No easy road back to the schoolhouse class system

13th February 1998 at 00:00
Jon Marcus on how renewed enthusiasm for multi-year classes does not sit easily with planned national tests

American educators are trying to resurrect a version of the old-fashioned one-room schoolhouse- incorporating into a single classroom students from two or three different year groups.

The movement towards multi-age education claims to have evidence that the idea boosts intellectual and social skills. But its momentum is being threatened by planned national curriculum requirements and stringent standardised assessment tests that are all designed to be age-specific.

Nancy Walser, editor of The Harvard University Education Letter, whose own kindergarten-age daughter is in a multi-age programme in a public school, said: "Multi-age education is going to continue to be an option, but it's going to depend on the level of strictness that districts decide to follow and on the power equation: are we going to let teachers do what they need to do to educate the kids or are we going to impose all these standards on them?" Mixing students from two and occasionally three year groups in one classroom ostensibly improves learning through co-operation, mentorship and knowledge-sharing. Teachers remain with the same students for two years instead of one, and older students serve as unofficial mentors to their younger classmates.

"As a parent you can see that a younger child is much more interested in what an older child is doing than a teacher or a peer," Ms Walser said.

In many schools, students are increasingly mixed by age on a part-time basis. "A third-grader (eight-year-old) will be teamed with a kindergartener who may not even be reading yet, while the second- or third-grader may still be in the process of learning about vocabulary," Ms Walser said.

A succession of studies have shown that students in such programmes show at least a slight improvement on achievement tests and tests for mental health.

Bruce Miller, a researcher at the Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory in Portland, Oregon, said: "In the affective area - attitude, relationships and interpersonal regard - the statistical evidence tends to favour the multi-age classroom."

But no sooner has the movement started gaining speed than events have begun outpacing it.

Multi-age classrooms are harder to teach and require more preparation and training at a time when there is a growing shortage of educators. And new assessment tests, due to start nationally in 2001, will be strictly tailored to specific grades.

The irony, said Bruce Miller, author of Children at the Center: Implementing the Multi-Age Classroom, is that single-age grades date from the 19th-century population explosion, when Americans moved from the one-room schoolhouse to "industrialised education, which we're all sort of fighting now".

Subscribe to get access to the content on this page.

If you are already a Tes/ Tes Scotland subscriber please log in with your username or email address to get full access to our back issues, CPD library and membership plus page.

Not a subscriber? Find out more about our subscription offers.
Subscribe now
Existing subscriber?
Enter subscription number

Comments

The guide by your side – ensuring you are always up to date with the latest in education.

Get Tes magazine online and delivered to your door. Stay up to date with the latest research, teacher innovation and insight, plus classroom tips and techniques with a Tes magazine subscription.
With a Tes magazine subscription you get exclusive access to our CPD library. Including our New Teachers’ special for NQTS, Ed Tech, How to Get a Job, Trip Planner, Ed Biz Special and all Tes back issues.

Subscribe now