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COVID-19 exposes imprudence of age-based school structure

Many K-12 schools were closed for over two months — and people are understandably panicking about students “falling behind.” Parents are frantically downloading curricula and buying workbooks off the shelves for homeschooling. District administrators are uncertain which grade levels to place students in this fall.

Americans are right to worry. But this wouldn’t be such a problem if the education system made one systemic change.

The current education system is a relic of the Industrial Revolution. Education expert Sir Ken Robinson famously critiqued how we group students in schools like we group materials in a factory. We effectively use children’s “date of manufacturing” as a sorting mechanism to create grade cohorts. In doing so, we disregard individual aptitudes and skillsets and assign “age-specific” material with little deviation.

Applying a one-size-fits-all approach to all educational instruction holds students back and prevents them from adapting to real-world challenges, like the current COVID-19 crisis. We are so accustomed to clustering students by age and adhering to strict “grade level” curriculum that we ignore its ineffectiveness.

Consider that as many as a third of our country’s kindergarten through eighth-grade students perform at least one level above their grade in math, according to a recent Johns Hopkins study. Meanwhile, as many as 40 percent of these students are at least one level ahead in reading.

Common Core and other national standards are important benchmarks. But we could help students reach and surpass those goals simply by grouping them according to their abilities, not their ages. Across the country, some schools, like my Mysa School in the District of Columbia and Iowa Big School in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, already do this.

For instance, at one of these schools there might be an 8-year-old who loves Harry Potter books and reads at a sixth-grade level. For reading lessons, she would be grouped with others at the same ability level and challenged with assignments on plot and character development.

But perhaps her math skills aren’t as advanced. When it comes time for arithmetic lessons, she would remain clustered with other students at her skill level.

This skill or mastery-based approach is more effective than grouping students based on age. According to research from the University of Illinois, students in multi-age classrooms perform better academically than students of the same, and even higher, abilities in single-age classrooms.

By forcing a factory-model on our education system, we have lost sight of the purpose of school.

This is particularly important now, as we’re living through the worst pandemic in 100 years. Schools have an opportunity to use the current crisis as a teachable moment for their students.

At the Mysa school I direct, we have all students ages 9-16 actively engaged in civics lessons and are covering every single National Council of Social Studies civics standard as they dive into news about COVID-19. We are using this historic moment to teach years’ worth of civics standards.

Unfortunately, most schools are still wed to the notion that a child’s “grade level” determines the content that they should learn.

This archaic way of grouping students is hurting our children. We’re living through a global crisis that will shape their lives forever. How will they grow up to solve the problems of the future if our schools can’t adapt?

Siri Fiske is founder and head of Mysa School.

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