Being in Fifth Grade, and Why It No Longer Matters

Today has been spent on the computer – reading, researching, reading some more, and sharing through social media links to what I’ve found.  While my primary concern for keeping up with the changes in our schools is so that I can make certain my homeschoolers stay well ahead of average, I have other concerns as well.  Our schools do not exist in a vacuum.  Our schools are part of our communities, they educate the minds and influence the hearts of tomorrow’s (hopefully) productive citizens, they are where dedicated teachers invest their lives and non-dedicated ones barely earn their pay.  Our schools are run thanks to tax dollars, politicians, and others.  Education should be as important to everyone, because the system affects everyone.  

Where I live, parents have complete freedom in choosing how to educate their kiddos.  We have a doubly blessed situation here, in that both homeschoolers and Alaskans value their freedom to live as they wish.  As Common Core Standards creep in, many of us have been keeping a more watchful eye on what wasn’t always a concern, namely, government interference.  Now don’t get me wrong here, I am ALL FOR greater rigor in schools across the country.  I don’t think we expect nearly enough from our students and their studies.  Below is a statement from the founder of the Institute for Excellence in Writing, Andrew Pudewa:

Why “standards”—whoever creates them—will never work in today’s schools (with one exception).
Once upon a time, being in Fifth Grade meant something. It meant that you had acquired the knowledge and skills to be learned in Fourth Grade. If you didn’t “pass” Fourth Grade you would continue to study and practice until you did. That was a standard—something which must be attained; common sense dictated that it wouldn’t be wise to go on to Fifth Grade without achieving the Fourth Grade standard.
Then, with the demise of the one-room schoolhouse and the expansion of the central school and grade-segregated classrooms, the end of real standards began. Thus, to not “pass” Fourth Grade meant to be “held back”, separated from your peer group, stigmatized, and thought stupid. And the psychologists who ruled modern education quickly deemed that it would be better for students to go on to the next grade—without the knowledge and skills that would enable them to succeed—than to suffer the psychological trauma of being “held back.” With this thinking, students would be moved up in grade whether or not they had met the standard of the previous grade. Thus, the standard became meaningless.
As this became entrenched in the schools, the whole concept of “grade level” gradually came to mean nothing but “approximate age.” Students advanced to the next grade level not by mastering specific knowledge and skills but merely by merit of being a year older. This, of course, caused a decline in competency and ultimately resulted in functionally illiterate high school graduates with diplomas—something that never would have been possible under the previously honest system of grades and standards. (By the way, if you’ve never seen an 8th grade exam from a hundred years ago, you must! Could you pass this test?, this decline resulted in a clamor for…guess what? Revised standards!
Schools, districts, and states formed committees of experts to decide what all fourth grade students should be able to do in reading and writing and arithmetic, and commanded the teachers to see to it that no child would fail to meet these universal standards. But the “grade is determined by age and not ability” system precluded success. No person, committee, or government can dictate that every ten year old child be able to read or write or calculate at certain level any more that they could dictate that every ten year old be a certain height, or have specific eye color, or enjoy eating carrots. Children are different and learn at different speeds just like they grow at different speeds.
Consequently, the schools failed to ensure that all students met the standards, and so the standards had to be rewritten (a bit lower). Again the schools failed and standards rewritten. Then, after a couple decades, some brilliant observers noted that student abilities had declined—probably because of low standards. Ha! So the standards were revised again (a bit higher), but the inevitable continued. Some—or many—children will not meet the standards, but what can be done if grade is still determined by age and not ability? It’s a deeply dysfunctional system, and will continue to be a self-perpetuating downward spiral because it is based on a fundamentally dishonest idea—that age and ability must be connected.
There is really only one way to significantly improve institutional education, and that would be to eliminate grade levels, which could probably only happen with a return to mixed-age classrooms and standards which really mean something. Very few people would be willing to try this, but there is one team of innovative educators in Alaska who have done just that—in a public school district! They have actually eliminated grade levels and restored standards—ten achievement levels in each of nine content areas. Students only progress to the next level when they demonstrate proficiency at their current level. This is not only good common sense, the Chugach School District is getting superb results and beginning to teach other schools and districts how to implement real a standards-based assessment model. Details about their system can be found here: amount of verbiage, government pressure, teacher training, extra funding, or good intentions will make the new “Common Core” standards any more effective than any other “standards” effort. While there may be many well-intentioned people working on this idea, it’s fundamentally flawed. The only hope for improved student learning is to eliminate the idea of “grade” levels as we know it, acknowledge that students learn at different speeds, decentralize schools and encourage mixed-age classrooms, even “cottage” or neighborhood schools, and put some teeth in the meaning of the word “standards.”

I couldn’t agree more with Mr. Pudewa.  Anyone else see a simpler, less expensive solution to Common Core and NCLB?  I do.  Anyone think politicians will keep their jobs by pushing for grade level elimination as we know it?  I don’t.  Then there’s the question of all the money exchanging hands between our federal government and our local schools that agree to comply.  Perhaps federally run schools don’t concern everyone.  Will the provisions included in the Federal Stimulus package be of concern?  You know, the ones that will monitor the pupils of testing students through computer cameras, or the special devices that will be attached to children in schools to measure stress, or maybe the cradle-to-grave data tracking?

What will be the end result of Common Core standards?  What is the end goal here?  


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