Inside a Multi-age Classroom

Dividing students by arbitrary birthdate ranges doesn’t make sense, advocates say.

by Stuart Miller  | The Atlantic
DEVENS, Massachusetts—It looks like a typical class in a suburban high school. The teacher, Barbara Curtin, discusses the differences between mean, mode, and median while her students at the Francis W. Parker Charter Essential School sit in clusters of three or four at tables around the room. A second teacher, Lorin Hill, is there to help. All fairly standard, but for one dramatic difference—the mix of students.

Curtin’s class includes both ninth- and 10th-graders. Sometimes she even has a precocious eighth-grader or two and a couple of struggling 11th-graders. That’s because Parker offers what may be the nation’s most ambitious and comprehensive take on multiage education in middle and high school, breaking grades 7 to 12 into three divisions, with each division blending two grades together.

Multiage education is not a return to the one-room schoolhouse of yore, in which students of all ages learned different subjects in one space. Instead, students from (typically) two grades learn together in an environment that, advocates say, encourages cooperation and mentoring while allowing struggling students enough time to master material.

A long-time staple of Montessori schools, multiage classrooms spread to progressive elementary schools in the 1990s, although their use was always just one ingredient in a mix intended to provide more personalized instruction.

But the movement lost traction in the 2000s, when the No Child Left Behind era imposed more grade-level standardized tests.

“The move to standards-based education with testing on grade level has made multiage classrooms really challenging,” says Diane Friedlaender of the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education at Stanford University.

Today, multiage classrooms remain an anomaly in America. Little research is being done on them in elementary schools—and the results are inconclusive—while virtually no research has ever investigated the effects of multiage classrooms in middle and high schools, likely because so few exist. (Though there are no hard numbers, educators acknowledge the total is miniscule.)

Yet multiage advocates say the traditional approach of dividing students into single grades based on an arbitrary birth-date range is illogical. Children spend much of their time outside school on sports teams or in arts programs that are more age-flexible than classrooms. Little League baseball teams, for instance, might group 5- to 8-year-olds in one division and 9- to 10-year-olds in another, allowing children to “play up” or “play down” based on their skills. Then the same kids go to school and are segregated with others of the exact same age, but not necessarily the same development, and they are all expected to reach certain benchmarks and move on at year’s end, no matter what.

“It is hard to understand why schools have such a rigid adherence to that structure and don’t think about child development at all,” says Friedlaender.

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