get the knowledge and skill that allows you to do, use, or understand (something) very well.”

It is important that we ask ourselves whether helping students achieve subject matter mastery is what we do.

I would assert that what we do, how the process is structured and how teachers and students are organized do not support our purpose. What teachers do, today, what they are asked to do, is something entirely different. Think about the way it works:

1. Academic material is presented to students in a series of lessons or modules that are to be presented in a specific sequence and at a given time in the academic calendar;

2. Teachers do their best to help students understand;

3. We give students opportunities to practice;

4. We attempt to help them learn from the mistakes they make;

5. We test them to assess how well they learned (mastered) the subject matter of each lesson;

6. We record outcomes in the gradebook, typically on the basis of an A to F grading scale; and,

7. We move the entire class on to the next lesson.

The breakdowns typically begin to occur at step #3 of the process. As much as they might like to spend more time helping struggling students learn from the mistakes they made on both practice assignments and assessments, teachers can do so only as long as it does not slow the class down.

While there is no expectation that teachers will spend extra time with struggling students, most recognize that the need exists and do their best to make time, even if it requires that they invite the student to stop in after school.

For even the most dedicated teachers, however, there is a limit to how much time they can give to each of the students who need extra help or tutoring. The reality is that the numbers are large and most kids who need that extra attention will not ask for it nor will they sacrifice their own time to get it.

So, teachers do the only thing they can do and that they are expected to do and that is move the class on to the next lesson, whether or not all of their students are ready. For the kids who struggle, the consequence of the choices teachers must make are significant and the students find themselves predetermined to continue their struggles and, ultimately, to fail. Eventually, failure becomes the inevitable outcome and the kids who were pushed ahead before they were ready begin to lose hope.

Given the way the process is designed and the way teachers and students are organized within individual classrooms it is incredibly difficult to avoid losing students who have given up on themselves.

The current structure also has an adverse impact on the quality of the bonds teachers are able to forge with their students. Some teachers are better at this than others and some students are more difficult to engage. The reader is asked to consider the adage, which I first heard from my grandmother, that

“The child who is hardest to love is the one who needs it the most.”

At the end of the school year, kids move on to other classrooms and unfamiliar teachers while teachers prepare to greet twenty to thirty new students, the majority of whom they have never met. Then, the entire process begins anew.

For many students, the special relationship many of us recall when we think back on our favorite teachers never happens. Of equal significance is that the number of parents who have bonded with their child’s teacher by the end of a school year will be fewer, still.

The structure of the Grade 1 through 12 model has been around for so long it has become granite-like. Few educators even think about it. It has become an unalterable given in our minds.

The truth is that the Grade 1 through 12 structure is nothing more than a logical construct that was once believed to be the most efficacious way to organize teachers and students within our brick and mortar classrooms. The physical structure of individual classrooms has been questioned somewhat more than “Grade 1 through 12” but it is still the predominant reality in public schools all over the nation and also in private and parochial schools.

There have been a few initiatives to alter the structure with an “open classroom” setting as one example but few have endured. Many times, such experiments were abandoned not so much because it was a bad idea rather because there were no corresponding changes to the expectations placed on teachers working in an open-classroom setting. As a result, there were no significant changes in outcomes.

We need to remind ourselves that just because an idea does not work the first time we try it does not mean it was a bad idea.
We need to consider alterations to both the physical environment and our expectations of teachers and students.

Consider this one idea. You are also encouraged to formulate an idea of your own.

Beginning with first grade, what if:

1. We were to cut two doors between adjacent classrooms in our school and ask the two teachers to work together as a team with the same 40 to 60 students?

2. We replaced classroom aides with an additional teacher to form a team of three teachers?

3. What if we kept those same 40 to 60 students together with that same team of three teachers for a five year period and stopped referring to classrooms as first grade, etc.?

4. What if we changed our expectations so that:

a. No student is permitted to move on to new subject matter until they are able to demonstrate mastery (85
percent) over the material?

b. No student is required to wait for their classmates to catch up before moving on to their next lesson?

c. Teachers are expected to make sure that every one of their students has bonded with at least one of member of
the teaching team?

d. Teachers are also expected to engage the parents of each of their students as partners in the educational
process?

e. And, we replaced annual, standardized competency exams with small quizzes given to verify subject-matter
mastery, one lesson at a time.

What we would have, after implementing such changes, would be an environment with close personal bonds between teachers, students, and parents and in which all students succeed, albeit at their own best speed. It would be a learning environment in which there is no failure and in which all students begin to gain confidence that not only can they learn but also that learning can be fun. We would also see that the speed with which kids learn would increase, steadily.

What a different world public education would be.

Seem impossible? The truth is that making such changes is a simple, human-engineering problem that private and public school districts could begin implementing at the beginning of the coming school year. Most important of all is that the outcomes that would result would be astonishing.

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