Pass or Fail: The Challenges of Multi-Age Classrooms

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?

Applying a multi-age concept to classrooms, instead of the more rigid age-based system we use today, could solve a lot of problems — but what are the obstacles?

Here’s a story from Sarah, a teacher in the Midwest. Sarah’s school is in an urban setting. Her school had been chosen to participate in a pilot program to bring multi-age classrooms to the school district. Sarah found herself teaching a mixed classroom of students from first through fourth grades. She ended up with a ratio of ten boys to four girls, which she noted was a significant error and led to difficulties.

Sarah had received a total of just one day of training in preparation for the multi-age classroom, and she displayed a high level of anxiety about the class. Sarah noted that there were no structures for planning and staff development in place that would have allowed her to bounce ideas off colleagues or receive mentoring. The administration expected her to be able to deal with the change on her own.

Though the classroom had been allotted $2000 for materials and was told to boost the level of computer-assisted learning, the money did not arrive until after the school year had started, leaving Sarah floundering to fulfill her mandate. Once the computers did arrive, there were other problems involved with implementing the technology. The school had contracted with a software company from another state that essentially guaranteed growth in math and reading skills … as long as the classroom met certain standards. One of these standards required that students spend half an hour a day at the computer; if they missed a session, Sarah was expected to supervise a make-up session.

Sarah was not the only teacher in difficulty at the school—the problems were widespread, and dissatisfaction among the teachers was rampant. Sarah, as it turned out, ended up being one of the few who succeeded in getting a handle on the material. Some teachers went on strike, largely due to the multi-age pilot program, and several resigned.

As the example above demonstrates, implementing multi-age classrooms requires more than just directives from the administration or district-level authorities. Teachers must be given adequate preparation, and if new technologies are introduced, this should happen well in advance. However, studies have shown that, if implemented correctly, multi-age classrooms offer significant advantages.

It is well documented that multi-age groupings increase academic achievement levels. Although Slaton implied that the forced assignments for both teachers and students in multi-age classrooms could lead to negative academic outcomes, and attributed misunderstanding or lack of understanding about multi-age educa­tion to the inconsistent definition of multi-age education, many more studies identify the significant benefits of the multi-age program.

One of the issues with attempting to identify the benefits of study is, as Lloyd and others have suggested, due to the wide range of ways multi-age groupings are put in place. The diversity of multi-age program development and implementation makes it diffi­cult for researchers to generalize about the aca­demic impact of multi-age education. Nevertheless, the academic, social, and emotional benefits are enormous.

Educators have been attracted by the benefits of the multi-age classroom for some time. This is at least one of the reasons for the considerable diversity of the multi-age model: that so many organizations, groups, and educators have applied the model one way or another.

What if we all came together to form a collective, expert opinion on how to run these classrooms? If we combined our knowledge, how could our students benefit?


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