Pass or Fail: Multi-Age Classroom Program Models

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?

Should our public school classrooms accommodate more than one or two ages together? Would multi-age classrooms benefit all students?

The Kentucky Education Reform Act of 1990 (KERA, House Bill 940) sought to implement multi-age classrooms in public schools across the state of Kentucky. The details of the act made it more than a revision, however. In fact, it radically altered the financing of education in the state, but went further than financial reformation to establish key changes to curriculum and governance.

Significant changes to the curriculum outlined in the KERA targeted the reconstruction of primary schools, especially kindergarten to third grade. Standardized testing was to be implemented throughout the state. At the same time, though, the KERA recommended ending kindergarten to third grade and replacing them with a “primary school program” that would include “multi-age and multi-ability classrooms,” eliminating or at least reducing the separation of students by grade.

In line with the different demands of a multi-age and multi-ability classroom, the KERA also outlined new and expanded requirements for curriculum content and assessment. In particular, the act outlined the need for a “performance-based” approach, with students creating a portfolio of writing and mathematics work in the fourth grade (writing only), eighth grade, and twelfth grade. Qualitative assessments, including written reports assessing students’ performance, were to replace the traditional letter-grade system.

Although these are not necessarily the precise elements that should be part of the multi-age classroom, they point to the changes that must emerge. In fact, the KERA ultimately established a statewide, ungraded program for elementary-school-aged children, the goal being to emphasize the delivery of multi-age and multi-ability experiences. The change was implemented in 1990, and modified in 1996 to allow schools greater freedom to structure programs. Further legislation passed in 1992 outlined specific attributes to be included in each primary program. The seven elements were (1) developmentally appropriate educational practices, (2) multi-age and multi-ability classrooms, (3) continuous progress, (4) authentic assessment, (5) qualitative reporting methods, (6) professional teamwork, and (7) positive parent involvement.

The KERA established regional service centers in 1992, including a primary program consultant to offer professional development for school district personnel (a support service discontinued in 2003 due to a lack of funding and support).

According to the Kentucky Demographic Survey of the Primary Program used to evaluate the primary program between 2001 and 2007, the multi-age program did improve the academic performance of students. It also increased teacher preparation time before classes and offered various types of assessments, improving parents’ involvement in the education of children.

Kentucky was not the only state to start using a multi-age program. In 1994, the Michigan State Board of Education announced that it was going to establish non-graded contin­uous-progress programs for students in multi-age classrooms. Multi-age classrooms were very successful in Michigan for a period beginning in 1995, when the state’s department of education estimated that one in five districts was implementing multi-age settings.

Within three years, by 1998, more than half of Michigan’s school districts had begun or were expanding their multi-age models. The approach was dropped in 1999, however, because funding was stopped. The following year, the Michigan Department of Education would also stop the initiative and support for multi-age grouping, despite evidence that the approach helped students make progress. The key reason for the discontinuation, according to the state board of education, was the incompatibility of multi-age classrooms with the grade-level content and annual testing.

Recent years have seen a discontinuation of multi-age programs in those states where they were implemented, mostly due to the grade-level standards and test requirements established by the No Child Left Behind Act. This is ironic, as states were also subjected to accountability laws.

On the flip side, of course, schools and educators with experience in the multi-age classroom have found that they want to embrace the multi-age philosophy. Some schools continue to use the multi-age classroom as alternative learning environments for students. Other states have gone about using these classrooms school-wide as an internal, school-specific policy, primarily because of the obvious benefits.


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