Category Archives: Un-graded schools


Three weeks remain in the 2009-10 school year an we have just finished testing. We expect to see significant growth over the year before and we expect the schools down the street will  have gotten even more growth and we will be reminded that the schools down the street did it right and we are somehow not as efficient or effective or committed or skilled or blessed or insightful or something.

In the meantime, we also moved the ball down the field on our plan to implement more multi-age classrooms and transform our teaching. We are preparing to return to a curriculum that inspires our children to think and create and spring out of bed in the morning and race down the street to El Milagro because there are things happening here that are worth learning.  In the post-test celebration our students danced on the playground and I was reminded how much I miss seeing them find their rhythm.

Along the way we even challenged ourselves to find a solution to that stubborn dilemma that all teachers face in June: what to do with the kids that aren’t ready for the next grade.  Retain them? Socially promote them?  Transfer them to the schools down the street that have all the answers?

We decided that no one zeros in on student needs like we do.  We decided that we wouldn’t have to retain or socially promote kids that weren’t ready… if we just get them all ready!  And since kids learn and develop on their own time , we decided we would give each struggling learner their own timeline and gameplan for promotion… and multi-age classrooms allow us to do that.

So much is happening at El Milagro… even in the face of opposition and cynicism that we are somehow cheating or taking short cuts.  If you read this blog you know… we are totally focussed on finding a better way.  So we dip, even for a moment, into the fires, searching for that wisdom that even those schools down the street might learn from us.


Filed under charter schools, children at risk, El Milagro, innovation and change, school reform, Un-graded schools

JOURNALING CHAOS 7: “It’s in The Salsa”



The “I Ching” teaches that “Before there can be great brilliance… there must be chaos.”

This is PART 7 in a series of blog posts that document our research, strategic thinking, observations and debates as we take on one of the last vestiges of the industrial revolution: the practice in schools of organizing kids into grade levels according to their chronological age.

el patio dayThe history of El Patio Restaurant is written in its walls.  It is as old as California.  Father Serra may have stopped here for handmade beef tamales on his journey north to build California’s first missions.  His ghost is still in the corner, plugging the jukebox with strange coins and listening to classic ’60s low rider anthems and tejano ballads.

El Patio is where the Wizard and I go for lunch when we want to incubate ideas. Perhaps it is the layers of aging hot sauce on the floors and splashed partly up the side walls. Perhaps it is in the jalapenos.  Or the jukebox inspiration under Father Serra’s watchful eye. But for some reason, at El Patio, the creativity flows.

So yesterday we had lunch and caught up on our latest thinking in how we might organize a school without grade levels and what effect it would have on overall student achievement and what new metrics would be useful in monitoring the change.

Our ideas on a school without grade levels came in a series of “What ifs…”

ideasWhat if we don’t include  KINDERGARTEN or FIRST GRADE in the ungraded program, but since they feed into it, we don’t allow students to advance without first demonstrating grade level proficiency?

El Milagro will open a Full-Day Kindergarten for the first time this year.  The timing is awesome.  When we launch the ungraded system,  students will enter school with a full year to make up for having not gone to pre-school, or not learned their letters, or having never read with their parents, or not knowing their name. But while neither Kindergarten nor First Grade would be part of the “ungraded” program, we will expect students to be proficient before they leave either grade. 

ideasWhat if we eliminate Second Grade, Third Grade, Fourth Grade, and Fifth Grade?

Students are currently assigned to these grade levels on the basis of two parameters:


1) Their chronological age, and  

2) The grade level they completed last June.

These grade level grouping decisions are  not based on achievement or mastery (which is what the California Education Code requires!).  They are based solely on students’ age and time spent sitting in a seat.  


ideas...What if  these four grade levels (2-5) morphed into one UNGRADED PROGRAM (that admittedly needs a catchier name!)?

• We could eliminate the traditional, 10-month, September-to-June school calendar;

• Group students by chronological age for science, social studies, PE, the arts and home room;

• Re-group students for language arts and math based on their MAPS assessment scores (we call them RIT scores);

• Identify, early in the school year, which level of the California Standards Test  each student is preparing to take  (the Grade 2, 3, 4 or 5 version)– based on the level that they last demonstrated proficiency on; and

• Offer students the opportunity to move through the four levels at their own pace.

ideasWhat if…students progress to each new level solely on the basis of merit and demonstrated proficiency– just like what happens in Tae Kwon Do… and just like what happens in college.  No free pass.

Such are the brainstorms of El Patio where every idea generates new questions and more “What ifs”.  That’s what is fueling the creativity.  By the time we were rolling on ideas for 6th grade we were on our third glass of ice tea… arms flailing, spitting tortilla chips, interrupting each other mid-idea. We wondered:

ideasWhat if we change the structure for 6th grade?

6TH GRADE would definitely be the moment of truth for this whole scheme.  There will be only two ways that a student can exit our UNGRADED program and enter our 6TH GRADE :


1.  They can  “Test In”, by demonstrating mastery of the 5th grade CST, or

2.  They can “Age In” because  if we don’t move them along they are going to turn 93 before they ever get out of Mueller Charter School.

Student who are moved into the 6th grade program solely on the basis of age (and not proficiency) will be provided an intensive program from the strongest teachers we have.  These classrooms will be self-contained and will require students’ full participation in afterschool tutoring, intersessions, and independent skill development in the computer lab.

Students who “test in” to 6th grade,will participate in a departmentalized program patterned after our 7th and 8th grade Leadership Academy.

And our 7th and 8th grade students, because they are selected for our Leadership Academy on the basis of their willingness to work hard, will continue in a departmentalized, accelerated program that is designed to prepare them for advanced placement courses in high school.


Lunch was over and before we headed back to school, the Wizard and I agreed on one final and point that will make or break the success of this systemic change. We must still balance the demand for accountability on tests with the obligation we have to our students to inspire a love of learning an thinking and creating and discovering their full range of gifts.

The ungraded elementary program will enable us to focus on basic skill development and mastering grade level competencies. But  that is not where the real teaching and learning lies.  The chronological age groupings will offer students opportunities to work across age groups, academic disciplines, and performance outcomes to fully develop as learners.

That is balance… and our best thinking from El Patio, where the salsa marinates in an ancient recipe and an old mariachi on the jukebox wails: “Que si…”.  

What if.



Filed under California charter schools, charter schools, El Milagro, innovation and change, Un-graded schools

JOURNALING CHAOS 5: “School Runnings”


The “I Ching” teaches that “Before there can be great brilliance… there must be chaos.”

This is PART 5 in a series of blog posts that document our research, strategic thinking, observations and debates as we take on one of the last vestiges of the industrial revolution: the practice in schools of organizing kids into grade levels according to their chronological age.

At the end of the day on Friday I received a phone call from Max in the Superintendent’s office.  Max was contacting all the principals in the district to get our individual prediction on what we anticipate our API will be this year.  We all have a guess.  We live the API. 

woodThe API is California’s Academic Performance Index.  It is a long and tortured statistical calculation that synthesizes each school’s test results into a 3-digit number. Every student at every grade and every subject area is calculated and “processed” like an elegant wood chipper that grinds otherwise healthy leaves and limbs into useful chips. It weighs the number of students that score proficient and reflects overall organizational growth from year to year. Every school in California is obligated to somehow reach the API promised land of 800 or face the fate of the mastodons.

“To tell you the truth Max… I have no clue.  You want me to just pull a number out of the air?  

“Yep… the Superintendent wants every principal’s prediction.”

“Well…last year we ended up at 797 but our school-wide goal was 801.  We just missed it.  A little better result from this grade or that grade and we would have made it.  Just make up a number?”

“Whatever you think.”

skiWe just held the Olympic Festival yesterday, Max.  The best one in 9 years.  We had a 1000 students participating with well over 100 adult volunteers and parents and guests.  There were 25 different events for kids.  We had two former olympians.  We had India’s first ever winter olympian, for God’s sake.!  She is an Alpine ski racer, Max! But the Olympic Festival and our community spirit and Alpine skiers and our year-end celebration have nothing to do with our API.  It doesn’t compute.”

“I just need a number Dr. Riley.”

“Our 6th graders bombed the local measures.  I think they might have done it on purpose.  Only 7 out of 120 students were proficient on the math section.  How do I factor that in, Max?”

“Uh…can’t help you on that one.”

“But then again, on the MAPS assessments our 6th graders were right on pace.  And that is a much more difficult assessment, don’t you think?”

“No clue sir.  I’m not familiar with SNAPS.”

wall“And we know that if 50% of our students– especially 50% of our English language learners– don’t score proficient on the California Standards Test we will miss the AYP benchmark for the first time and we will go into Program Improvement. We know that.  We are climbing a mountain.  So we added a full hour to the instructional day and tried to target students who were borderline.  And every teacher provided English Language Development to every student for :35 minutes every single day. Damn…  that has to count for something!”

“So you want me to put you down for 801 again?”

“Yea, I guess so. NO! I can’t say 801… that was last year’s goal.  This year our goal is 840!”

“So you want me to put you down for 840?”

“C’mon Max…there is no way we hit 840.  Too many distractions over the longer day.  I think our teachers got burned out mid-year.  We pushed too hard.  By March we had to make adjustments just to keep their morale up. If we caught it soon enough and made the best of the additional hour and kept our focus in every classroom…  we could get a pretty good bump in our API.  But if not… if we really did lose a significant number of our teachers somewhere on the journey… we are hosed.”

“Sounds like you want to stay closer to the 801.  You have to say at least 800.”

“We could go backwards Max!  We could go back down to 790!  When the district told everybody in January that they had to resign to stay at El Milagro or return to a district school… it affected morale too.  18 of our teachers are district employees and 15 are employees of Mueller Charter School.  What a freakin’ mess!  It never should have worked out that way.  Five of our veteran teachers decided that they would leave El Milagro and go back to the district.  So we have been dealing with that and interviewing new teachers and writing letters of recommendations.  These are our colleagues we are losing!”

“Ok…  listen I am going to just say 795 for Mueller Charter School…”

“You know what the problem is here Max? The problem is we give the CST to students according to their grade level… instead of their level of mastery…”

Silence on the other end.

“Max… do you read my blog?”

“No I don’t have time to read blogs because I make phone calls like this all day and just try to stay ahead of the information that the superintendent is trying to gather.”

“Ok… just put us down for 805.”

“805…got it.  Thank you Dr. Riley, it’s been nice talking to you and….”

“And make a note Max that we are really looking hard at this whole system of grouping kids in grade levels according to their age.  It doesn’t make sense anymore. ”

“Ok I wrote that down.”

But of course I know he really didn’t.  And I realized immediately that this is exactly how the status quo stays in tact from year to year; how it absorbs change.  I had no business giving Max some arbitrary number meant to quantify the depth of teaching and learning that took place at Mueller Charter School over the course of an entire year.  The ups and downs.  The celebrations.  The growth and the turmoil and the daily struggle for fresh air. 805? 840?


It is the reason that we seek to challenge the very structure of how we group our students for learning and testing.  So I started to pull up my blog to re-read the questions I had generated last week and maybe add to the list.  Just then the phone rang again.  It was Max.

“Dr. Riley…  did you say an Alpine skiier from India?  Didn’t they make a movie about her?”

“No Max…  that was the Jamaican bobsled team.”

“Oh…yea…that’s right…Cool Runnings.”


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Filed under charter schools, El Milagro, standardized testing, Un-graded schools

JOURNALING CHAOS 4: “Las Preguntas”


The “I Ching” teaches that “Before there can be great brilliance… there must be chaos.”

This is PART 4 in a series of blog posts that document our research, strategic thinking, observations and debates as we take on one of the last vestiges of the industrial revolution: the practice in schools of organizing kids into grade levels according to their chronological age.  

There are often more questions than answers.

If we group our students according to their level of mastery and not by grade or chronological age;

If we defy all standard practice and industry norms and cultural mores and the hallowed “way we do things here”;  

If we defy American tradition itself and simply assign children to classroom groupings according to what they are ready to learn next… 

We must prepare to answer the questions.  So we started by asking them ourselves:

question mrkMaureen asked:  “Is it LEGAL to group kids for instruction– and eventually assign them a standardized test– according to their proficiency levels?” and “Is it ethical?”

Melinda asked: “If all kids take the California Standards Test according to their mastery level… and all kids end up scoring Proficient… won’t that look like we are cheating?”

Ryan asked: “A lot of our students are at different levels of proficiency for different subjects.  Some are proficient in math but not language arts.  So the state would have to provide our students with two different tests– two different grade levels.  Are they going to be able to do that?”

Lowell asked: “So you are talking about ‘dummying down’ the rigor just so you get higher test scores?”

Anthony asked: “Isn’t this just a sneaky way of avoiding accountability as a charter school?”

The Wizard asked:  “If we are labeling and re-labeling students by something other than a traditional grade level…  won’t that effect our funding from the state?”

Ivonne asked:  “If kids are grouped by mastery levels… and they don’t move to the next level until they demonstrate mastery of the level they are on… what happens to the kid that never demonstrates mastery?  Are we going to have 19 year-olds on our K-8 campus now?”

Kira said: “It sounds like your plan takes a lot of pressure off the teachers with those AYP goal and other requirements by the state of California.”  Then Kira asked:  “But if you do that, and now kids move to the next level only after they score Proficient on the CST… haven’t you now transferred the pressure from the teachers to the students?  What if you have students whojust aren’t good test takers? Are they stuck in elementary school forever?”

Conchita asked: “If you establish an age limit at El Milagro, and declare that you can’t stay here after the age of , say 14… but they still haven’t demonstrated mastery of the 8th Grade Test,  are you just going to socially promote them to high school?”

And “How is that any different than what we do now?”

Maria asked: “What about students transferring in during the school year from traditional graded schools?  If their child is a 5th grader, they are going to want them placed in the 5th grade!”

The Wizard is entitled to two questions so he asked: “How might our technology infrastructure play a role in helping students advance?”

pk asked: “Do you trust the California Standards Test… let alone the state standards… to serve as the benchmark for mastery before students can advance?”

Ricky asked: “Is this a protest against NCLB and the state’s accountability system… or a legitimate response to what the data tells us?”

celloJonathan noted: “There are a lot of ways to demonstrate mastery of state standards other than by a standardized test.  Are you giving the CST too much credibility as the main determiner of students moving forward? Are there other ways kids can demonstrate mastery of the state standards?”

RT asked: “Isn’t this a return to tracking?  Not that I see a conspiracy in every new idea, but we have been down this road before.  Isn’t this just another systemic guarantee that the same kids that always get left behind will still get left behind?”

Annie asked: “Can’t you achieve the same thing within the existing system of grade level groupings?”  

And since we are married she asked:  “You just aren’t happy until you are on the verge of getting fired, are you?”

Questions reflect the depth of the chaos. Or predict it.



Filed under charter schools, El Milagro, public education, standardized testing, technology in schools, Un-graded schools

JOURNALING CHAOS 3: “Ticket to Denver”


The “I Ching” teaches that “Before there can be great brilliance… there must be chaos.”

This is PART 3 in a series of blog posts that document our research, strategic thinking, observations and debates as we take on one of the last vestiges of the industrial revolution: the practice in schools of organizing kids into grade levels according to their chronological age.  

twd class-1So what if we organized our students for instruction according to the martial arts, mastery-based model that is thousands of years old instead of the archaic, age-driven system that we all perpetuate today?

For starters:

• Students would be grouped according to where they are on the continuum of standards.

• We wouldn’t need grade level groupings at all.

• Students would move fluidly forward and back according to their demonstrated needs and evidence of mastery.

• Teaching would be far more differentiated.

• Students would progress at their own pace.

With regard to testing:

• Some 11 years-olds would take the 4th grade version of the California Standards Test… because that is the level they are ready for.

• Some 11 year-olds may take the 7th grade test.

• Some 11 year-olds might take the 5th grade test for math, but the 3rd grade test for language arts.

• Every student would be “at grade level” because, as in Taekwondo, they would be taking a test to demonstrate what they can do.  It is geared to their level… so they will all be–by definition–“proficient”.

• Since all students would be proficient, schools would not show up as “Program Improvement” and the states’ metrics that are now based on counting percentages of proficient students would be obsolete.  So they will need new metrics.

Since we are a charter school known for our willingness to try stuff,  we are intent on pursuing this model.  We know we will have to do our homework and that we will be accused of ‘gaming the system.’  And yet, our real intention is to completely align our school– curriculum, assessment, and student groupings–  to a standards-based model.

The Adams County School District 50 in Denver, Colorado is already taking a courageous lead on this.  So I’m going to Denver to see how it works.


Cross-posted on Leadertalk

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Filed under California charter schools, charter schools, El Milagro, Un-graded schools



The “I Ching” teaches that “Before there can be great brilliance… there must be chaos.”

This is PART 2 in a series of blog posts that document our research, strategic thinking, observations and debates as we take on one of the last vestiges of the industrial revolution: the practice in schools of organizing kids into grade levels according to their chronological age.  

This past week we completed the 2009 version of the California Standards Test.  It is a standards-based test designed to assess the degree to which children mastered the standards at their grade level.  If they get higher than a scaled score of 350, they will be considered “proficient” and everyone will be happy. 

Of course, anything less than that means they are “not at grade level” and it will be a reason for great concern.  And if 45% of our overall students or 45% of our Latino students or 45% of our English language learners are not at grade level, the state of California will declare us to be a “Program Improvement” school.

So here is what I don’t get.

If we have a standards-based curriculum, and students’ mastery of those standards is determined by a standards-based assessment (in our state: the California Standards Test), then why aren’t kids grouped in classrooms according to their mastery of those standards ? In other words… a true, standards-based school. 

Where do we see standards-based schools?  In that Taekwondo studio down the street– the one in your neighborhood strip mall.

200px-WTF_Taekwondo_1In Taekwondo and other martial arts, students are assigned a white belt until they demonstrate mastery of ALL of the techniques, blocks, kicks, forms, and philosophies that are taught at that beginning of the learning continuum.  They advance through the curriculum- color belt by color belt– until they reach the level of black belt.  There is a high price to pay for not mastering all of those blocking and striking techniques if you spar with another black belt so Taekwondo instructors tend to promote students only when they are ready to be promoted.

Not so in your school or mine.

The significant difference is that in Taekwondo we group students by their demonstrated competence.  In public schools we group kids according to 1) their chronological age and 2) the grade level they were sitting in when the clock ran out at the end of the game last June.  Our 11 years-olds are fifth graders no matter what level of mastery they have attained in school.  And next month, they will become 6th graders and they will struggle to catch up all year until it is time to take the California Standards Test again.  When that time comes, they will be handed the Sixth Grade Test– not because they are ready for it… but merely because we placed them in a student grouping called “Sixth Grade”!

So what if we organized our students for instruction like they do in so many of the schools for the martial arts– in a mastery-based model that is thousands of years old instead of the archaic system that we all perpetuate today where students are promoted merely because it is June outside.  

I have a pretty good idea what would happen and I’ll bet you do too.  Some of it would be good… especially for students and teachers.  But some of it would create such profound dissonance within the “testing and accountability system” that my school will face absolutely blistering criticism.  And maybe worse.

So we are going to have to think this through. And we are going to need your help.

Cross-posted, in part, on Leadertalk

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Filed under charter schools, El Milagro, public education, standardized testing, Un-graded schools

JOURNALING CHAOS 1: “First Bricks”


The “I Ching” teaches that “Before there can be great brilliance… there must be chaos.”

This series of blog posts documents our research, strategic thinking, observations and debates as we take on one of the last vestiges of the industrial revolution: the practice in schools of organizing kids into grade levels according to their chronological age.  

We have been talking about school reform for as long as I can remember.  And restructuring.  Revamping. Creating distinguished schools.  Schools of excellence.  Blue ribbon schools. 90-90-90 schools. Break-the-mold schools. Effective schools. Charter schools. 


But schools– even schools like El Milagro–  are still pretty much the same as when I went to them. And so are the results. We still have an achievement gap that separates our children’s future along the lines of race and class and home language.  We still struggle with the edicts of Sacramento and Washington, DC. We get bombarded with research studies from university professors who are among our  nation’s least effective teachers.  We push our kids and our teachers to the limits of their patience and ability and health.  We squeeze blood from a turnip.  We eek out the last 3 API points and scramble and strain to “meet our AYP goals.”  We adjust to all the latest changes in the state’s nuanced metrics and how we keep score.

And we make progress.  For a price.

This is not what educating our children should be about.  This is not teaching and learning.  It is not preparing children for the competitive rigors of the 21st century, globally interconnected, green and fragile world they are inheriting. And you know it!

And so do I.

the revolutionSo today I am throwing the first brick in the revolution.  Right through the freaking window.  Today it will be one brick.  Tomorrow another.  And then another.  And I’ll invite you to pick up a brick or two as we get the momentum leaning our way.  We are going to change El Milagro. And this blog is going to chronicle the change– the revolution– brick by brick by brick.  

I am aiming at one very traditional, very systemic, very sacrosanct structure that is creating the greatest roadblock to our forward progress.  In the parlance of the extended  war metaphor:  we are taking out a strategic bridge that has kept us constantly circling back to our beginnings.  It was the wrong bridge from the beginning but now it has been there for 150 years and it’s hard to imagine life in our schools without it.  But we’ll all get used to it.  We need a new bridge that will take us in a very new direction.  It will provide a different view of the horizon and the pathway to a very different destination.  

The bridge we are taking out?  The one that leads to the same outcomes every year?  The one that lures us into taking three  steps forward and two steps back as an annual ritual?

It is the extraordinarily resilient model of grouping children by their chronological age. 

That’s the target.  It may not seem like much right now, but if we take out that bridge a revolution in public education will spread and from the ensuing chaos… there will be the potential for great brilliance. 

Follow this blog series and you will see why.


Filed under California charter schools, charter schools, El Milagro, standardized testing, teaching, Un-graded schools