The “I Ching” teaches that “Before there can be great brilliance… there must be chaos.”
This is PART 7 in a series of blog posts that document our research, strategic thinking, observations and debates as we take on one of the last vestiges of the industrial revolution: the practice in schools of organizing kids into grade levels according to their chronological age.
The history of El Patio Restaurant is written in its walls. It is as old as California. Father Serra may have stopped here for handmade beef tamales on his journey north to build California’s first missions. His ghost is still in the corner, plugging the jukebox with strange coins and listening to classic ’60s low rider anthems and tejano ballads.
El Patio is where the Wizard and I go for lunch when we want to incubate ideas. Perhaps it is the layers of aging hot sauce on the floors and splashed partly up the side walls. Perhaps it is in the jalapenos. Or the jukebox inspiration under Father Serra’s watchful eye. But for some reason, at El Patio, the creativity flows.
So yesterday we had lunch and caught up on our latest thinking in how we might organize a school without grade levels and what effect it would have on overall student achievement and what new metrics would be useful in monitoring the change.
Our ideas on a school without grade levels came in a series of “What ifs…”
What if we don’t include KINDERGARTEN or FIRST GRADE in the ungraded program, but since they feed into it, we don’t allow students to advance without first demonstrating grade level proficiency?
El Milagro will open a Full-Day Kindergarten for the first time this year. The timing is awesome. When we launch the ungraded system, students will enter school with a full year to make up for having not gone to pre-school, or not learned their letters, or having never read with their parents, or not knowing their name. But while neither Kindergarten nor First Grade would be part of the “ungraded” program, we will expect students to be proficient before they leave either grade.
What if we eliminate Second Grade, Third Grade, Fourth Grade, and Fifth Grade?
Students are currently assigned to these grade levels on the basis of two parameters:
1) Their chronological age, and
2) The grade level they completed last June.
These grade level grouping decisions are not based on achievement or mastery (which is what the California Education Code requires!). They are based solely on students’ age and time spent sitting in a seat.
...What if these four grade levels (2-5) morphed into one UNGRADED PROGRAM (that admittedly needs a catchier name!)?
• We could eliminate the traditional, 10-month, September-to-June school calendar;
• Group students by chronological age for science, social studies, PE, the arts and home room;
• Re-group students for language arts and math based on their MAPS assessment scores (we call them RIT scores);
• Identify, early in the school year, which level of the California Standards Test each student is preparing to take (the Grade 2, 3, 4 or 5 version)– based on the level that they last demonstrated proficiency on; and
• Offer students the opportunity to move through the four levels at their own pace.
What if…students progress to each new level solely on the basis of merit and demonstrated proficiency– just like what happens in Tae Kwon Do… and just like what happens in college. No free pass.
Such are the brainstorms of El Patio where every idea generates new questions and more “What ifs”. That’s what is fueling the creativity. By the time we were rolling on ideas for 6th grade we were on our third glass of ice tea… arms flailing, spitting tortilla chips, interrupting each other mid-idea. We wondered:
What if we change the structure for 6th grade?
6TH GRADE would definitely be the moment of truth for this whole scheme. There will be only two ways that a student can exit our UNGRADED program and enter our 6TH GRADE :
1. They can “Test In”, by demonstrating mastery of the 5th grade CST, or
2. They can “Age In” because if we don’t move them along they are going to turn 93 before they ever get out of Mueller Charter School.
Student who are moved into the 6th grade program solely on the basis of age (and not proficiency) will be provided an intensive program from the strongest teachers we have. These classrooms will be self-contained and will require students’ full participation in afterschool tutoring, intersessions, and independent skill development in the computer lab.
Students who “test in” to 6th grade,will participate in a departmentalized program patterned after our 7th and 8th grade Leadership Academy.
And our 7th and 8th grade students, because they are selected for our Leadership Academy on the basis of their willingness to work hard, will continue in a departmentalized, accelerated program that is designed to prepare them for advanced placement courses in high school.
Lunch was over and before we headed back to school, the Wizard and I agreed on one final and point that will make or break the success of this systemic change. We must still balance the demand for accountability on tests with the obligation we have to our students to inspire a love of learning an thinking and creating and discovering their full range of gifts.
The ungraded elementary program will enable us to focus on basic skill development and mastering grade level competencies. But that is not where the real teaching and learning lies. The chronological age groupings will offer students opportunities to work across age groups, academic disciplines, and performance outcomes to fully develop as learners.
That is balance… and our best thinking from El Patio, where the salsa marinates in an ancient recipe and an old mariachi on the jukebox wails: “Que si…”.