ERIC Identifier: ED347637
Publication Date: 1992-08-00
Author: Gaustad, Joan
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Educational Management Eugene OR.
Nongraded Primary Education. ERIC Digest, Number 74.
In the mid-1800s, the revolutionary idea of mass public education created the
need for an efficient, economical system capable of handling large numbers of
students. Graded education--the practice of classifying and dividing students by
age--spread rapidly throughout the United States and has remained the standard
until the present (Goodlad and Anderson 1987). In the 1990s, educators and
citizens are reevaluating their schools and proposing reforms to meet the needs
of diverse social and economic groups. Nongraded primary education is a key
component of many reform proposals, including the Kentucky Educational Reform
Act and the Oregon Educational Act for the 21st Century.
Many experimental nongraded programs tried in the sixties and early seventies
failed due to inadequate understanding, lack of administrative and community
support, and poorly planned implementation. Today's nongraded model is supported
by additional decades of research and refined by the study of successful
WHAT IS NONGRADED EDUCATION?
Nongraded education is the
practice of teaching children of different ages and ability levels together,
without dividing them (or the curriculum) into steps labeled by grade
designations. Children move from easier to more difficult material at their own
pace, making continuous progress rather than being promoted once per year.
Curriculum and teaching practices are developmentally appropriate. Integrated
curriculum fosters children's physical, social, emotional, and intellectual
growth (Gaustad 1992a).
Various names have been used to describe this approach, including mixed-age
grouping, heterogeneous grouping, and open education. In some cases, as with
Kentucky's Primary Program, alternative terminology is deliberately used to
avoid negative associations with the earlier unsuccessful programs
(Robinson-Armstrong 1992). Nongrading can be used with all ages but is
particularly appropriate during the primary years.
A nongraded classroom differs physically from a graded one. Rows of desks do
not permanently face one direction; instead, tables and chairs are frequently
regrouped. "Learning Centers" are scattered around the room: tables holding
math, science, and art materials; a sand table with plastic toys for pretend
play; a library corner with bean-bag chairs and book-filled shelves.
Materials are geared toward hands-on learning. For example, instead of
learning arithmetic solely from workbooks, children discover basic mathematical
relationships by sorting, counting, and measuring real objects.
Flexible grouping is a key element of nongraded education. Students are
grouped homogeneously by achievement for some subjects, such as math and
reading. For other subjects children learn in heterogeneous groups. At different
times students work independently, in pairs, and in large and small groups
Children contribute to group projects according to their skill level. For
example, in making books to display what they learned about a topic, younger
children can create illustrations while older children write the text (Katz and
Those unfamiliar with the term nongraded often assume it refers to the
practice of not giving letter grades. Many nongraded programs do use alternative
types of evaluation, such as collections of student work and descriptive
reports. However, this is only a small element of the approach.
HOW DOES RESEARCH SUPPORT NONGRADED PRIMARY
Graded education assumes that students who are the same age are
at basically the same level of cognitive development, can be taught in the same
way, and will progress at the same rate. Intellectual development is assumed to
be the goal, and the division of curriculum into discrete skills and subjects to
be the most effective organization. Research has discredited all these
Young children actually vary in their rates of intellectual development just
as they do in physical development. They often progress at different rates in
different areas of achievement and may alternately spurt ahead and hit plateaus
rather than moving at a steady pace. Goodlad and Anderson (1987) state,
"Children entering the first grade differ in mental age by approximately four
full years." Even greater variation may be found in subsequent grades.
Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget established that young children are
cognitively not ready to think abstractly. They learn best through active,
hands-on activities with concrete materials. Research on learning has shown
that, whatever the learner's age, information taught in a meaningful context is
more easily learned than unconnected facts (Gaustad 1992a), and that individuals
with different learning styles rely to different degrees on auditory, visual,
and kinesthetic cues.
In its influential position statement, the National Association for the
Education of Young Children (Bredekamp1987) summarized this accumulated
knowledge of child development and described appropriate teaching practices for
primary-age children. Its list of developmentally appropriate practices closely
matches the components of nongraded education. The inappropriate practices it
lists are typical of traditional graded education.
After reviewing studies comparing graded and nongraded programs, Miller
(1989) concluded that multiage or multigraded classes are as effective as
single-grade classes in terms of academic achievement, and superior in terms of
student attitudes toward school and self. Katz and others found that
participating in mixed-age groups has social and cognitive benefits for both
older and younger children. Cooperative, prosocial behaviors increased and
discipline problems were reduced.
WHAT ARE ITS DISADVANTAGES?
Experts agree that teaching
multiage classes requires more preparation time. Teacher burnout due to
insufficient planning time was one reason for the failure of earlier nongraded
Abbie Robinson-Armstrong, director of the Kentucky Department of Education's
Division of Early Childhood, points out that it also requires "more knowledge
about child development, integrated curriculum, and instructional strategies."
Most teachers will require substantial training. Districts that previously
relied heavily on single sets of textbooks and manuals will need to acquire
hands-on materials and a variety of supplementary books. These changes may be
It may be easier to "pick up a teacher's manual and read verbatim from it"
(Robinson-Armstrong) than to use a variety of instructional strategies with
groups of varying sizes. It may be more efficient to correct multiple-choice
tests than to evaluate collections of student work and write descriptive
comments. But as Goodlad and Anderson comment, "Efficiency takes on proper
meaning only in relation to the job that should be done. To recognize that
something is easy does not justify our doing it."
WHAT FACILITATES THE IMPLEMENTATION OF NONGRADING?
and Anderson found that understanding and support by teachers and parents were
the factors most crucial to the success of nongraded programs. Thus educating
and informing teachers and parents is the first priority. Both groups are more
likely to support nongrading when they are involved in planning and
decision-making (Gaustad 1992b).
Miller calls practical training in multiage teaching "critically important
for success." This should include opportunities to observe effective models such
as through visits to schools with pilot programs.
Hord and others (1987) found that innovations often fail because policymakers
drastically underestimate how long change will take and the amount of training
and support teachers will require. Realistically, full implementation of
innovations require several years.
Changing to nongraded education involves multiple innovations. It affects
basic educational philosophy and often clashes with deeply held expectations.
However, a number of its elements can be used in graded settings, and many
graded schools already use them to some extent. Adding new elements one at a
time is easier than attempting to change everything at once.
HOW CAN ADMINISTRATORS AND SCHOOL BOARDS PROMOTE
Some districts have adopted policies endorsing nongraded
education and encouraged their schools to move in that direction. In other
districts, interest in nongrading has originated with teachers. Educators
interviewed by Gaustad (1992b) agree that board support is extremely helpful in
either case. However, most feel boards should not dictate specific actions.
Boards can help by removing impediments such as requirements for grade-level
textbooks and accountability evaluation based on standardized testing. Waiving
these grade-oriented regulations lessens pressure on teachers and frees them to
focus on mastering nongraded teaching techniques (Gaustad 1992b).
John Thompson, director of policy services for the Kentucky School Boards
Association, says boards must do the following to ensure that Kentucky's new
primary program succeeds: (1) make sure their teachers receive sufficient
training, (2) inform their communities, (3) find funding for transition expenses
not covered by the state, and (4) monitor their schools' progress and assist in
evaluating and improving the implementation process (Gaustad 1992b).
If a district decides to promote nongraded education, policymakers should
acknowledge the magnitude of the change and be realistic about the time and
resources it will require. Nonetheless, nongraded primary education is well
Bredekamp, Sue, Editor. DEVELOPMENTALLY
APPROPRIATE PRACTICE IN EARLY CHILDHOOD PROGRAMS SERVING CHILDREN FROM BIRTH THOUGH AGE 8. Washington, D.C.: National Association for the Education of Young Children, 1987.
Gaustad, Joan. NONGRADED EDUCATION: MIXED-AGE, INTEGRATED, AND DEVELOPMENTALLY APPROPRIATE EDUCATION FOR PRIMARY CHILDREN. OSSC Bulletin. Eugene, Oregon: Oregon School Study Council, March 1992a. 38 pages.
...... MAKING THE TRANSITION TO NONGRADED PRIMARY EDUCATION Education. OSSC Bulletin. Eugene, Oregon: Oregon School Study Council,
Goodlad, John I., and Robert H. Anderson. THE NONGRADED ELEMENTARY SCHOOL,
Revised Edition. New York: Teachers College Press, Columbia University, 1987.
Hord, Shirley M., and others. TAKING CHARGE OF CHANGE. Alexandria, Virginia:
Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 1987. 98 pages.
Katz, Lilian G., and others. THE CASE FOR MIXED-AGE GROUPING IN EARLY
EDUCATION. Washington, D.C.: National Association for the Education of Young
Children, 1990. 59 pages.
Kentucky Department of Education. KENTUCKY'S PRIMARY SCHOOL: THE WONDER
YEARS, PROGRAM DESCRIPTION I. Frankfort, Kentucky: Author, undated. 115 pages.
Miller, Bruce A. THE MULTIGRADE CLASSROOM: A RESOURCE HANDBOOK FOR SMALL,
RURAL SCHOOLS. Portland, Oregon: Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory,
1989. 279 pages. ED 320 719.
Robinson-Armstrong, Abbie. Unpublished memorandum, March 27,1992.