Monday, March 09, 2015

The Curse of Grade Level Standards

One of the things that I like most about homeschooling is that my children are not artificially constrained by “grade level” academics.  

In a typical school, the children with advanced academic development are constrained to go along with the class.  Children with a slower (and often normal) academic development are pressured to “perform” above their current capabilities.  A few lucky children in the classroom match the academic expectations, at least in some subjects.  It is a rare occasion for a child to perfectly match the classroom demands in all subjects and physical requirements.

What is the opportunity and emotional cost of this style of education? From discussions I’ve heard from my friends with children who have attended school, I believe the cost is very high.

I will use my own children for examples of how successful children can be without grade level imposed upon them..

My oldest daughter was a late reader and late at developing math skills.  I admit that I made a lot mistakes with this first kid because I was trying so hard to “keep up” with their friends at school.  It helped that when I was beginning to despair and resort to some really coercive measures in 2nd grade that my mother-in-law pointed out that my husband didn’t read fluently until the 5th grade.  Once I redefined her development as “normal” for her, things got a lot better.  Two years later when we did standardized testing, I was delighted to find that she had jumped from a Kindergarten level of reading in 2nd grade to a 12th grade level of reading in 4th grade. 

By the time she started community college at 16 ½ years old, she handled math well and earned A’s in almost all her classes [She received a B in Voice which, considering that her father can barely carry a tune, is pretty darn good.]  She did NOT do as many advanced math classes as some students in high school, but that option was and is still open to her now that she is ready through community college and university courses.

This helped her younger sister a great deal.  My second daughter didn’t read fluently until 5th grade and was even later at developing math readiness than her older sister. Because I had seen the jump in her older sister’s capacity to read and do math when ready, I stopped worrying and pushing.  Around the age of 16, she turned a corner developmentally.  When this burst occurred, she didn’t have bad high school transcript because of her slower pace to weigh her down during the college application process. This daughter also earned A’s in community college and was accepted to a prestigious university.

Surprisingly, my 3rd daughter taught herself to read and does math at the level typical of the schools in our area with little effort on my part.  If she had been in a traditional classroom, she would have gotten A’s.  The school system wouldn’t have been as damaging to her as it would have been for her sisters.  Although, she would have missed out on the freedom to pursue her own interest.

Our youngest child is developmentally on an entirely different track.  By “school standard,” he is grades behind.  I’ve had to be more creative (and that is a post all its own).  We celebrate every milestone and have really enjoyed seeing him bloom at his own pace and in his own season. Because we have little preconceived notions about what should happen when, he does not carry emotional baggage associated with academics.  

This was evident at an IEP meeting at the school last year. [Even though we homeschool, we utilized the testing and evaluation services that the public school provides.] The school psychologist said that they have never seen before a kid with his level of impairment that didn’t have “social impairment.” They described him as “socially sophisticated.”

Their report said that “…he came to the testing situation willing and appeared at ease….He initiated conversation….He was very cooperative and well-behaved.  He seemed happy, often wearing a smile on his face.  He wobbled his upper body and head sometimes after giving out an answer as if he felt self-satisfied…..He was never shy or hesitant to speak.  He made comments and expressed his feelings about the tasks at hand……Overall, he was a happy, compliant, attentive and engaged.  It was a pleasure working with him."

I do not think any of those things would be true if our son had gone to school and had been pressured to follow the grade level expectations.  He does not see himself as being behind or as being “broken.”

In an ideal world, every child would have access to an individual educational plan that matched his/her needs.  That is easy to do on a homeschool setting.  

When I was a child in a traditional school (1970’s), about half of the teachers used a flexible learning plan that accommodated many levels of students. For example, each student worked his/her way through a set of reading/science assignments at his/her own rate.  In 4th grade, I made it through the entire set.  I don’t know what my class mates did.  I do remember some discussion amongst ourselves about who got to Silver and Gold.  I don’t remember their being any sort of stigma attached to which “color” group you were in. 

In 5th grade, I was allowed to work ahead in the math book.  I finished it and was allowed to work through two more math books.  I can’t imagine that happening today in classroom with “common core” or other grade defined standards imposed.

We still value academic progress and are putting effort toward that goal, but we don’t worship it.  We have bigger and better goals than that.


Fatcat said...

It's like trying to force your 9 month old to walk before he's ready. It doesn't work. Good post.

Malcolm Kirkpatrick said...

The economist James Buchannan attributed his success, in part, to his attendance in a one-room schoolhouse. The teacher could not instruct all children simultaneously, so she gave the students their textbooks and let them work individually. We move students through age-graded curriculum at a uniform pace for administrative convenience and to hide the advantage of self-paced instruction. If people observed that students can learn effectively with a well-designed self-paced curriculum, they might question the relevance and cost of education professionals.

The opportunity cost of the current strategy, moving age-graded classes of children at a uniform page through a one-size-fits-all, age-graded curriculum is huge. I like to use the analogy with runners who cover a course as a team and tie themselves together (a "centipede"). Since some people start fast and fade, others run a steady pace, and others get a finishing kick, unless the team physically drags members down the track, the centipede must move at every point in time at the pace the slowest person would move at that point untethered.

Keri said...

I agree, that is why I homeschool my children. My oldest was also slow to reading and I can imagine in a typical public school setting there would have been many meetings with teachers, many hours of my time spent trying to teach her after school with instructions on what to do sent to me by her teachers, and she would have probably be put in a special class for children who need “extra attention”. She was nine when she finally learned how to read and it was because I quit trying to do what was considered the norm; I thought outside the box. For whatever reason, my oldest could not learn via phonics, she did better memorizing (She has an Amazing memory). Once we realized this and accepted this, it was almost overnight that she blossomed, and now is reading way above her grade level. She is thirteen now and is looking forward to also taking some classes at our local community college in a couple of years. In a public school, I do not think she would have developed such a love for learning, like she has now :)
~> I am going to share this post on a group that I am a member of. Think that others can definitely relate.

B M said...

Thank you for this post! I am a "unschooling" Mom of 6 and I could not agree more. Three years ago, we took our 3 school-aged children out of public school, best decision ever! My son struggles with dyslexia. He was "falling behind" and my heart broke for him having to constantly feel not good enough. Children do not need to be labeled so much. I am so glad to hear that your Mother in Law pointed out that your husband was not fluent until 5th grade. My husband and I were just discussing his former reading issues, he was the same way!

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