SHADY OAK BEST PRACTICES: ORGANIZING CLASS GROUPS BY ABILITY
Every month we publish two articles on “Shady Oak Best Practices,” our favorite approaches to education and why they work. If friends ask why you send your kids to Shady Oak instead of a “regular” school, refer them to this series—and the science backing us up—for starters.
“What grade are you in?” is a question nearly as familiar to elementary-age children as “How old are you?” Frequently, youngsters are asked both questions—and greeted by raised eyebrows in the rare case when age and grade don’t “match.” If someone is nine years old and in second grade, he or she is assumed to be “slow,” or even mentally deficient. If an eight-year-old is in fifth grade, the typical response is, “You must be a genius!”—which can be as embarrassing as being thought “too old” for one’s grade, especially if the child is struggling academically or socially. And these days, being “off” by a year or two often means being treated as a case study in the pros and cons of keeping students back or skipping them ahead.
Even for kids in the “right” grade, expectations of what they “should be” able to do by now can be frustrating. Fortunately, many enlightened schools are now opting for standards-based learning, which means organizing subjects into “levels” based on specific standards of achievement. Arithmetic, for example, might be organized as follows:
- Level 1: counting to the high numbers
- Level 2: addition and subtraction
- Level 3: basic multiplication and division
- Level 4: multiplication and division with larger numbers
- Level 5: fractions and percentages
Standards-based classes (which can constitute a school’s full academic system or be reserved for special education/specific subjects in a grade-levels school) typically include students spanning two-to-three-grade age ranges, with open opportunities to request testing for advancement to higher-level classes.
Besides minimizing student frustration and allowing everyone to learn at their own speed, the advantages of standards-based learning include:
- Every new student entering a classroom has already mastered certain defined skills, so teachers spend less time reviewing old material or figuring out who needs special help with what.
- By being encouraged to move up as soon as they’re ready, students have more incentive to learn quickly and develop personal initiative.
- Discipline problems generated by frustration or restlessness are kept to a minimum.
- When students have more basic skills in common, the classroom has a stronger sense of community.
- More mingling of ages allows opportunities for making more friends.
At Shady Oak, we emphasize organizing class groups by ability because it helps children learn more effectively, and because it minimizes labeling of students due to age or grade.