Pass or Fail: Multi-Age Classroom Development Recommendations

In this multi-part series, I provide a dissection of the phenomenon of retention and social promotion. Also, I describe the many different methods that would improve student instruction in classrooms and eliminate the need for retention and social promotion if combined effectively.

While reading this series, periodically ask yourself this question: Why are educators, parents and the American public complicit in a practice that does demonstrable harm to children and the competitive future of the country?

How can the contemporary pass-fail classroom setup transition to one that accommodates different ages and ability levels?

Paula Carter teaches in a multi-age classroom at Rita Cannan Elementary School in Reno, Nevada. Many of the students’ parents are involved in the low-income unskilled jobs associated with the gambling industry. Seventy percent speak a language other than English at home, and 88 percent qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches. Because of the nature of the work in the city, the transience rate is close to 50 percent. To counter this, Rita Cannan Elementary requests that parents keep their children in the school for at least three consecutive years.

Carter’s classroom incorporates first-, second-, and third-grade students. When asked why the school does this, she responds: “I can’t think of a good reason not to,” and goes on to say that “multi-age grouping builds strong relationships among teachers, students, and families.” Carter had experienced a model multi-age classroom in her university training at the University of Nevada-Reno, and always knew it was something she wanted to try.

“Older students bring new students into the fold by showing them how the classroom works,” she says. “We hear them coaching the younger children: ‘Try it again! Don’t forget to use your strategies. Get your mouth ready to say the word.’ We also hear them comforting students: ‘That’s OK. You’ll do better next time. An 80 percent isn’t a bad grade.”

One ingredient that makes Carter’s classroom a success is the fact that she team teaches with Theresa Crowley, who speaks fluent Spanish. This assists not only in communicating with the students, but also with the parents, many of whom speak no English at all. Initially, Carter and Crowley spent much of their time in planning. However, as their relationship has grown, it has changed and deepened. Carter says: “Now we see ourselves as observers of children, looking at what has transpired in the classroom and what needs to occur to support each student every day.”

Some outsiders question whether it is possible to implement a multi-age classroom. Students from first grade, they say, will have different abilities than students in third grade. However, Carter notes that student abilities differ widely even within a single grade. In her classroom, they group students for various tasks and various purposes, noting that she wants the students to feel as though they are a part of a family. The multi-age classroom, in her estimation, works. Recently, she was able to compare students who had spent two years in her classroom with their peers in a single-age classroom. The students in her classroom were more fluent readers, justifying her approach.

The lack of recent academic studies validating the academic benefits of multi-age classrooms, as perceived by teachers and other educators, appears to contribute to the general doubts surrounding the workability of multi-age programming. While many seem ready to accept the philosophies of the multi-age classroom, skepticism about the potential obstacles of switching from the single-age model appears to be something of a stumbling block. This skepticism is at least one reason we are still on a path of standardized testing, grade retention, and social promotion policies, and focus on having students regurgitate knowledge rather than actually learn.

Lauer discusses the research literature on multi-age classrooms and explains how multi-age classrooms operate. She considers the example of a low-performing and predominantly Native American school district as it adopted multi-age classrooms. The adoption of the multi-age model, in this example, is described as a primary reform strategy.

According to Lauer’s summary, several researchers observed thirty-seven classrooms and interviewed principals and district administrators to collect data on implementation of multi-age classrooms. Data was also collected and analyzed from a nearby district for comparison. The chosen district had successful multi-age classrooms.

The study showed that teachers were unhappy that multi-age classrooms were essentially being forced on the school, and that the decision to use multi-age programming was made by district administrators. The findings also showed that teachers tended to feel incompetent and lacking in training and development, as well as materials and resources needed for such classrooms. According to Lauer’s summary, it was also felt by teachers that insufficient time was offered for collaboration and there was little effort to actually prepare the teachers for the switch to multi-age (hence the reported feelings of incompetence and the demand for professional development).

From this one example, we can confirm that it does not work to simply try to enforce multi-age classrooms suddenly. Such a move will be neither popular move nor practical. Aina writes on this matter, outlining how learning may be maximized in early childhood multi-age classrooms to benefit students, teachers, and parents.



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