There are schools all across America where 100% of the students are performing at their “grade level” as they always have… and always will. They don’t have to wait until 2014 or whenever NCLB shames every school into compliance or dire consequence. Your school could have every child at grade level too. By this Friday! 

The schools are academies for Tae Kwon Do that employ a fifty year old curriculum consistent with the Jhoon Rhee System. Students are at their level because in Tae Kwon Do the instructors are not bound by NCLB or the arbitrary practice of grouping students according to their age. Rather, each student earns a color belt that represents the level, along a continuum of learning, which they have earned through through their effort and performance. When they are ready to move to the next belt– the next level- they demonstrate their mastery of forms, fundamentals and fighting techniques that are required for promotion. Some students move faster than others. But most are motivated to test and advance toward the highest possible level– the black belt. The role of the teacher in this system, is to differentiate instruction and provide each individual student with the knowledge, skills and support they need to make continuous progress.

If our schools were organized like the schools in Tae Kwon Do, our students would not be grouped by their age. Their age would be irrelevant. Instead we would ask: What have they learned? What are they ready to learn next? How can teachers accelerate students and provide authentic opportunities for them to achieve mastery?

The grade level system that we inherited from the Industrial Revolution has been in place for nearly 150 years. There have been plenty of studies to challenge the wisdom of grouping kids by age rather than achievement. Those studies are often used to provide a rationale for multiage and ungraded classrooms. And while there may have been some momentum behind the transition to multiage classrooms in the previous three decades, that momentum has dissipated mightily in this era of accountability. Too bad.  

In California (and, I suspect, in your state, too) the year-end, summative assessments are designed to be administered to children according to their grade. Our data comes back organized by grade level trends. We learn that 61% of our 5th graders scored at grade level in math while 46% of our English learners in 3rd grade were proficient in language arts. You can compare our 6th graders with your 6th graders and this years’ 7th graders with how they performed as 5th graders. It all tells us something but I wonder if our kids are really learning to the extent that they are capable of learning.  

At the end of this school year we will promote a few hundred kids to the next grade level even though they haven’t demonstrated mastery of their current grade level. We will  promote them because it is June and all their classmates are being promoted and the research on retention is so daunting that it forces us to choose our poison. In Tae Kwon Do if you promote a student who has not mastered the competencies of the curriculum, they will be thrown in with advanced students with whom they can not compete. One day they will catch a flying heel kick on the side of the head and it will remind them that earning a black belt is not a race.

We flirted, just for a moment, with the idea of grouping our K-8 school of 1000 students by their academic proficiency level instead of their age. We are a charter school so we can do it if we want to. We use MAPS for formative assessments and have a high degree of confidence in its alignment with California’s content standards. We’d get them grouped right. And every student would be instantly at grade level because they would be at the grade level that they are ready to master next. There would be multiple age groups in a classroom but the curriculum standards wouldn’t change. We differentiate instruction anyway… so children would still be treated as individuals.  

Then we realized that if 100% of our students were suddenly at grade level, there would be no need for the threats and sanctions of NCLB. We would never miss AYP target goals. Our Academic Performance Index would be the highest in the state. There would be some logistical challenges but none as formidable as the challenge of convincing the state of California that we were not just gaming the system. So we decided against it. We still have our students out in classrooms according to their age. And though thousands of new schools will fall into Program Improvement each year as the AYP threshold rises, we will keep forcing the grade level system that makes little sense when it comes to teaching or learning. Or testing. 

Innovations, like revolutions, are often inspired by the desperate needs of organizations that can no longer thrive in antiquated systems. Assuming that the provisions of NCLB remain unchanged, should we continue to force schools to fit a timeline of achievement… or use that timeline as the motivation for fundamental change in how we organize our schools?  

And here is an Epilogue (of sorts):

I broke a bunch of boards when I tested for my black belt.  By the end of the day my hands were swollen and I needed some ice.  In Tae Kwon Do there are no social promotions.


1 Comment

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  1. I was thinking very similar thoughts a couple of days ago — without the broken boards.

    Your Tae Kwon Do analogy makes the point clear…performance matters, and NCLB is founded on a false presumption, namely, that all kids of the same age should or will perform uniformly.

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