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Grouping Kids By Ability – Not Age – Would Solve Two Major NYC School Problems

I have written before about two major problems NYC parents pinpoint regarding public schools:

These two problems intersect: while it is nearly impossible to hold children back in order to accommodate their academic and social readiness, it is just as hard to accelerate them. Grouping children by ability rather than age would solve both problems

According to the New York State Department of Education website:

New York does not have a state policy on acceleration. Local education agencies determine whether and to what extent acceleration is permitted… districts are not required to enroll students who do not meet (their) age requirement.

The New York City Department of Education website does not address the subject at all, and repeated queries about their official position went unanswered.

Even though, as NPR reports, in some classes as many as over 50% of children are performing above grade level, unofficially, school principals and superintendents tell parents that if their kids are bored, that’s what Gifted and Talented programs are for.  Chancellor Carmen Fariña, has gone on record as saying, “There’s a lot of other ways to reach the needs of (bright children outside gifted programs).”

But what about when even gifted programs aren’t enough? Or, conversely, what about when they’re too much? In NYC, children are tested for G&T placement at 4 years old. But there is no evidence that a verbally precocious preschooler will be ready to tackle. algebra early. When I work with families on school placement, a good number want to leave accelerated schools like Hunter College Elementary or NEST+M because the programs presume all children are equally gifted across all subjects. Any parent who has witnessed the range of “normal” development among their own kids knows that this is never the case.

An obvious solution is to not only give parents the choice about when their children start school, but also to allow each child to move at their own pace. Progressive schools have been employing mixed-age groups for decades.

Dr. Shira Leibowitz,  Lower School Director at the private Portfolio School explains their reasons:

At Portfolio, students learn in flexible teams mirroring the way many creative adults work, rather than in classes divided by grade level and age. At times these teams are organized by academic level, at times by age or range of ages, and at times by interest in mixed age and mixed level groups.This enables children to pursue their own interests and progress at their own pace, without artificial limits based on grade level, enabling an education without limits.

Rather than serving mandatory time before being allowed to continue to the next level, students can progress upon demonstrating mastery, via a test or other metric such as an essay or oral report. Similarly, those having trouble can stay longer to ensure proficiency.

Such a policy would be striated by subject. A nine-year-old may be taking 7th grade math, 5th grade reading, 4th grade science, and 2nd grade Spanish, or any other combination they, their parents and their teachers see fit. Progress in one subject would no longer be bundled with achievement in any other.

In response to my proposal, education reporter Anya Kemenetz, who confessed on Twitter that her own child was currently “bored to tears” in her NYC public school, suggested implementation would be difficult due to architecture, teacher availability, etc….

But how is elementary different than high-school? For instance, sophomore year, my son took AP History, Honors English, and Standard Math, while some kids were in AP Science, Standard English, and Honors Math. The algorithm for mixed-achievement scheduling already exists.

Most importantly, this wouldn’t cost the DOE extra money. Testing kids for G&T takes money. Creating G&T classrooms and staffing them with specially-certified teachers takes money. This plan would not increase the overall number of children, so no new classrooms or teachers or curriculum is required. It would even make accountability more efficient, as promotion would be based on concrete metrics, rather than social issues and faculty discretion. It would also be easier to evaluate teachers. You could measure the average speed that students of varying abilities moved through their courses. When the material is the same but progress is different, that’s the instructor’s value-added!

NYC public school teachers have repeatedly expressed resistance to being “graded.” So let’s heed their wishes and remove grades of all kinds… for everyone.

 

What do you think?

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