This article presents an overview of non-graded instruction in U.S. public schools. Non-graded classrooms refer specifically to ones in which grade-level designations or divisions have been eliminated for a grade-sequence range of two or more years and students of varying grades, ages and ability levels are mixed together in the same class. Nongraded classrooms are learner-centered environments that are implemented through the application of individualized, developmentally-appropriate instruction and a continuous-progress approach to the curriculum. While research has in many cases shown both cognitive and social benefits, including increased academic achievement and positive affective outcomes, most schools and the general public have remained resistant and steadfastly opposed to the educational practice of any approach other than the graded system.
Non-graded, un-graded, or multi-age education is the practice of placing, grouping, and teaching students of varying grades, ages, and ability levels together in the same classroom (Baker & Hall, 1995; Gaustad, 1992a; Gaustad, 1996; Schubert, 1986; Webb, Metha, & Jordan, 1992). Although non-grading can occur by varying degrees, grade-level designations or divisions are eliminated for a typical grade-sequence range of two or more years (Thelin, 1981; Webb et al., 1992). Thus, in non-graded classrooms, students are mixed based on grade (multi-grade, e.g., K through 2), age (multi-age, e.g., 5-7 years, younger and older), and ability (multi-ability, e.g., a range or continuum of levels).
Non-gradedness is a concept that can refer to a holistic model of education; an educational theory, philosophy, and practice; a system; a program; a school; a classroom; and a grouping scheme (Pavan, 1992; Schubert, 1986). There are a variety of terms that are found in the educational literature and that are commonly used with reference to non-gradedness, non-graded classrooms, and non-graded instruction. This basic terminology is summarized in Figure 1.
A generally accepted premise underlying non-gradedness is that student development is uneven. It is not smooth, level, or "clean." It is not uniform or consistent. It is Jagged -- disparate and different -- and varies across individual students. It, in fact, varies within the same student in different areas of the curriculum.
Non-graded or multi-age classrooms constitute a form or plan of internal school organization, an innovative approach to curricular and instructional organization, and a structural context of learning (Stone, 1998). Non-graded classrooms are an unconventional pattern of organization that contrasts with conventionally graded classrooms.
Although non-graded classrooms utilize different organizational arrangements, they all have certain features and attributes in common. For example, they are generally student-centered learning environments. The focus of the curriculum in non-graded classrooms is on the student. Instruction is individualized to adapt to the individual differences inherent among students.
Non-graded multi-age classrooms are implemented based on a continuous-progress curriculum and a continuous-progress approach to education. Students are allowed to progress continuously and to master the prescribed curriculum at their own pace as individuals and not as a class. Progress is also evaluated continuously and formative feedback is provided recurrently to students and parents.
The educational practice of non-graded multi-age instruction during the elementary years in the U.S. has been an option of schools since at least the introduction of graded education in the mid-nineteenth century (Kinsey, 2002). The first graded classrooms were implemented by Horace Mann, then the secretary of the Massachusetts Board of Education, in the 1840s (Hallion, 1994). It did not take long for educators to determine that the graded divisions of classrooms created artificial barriers to effective student learning. The Quincy Grammar School of Boston, Massachusetts, began experimentation with non-graded organization in 1848 (Dean, 1964). Post-Civil War America saw a number of uncoordinated efforts that questioned the use of graded practices and sought alternative means to non-grade schools and other ways to operate them (Anderson, 1992). The educator Preston W. Search has been credited with the first documented attempt at personalized instruction in a school setting (Keefe & Jenkins, 2000). Search set up a continuous-progress curriculum with student self-paced mastery of learning in the schools of Pueblo, Colorado, in 1888 (Keefe & Jenkins, 2000).
The basic concept of "non-graded multi-age education" was practiced in rural American one-room schoolhouses from the mid-seventeenth to the mid-twentieth centuries and has flourished since then (Greene, 1997; Pardini, 2005). As such, non-graded education became one of many innovations that were pioneered by small schools.
In a now historic study, the Educational Commission in the late 1800s recommended that vacation schools with non-graded or ungraded classrooms be established in more crowded areas of U.S. cities (Sabin, 1898). John Dewey considered graded classrooms too confining and machine-like (Hallion, 1994). His Laboratory School, which operated from 1893 to 1903, sought to be sensitive to the differences in students' learning styles (Anderson, 1992). Jenkins (1998) considered two of the pioneering historical models of non-graded high schools: the Dalton plan and the Winnetka plan of the early 1900s.
Among the European influences on American non-graded schools were the British primary school system, the German Peterson School, and Maria Montessori's schools (Anderson, 1992). The non-graded and learner-centered British primary schools experienced success in reading instruction, in students' learning to read, and in students' total development (Johnson, 1974). The heterogeneous age groupings of the Peterson School in early 1920s Germany influenced non-graded schools that were later established in Wisconsin (Anderson, 1992). The Montessori method of preschool education, developed by Maria Montessori (1870-1952), an Italian physician and educator, is an example of an educationally grounded non-graded multi-age program. It emphasized individualized instruction and independent self-learning, and it exposed students to a wide range of educational opportunities and allowed them to progress at their own pace (Ahlfeld, 1970; Pardini, 2005). The Montessori method was introduced into U.S. schools in the early 1900s, was popular for a brief time thereafter, ebbed until about 1958 when Montessori returned to the U.S., and subsequently proliferated anew (Ahlfeld, 1970).
Non-graded classrooms thus experienced a resurgence of popularity in the 1950s. There were also some non-graded, continuous-progress-planned high schools established around the mid-twentieth century (Jenkins, 1998). Early advocates of non-graded elementary schools were Goodlad and Anderson (1959). A twentieth-century alternative model in which students spent half of the school day in a homeroom and the other half studying elective subjects with specialist teachers was Chancellor George Stoddard's "dual-progress plan." In 1950, Stoddard's model, characterized by individualized instruction and a continuous-progress curriculum was implemented in four Long Beach, California, elementary schools (Anderson, 1992).
Non-graded schools are considered by some educators as a vestige of progressivism, the philosophy that dominated American education through the 1960s and 1970s (Webb et al., 1992). There was strong interest and advocation of non-graded schools during this time period, which was toward the end of the progressivist era. Two additional general examples of non-graded multi-age-type programs are open classrooms of the 1960s and 1970s, which grouped and re-grouped students based on their specific needs throughout the school day, and "individually-guided education" of the late 1970s in which students worked their way independently through personalized learning plans (Pardini, 2005).
The late twentieth century saw increased attention given to non-graded multi-age classrooms. Renewed interest in the 1980s continued to grow during the 1990s (Gaustad, 1996; Hallion, 1994). The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) requirements for grade-level testing, the standards and accountability movement (including Race to the Top and Common Core learning standards), and the general decline of affective education brought...
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