Grouping students by skill, not grade level

This article from USA Today (5 July 2010) describes an approach to schooling that is not new, but it represents a positive development when applied systematically in state schools across whole districts (in the American system). Here are some extracts:

‘The current system of public education in this country is not working’ said Superintendent John Covington. ‘It’s an outdated, industrial, agrarian kind of model that lends itself to still allowing students to progress through school based on the amount of time they sit in a chair rather than whether or not they have truly mastered the competencies and skills.’

Here’s how the reform works:

Students — often of varying ages — work at their own pace, meeting with teachers to decide what part of the curriculum to tackle. Teachers still instruct students as a group if it’s needed, but often students are working individually or in small groups on projects that are tailored to their skill level.

For instance, in a classroom learning about currency, one group could draw pictures of pennies and nickels. A student who has mastered that skill might use pretend money to practice making change.

Students who progress quickly can finish high school material early and move forward with college coursework. Alternatively, in some districts, high-schoolers who need extra time can stick around for another year.

Advocates say the approach cuts down on discipline problems because advanced students aren’t bored and struggling students aren’t frustrated.

Count 11-year-old Alex Rodriguez as a convert to the new approach. He used to get bored after plowing through his assignments. He had to bring books from home or the library if he wanted a challenge because the ones at his old school were one or two grade levels too easy.

‘I liked school,’ he said. ‘But it was hard sitting there and doing nothing.’

His parents transferred the high achiever and his three younger siblings to the Denver area district after learning it was trying something new. His father, Richard Rodriguez, has been thrilled with the turnaround.

‘I wish school was like this when I was growing up,’ he said.

‘The most die-hard advocates for our system are our teachers because, especially the ones who were back with us before the change, they saw where things were then,’ he said. ‘They see where things are now and they don’t want to go back.’

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