A Bit More On Education Reform

In an earlier post, I ended by saying I had a specific model in mind for reform and it’s based on the Chugach School District in Alaska. They won a Malcolm Baldridge Award for improving student performance. Unfortunately, I don’t have the original links from when I wrote about this a few years ago and didn’t find newer ones. Thus, I am having to pull many details from memory.

The idea is a fairly simple one, namely that grade levels would be done away with. No sixth grade, seventh grade, etc. Instead, students would proceed along an educational path much like in college: they move ahead in individual courses as they pass them, rather than advancing an entire grade when they are lagging in one or more subjects. In a system like this, schools would have to be much more tolerant of students retaking specific courses. Another change would be that students would graduate when they have mastered the material. For instance, a really good student could test out of certain courses and perhaps graduate at sixteen, rather than eighteen.

This alone would change the focus of schools from marching students through the grades and focus them and the students on mastering the material to advance to the next course. This makes much more sense to me than what we currently do, which seems like a cookie cutter approach to student achievement.

Of course, this would mean logistical and personnel changes. The schools would often have to be on the same site, so you aren’t busing good math students from elementary school to a junior high. Also, this wouldn’t work well in the earlier grades when the students haven’t learned much, and would need to begin in fourth grade, or thereabouts. In addition, there would need to be more guidance counselors to guide the students through the curriculum and more frequent independent testing.

Anyway, this is something something to consider so that when discussing education reform, we aren’t just talking about vouchers. Any thoughts?

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Robert Prather
About Robert Prather
Robert Prather contributed over 80 posts to OTB between October 2005 and July 2013. He previously blogged at the now defunct Insults Unpunished. Follow him on Twitter @RobPrather.


  1. zenpundit says:

    In principle, it is a very good idea. Hard to implement. Not impossible, but hard.

    Aside from the logistical issues, there’s a problem with grouping students of too great an age range in the same classroom. An advanced 4th grader and a remedial 9th grader might be reading at the same level but it does not follow they should be in the same classroom together.

    Secondly, letting students advance at their own pace will make a lot of ppl squeamish for political reasons and they will kill the program or game it. The results will be students who are disproportionately female, white, Asian and UMC graduating early and those who are male, Black, Latino and poor lagging visibly.

    Of course, they are lagging now but it doesn’t look as absolutely calamitous with age grouping

  2. Brett says:

    There also might be strong social pressure to advance students, particularly once they become legal adults (age 18 and older). After that age, do you kick them out and make them get a GED, or do you keep them in school with younger age ranges?

  3. TangoMan says:

    This idea sounds like it is driven by the notion that schools should strive to maximize the potential of each student. This would run counter to the prevailing educational philosophy and so it will run into a full-out blocking campaign that makes the campaign against charter schools look like a walk in the park.

    That said, I like it.

  4. zenpundit,

    A good point that I had not considered. Part of me wants to believe that we wouldn’t have a 4th grader and a 9th grader in the same English class, but reality is a little different. I do think the instances of this would be pretty limited and it might not look as bad as all that. In essence, they would both be sitting in what we now call a 7th grade class, with the slow learner 2 years behind and the smart one three years ahead. It would be a little heartbreaking, but it’s something I could live with.

    On your second point, it needn’t be that stark, but even if it were, I’m not a fan of cutting down the tall poppies. I think a concentrated effort could minimize this and the end result of focusing on achievement would make them all better off in the long run. If it takes a kid two tries to get through a math class, I don’t consider that embarrassing. If he ends up understanding the subject better and graduates with a diploma that means something, so much the better.

  5. Brett,

    There would need to be an age limit, like 21 or something. But, at age sixteen, say, you could allow them to attend only the classes they need and if they are 19 and only need to complete math classes, they might only need to come an hour or two a day and could attend a JuCo or hold a job when not taking those few classes.

    If they can’t do it by 21, they might need to get a GED or some sort of “alternative” diploma to show that they at least made the effort.

  6. TangoMan,

    I agree completely: it wouldn’t be well received. We still need to find a way to educate students and more money isn’t the answer, or we would all be geniuses by now. It’s a structural problem and new ideas are needed.

    This is why I like the idea of taking the budget from the Department of Education and splitting it among the states. That way, new ideas could be tested and each state could determine what’s best.

  7. TangoMan says:


    There actually are solutions that exist to some of these education-sector problems but they’re politically unpopular.

    The KIPP school approach is actually delivering results for their target demographics. What they’re doing is imposing longer periods of instruction on their students. Their students attend school for an additional 2 hours per day, they attend classes on Saturday and the school year is extended by an additional month.

    This works to close the gap. Hopefully results that are delivered here can allow the traditional education philosophy of aiding each student to reach their highest potential to reflower.

    The political problem though will be the same that Zenpundit pointed out – you’re going to see quite different populations inhabiting KIPP schools and traditional schools. Effective, but politically unrealistic.

    I just can’t see a way forward to effective educational systems until we jettison the reigning goal of the education sector and there is a cultural call for educators to once again embrace the goal of maximizing each student’s potential, damn the consequences. That event will allow a flowering of different approaches. Right now if such a dispersed effort was undertaken there would be many efforts designed to sabotage promising initiatives, funding would be curtailed, etc.

  8. anjin-san says:

    new ideas could be tested and each state could determine what’s best.

    True. For example, Texas could teach kids that John Calvin wrote the Declaration of Independence…

  9. anjin,

    Nice shot, but off the mark. That’s not what I’m talking about.

  10. TangoMan,

    I just can’t see a way forward to effective educational systems until we jettison the reigning goal of the education sector and there is a cultural call for educators to once again embrace the goal of maximizing each student’s potential, damn the consequences. That event will allow a flowering of different approaches. Right now if such a dispersed effort was undertaken there would be many efforts designed to sabotage promising initiatives, funding would be curtailed, etc.

    You’re right. As unrealistic as my idea about busting up the DoE is, performance-based block grants would at least put the incentives in place. You’re right, though, the current environment is too tied to establishment interests.

  11. steve says:

    I believe you underestimate the problems of having kids of very different ages in the same classroom, especially when they are younger. This could be offset by having more classes of smaller size, but would cost more. By the time they are teens, this should not be such an issue. The geographical issue is one we are going through, and makes big demands on time and transportation. You also might want to think about having your math genius kid doing his college math at what wold probably be a community college equivalent if you decide to clump.

    “The KIPP school approach is actually delivering results for their target demographics. What they’re doing is imposing longer periods of instruction on their students. Their students attend school for an additional 2 hours per day, they attend classes on Saturday and the school year is extended by an additional month.”

    Something like this makes more sense, although I would opt for year round school, with just a month off. I would also emphasize more reading, especially of the classics. Math should be taught with an integrated approach, introducing important concepts much earlier. More science earlier.


  12. just me says:

    I think this model would work well in very small districts, where everyone knows everyone. I think having older students and younger students in the same grades would be less of a problem. The school in Alaska only has 214 students with 30 staff members. That is a very small population where falling through the cracks isn’t as likely going to happen. There are also only 7 students per staff member, a class size like that would make it just as likely the student to staff ratio making the difference as it is the actual model for delivering education.

    I am not sure it is going to work so well though in very large districts unless they really changed over to very small schools that are run at that level-the education business isn’t going to go for that, not when they have created a system with very large districts with lots of administrative level jobs that bring in big salaries but don’t involve much direct student involvement.

    Two things I do like about the model, and I think it could be implemented easily even with our current district arrangements.

    1. Students are working at their own pace and aren’t being pushed forward or unchallenged.

    2. Progress is determined by mastery of the material, not age.

    I think schools could have more free flowing between grade levels at each main school section. And it is feasible to do some busing between schools. Both my girls took high school math in middle school. The high school scheduled algebra and geometry first period. My girls went to the high school, took their math and then were bused back to the middle school for the rest of their grade level classes.

    They don’t necessarily go far enough, but there are ways to tweak how we teach and tweak where we teach so students can take the classes they need rather than the classes their year in school says they have to take. I don’t know that a district has to totally revamp in the way the school in Alaska did, but they can certainly take some of the ideas and use them.

    I will also say, I am not overly keen on kids graduating way early and going off to college or wherever. Graduating somewhere between 16 and 18 not so troublesome, but I am not convinced 13 and 14 year olds are ready for the responsibilities of the being high school graduates.

    But I am of the opinion that for the most part high school should end around age 16 for students who don’t have an interest in college and letting those who want to focus on a college track continue in the higher grades. 16 year old graduates could go to trade or other technical schools.

  13. john personna says:

    Anyway, this is something something to consider so that when discussing education reform, we aren’t just talking about vouchers. Any thoughts?

    If it works, it works. This doesn’t strike me as a political question at all.

    If it tests out and works, leaves kids with the right skills, that’s great.

  14. Before adopting anything quite so radical, make sure you have properly identified the problem and its causes. The grade system used to work just fine, so perhaps the root causes are a little different. I’ll avoid my suggestions here so a not to distract from this point.

    I was in a program somewhat like this called PLAN in junior high school where everyone progressed on a lesson plan at their own rate. It was an unmitigated disaster and was dropped by the school district after three or four years.

  15. Steve,

    I hope you’re wrong about mixing of ages, but you’re probably not. It would be worth trying anyway, I think. The idea of a shortened summer is a great one, but it would cost money. This is actually an area where I would agree with the teachers’ unions. The teachers likely chose that profession because they wanted summers off and would be rightly entitled to increased pay, probably proportional. Even with the added pay, it’s a good idea.

  16. Rebecca says:

    I love the idea of letting students progress at their own pace in each subject. It’s what I am free to do in my home with my own children. When my son was 16 he went to our local college and took the THEA and began college courses as his last two years of high school. This is the “norm” for homeschooled high schoolers here.
    With special permission from the Dean, a student of any age could begin college work when they pass any section of the THEA. There is a little boy here who began college when he wasn’t even 12 years old. He took all the maths offered at the college while his writing skills were still developing. He got to do what he loved and no one held him back. I wish our schools were able to allow some of this academic freedom.

  17. just me,

    I disagree with the first paragraph and think it could work with larger districts, though there would be an much larger need for guidance counselors or whoever would help students with course planning and such, but your point is well taken.

    I agree with everything else you said. It hadn’t really occurred to me that just having the classes for transplants at the beginning or the end of the day might simplify the logistics a great deal.

    The main thing I’m interested in is getting rid of the grade-level mentality and focusing on learning the material and then advancing to the next level, not moving with your grade even when you don’t understand one subject well.

    I also agree that not all students need to go on a college track and there should be more vo-tech and the like. Having them shift to that at 16 might be a good idea.

    Another idea along these lines is re-purposing junior colleges. The NYT article that was linked the other day pointed out that there is a lot of demand for jobs, like nurses assistants, that don’t require a degree but require some specialized training.

    Also on the subject of JuCo’s, they are necessary for some people who can’t afford to go straight to university, but they aren’t very well suited for transfer students.

    I took calculus over the summer at a JuCo when I was an undergrad, but the courses I took were not necessary for my major so it was no big deal. I had a friend who took all four semesters of calculus and the two physics courses at the JuCo, but he was an engineering major. When he got to the university he got the hell beaten out of him and ended up taking a couple of years off before returning to school. He had nailed the classes with A’s at the JuCo and did them all in one year and a summer, but went straight into classes like thermodynamics his sophomore year, thinking he was prepared and it was a slaughter. Junior colleges simply aren’t the same as universities but would be ideal to offer more specialized education for nurses assistants and the like.

    Anyway, a little off topic but a great comment by you. Thanks.

  18. john,

    True enough, and I must say I love the quality of the comments we are getting, anjin excepted.

  19. Charles,

    We used to think grade levels worked just fine, but the world has changed and so has the workforce. It seems to me that something new is needed, though I would love to hear any ideas you might have.

  20. Rebecca,

    Agreed, though the kid must have been something else if he was doing college level math at twelve!!

  21. Rebecca says:

    What is wrong with the “one room school house?” It allows more peer tutoring and mentoring. Children come from homes with siblings and parents… Is age segregation natural?

    Why do we think that segregating children by age is “superior?”

    For those children who need it – it should be available. Here is what is happening because no one refuses to budge: Your drop out rate is increasing because of an all or nothing approach AND your gifted students are pushed out too if the parents are able to find better alternatives, like early college or homeschooling…

    I would send my my children to an alternative school, like a democratic or free school. But, I don’t have that alternative available. All I have is a “charter” school which is really the same. It offers more math and science but it’s really just the same.

    There are no alternatives unless I do it myself.

  22. Rebecca says:

    We would find that many children could be “something” if they are free to progress at their own pace and focus on their talents. How would we know if we only focus on weaknesses?

  23. Rebecca says:

    I went to a junior high school that had a math lab instead of a math class. Instead of the whole class moving at the same pace through the same book we were each allowed to advance as we completed a concept or a lesson. The teacher was there to help us if we had any questions. The only reason this failed was because at some point it hit a traditional wall. I had completed the work early and there was nothing left. I was not ready for Algebra but no one thought that maybe there were higher level maths that would work better for concrete thinkers. Traditionally we take Algebra before Geometry and no one thought to introduce the other first.

    Just an idea. Maybe these great progressive ideas “fail” because at the other end is more traditional thinking…

  24. Trumwill says:

    I have to break ranks here and say that Robert’s idea is actually more ideally suited for large schools. I went to a HS with 4000 students and I think what he’s talking about would work great in that environment. When you have a lot of students, it’s easier to segregate them by grade and ability. In larger schools, you have classes separated out half-randomly for schedule-ease, but under Robert’s plan you can have a special class devoted to second year Algebra I rather than two classes devoted to Algebra II where half of the students are really ready for it and half of them are not. I think there’s a reason you see more tracking in larger schools than in smaller ones. You have more flexibility with different learning speeds and levels.

    It is likely to be harder for the younger kids, though, since age is so much more sensitive. But with larger elementary schools I think it’s easier.

    My private preschool had a special class for in its K-3 section where you had a K.5 grade level. If you weren’t quite ready for the first grade, you went to K.5. At the end of K.5, if you could get caught up you would go straight to second grade. Otherwise you’d go to 1st (essentially being held back a year).

  25. 11B40 says:


    As with most articles about education, I first notice the absence of the Catholic parochial school system as a “best practices” role model.

    I went to Catholic grammar and high schools in the Bronx of the ’50s and ’60s. Grammar school was about 30 kids in one class room with one teacher. It worked for me.

    In high school, we were divided into three sections of roughly 30 students each. All of the “A” section were expected to get into college, some of the “B” section and, simply put, none of the “C” section. Each section had a somewhat different academic subjects. For instance, the “A” section took two years of Latin and three years of French. The “B”s took three years of eSpanish.

    We took standardized tests every year, the Iowa Test of Educational Development, Preliminary SATs, and SATs (College Boards). It being New York, we also took the State Board of Regents tests for specific subjects in order to get both a school diploma and a Regents diploma.

    We had different teachers for each subject, but the teachers, not the students changed classrooms. I had two electives in four years of high school, one Electronics course and one on Shakespeare. We had a religion course each year. And, there was an emphasis on discipline that included both physical punishment, detention, and suspension.

    All this was provided at basically no expense to the government or our fellow citizens. You’re very welcome.

  26. I’d certainly second what 11B40 said and also ask about the private, non-religious schools? As far as I know most of them follow the same model regarding grades, but tend to have more interested parents and much lower tolerance for nonsense, misbehavior and non-performance. There are examples that work out there, but the biggest danger is forcing one model down everyone’s throat, The best answer, dare I say it, is more federalism and local control, not less.

    The problems with our schools spring from many sources including, in no particular order, the teacher’s unions, a loss of discipline, lack of parental involvement (the increase in single parent homes is a much bigger societal problem, but one of the worst impacts is manifested here), low expectations (aka an emphasis on self esteem), a loss of core shared concepts (multiculturalism?), less local control of schools driven by federal regulations and mandates (no one cares about my kids more than I do and if I can’t be bothered to do what’s best for them no outside agency is really going to help over the long term), a never ending cornucopia of new pedagogical theories with each new class treated as the subjects of the latest academic fad, a lack of flexibility and imagination in adjusting to new realities in demographics, and money — too much of it for the education-industrial complex. The costs of administration for education have exploded over the last thirty years. Now correlation isn’t causation, as we all know, but I’d bet the two have a little more in commmon than just temporal concurrence.

    I don’t have answers that are palatable to most people for these problems, but if I were going to start anywhere it would be by reducing the money available to support the unions and their dues which go to support the election of politicians who ensure the allocation of ever more money down a hole that is generating worse and worse results.

    One more aside, the Chugach model could be hard to implement in most school districts given the current infrastructure of elementary schools, middle schools, and senior high schools.

  27. steve says:

    ” generating worse and worse results.”

    I know that is common sentiment, but it looks to me from charts and data presented that our results are pretty stagnant.


  28. Steve,

    Agreed, the results are stagnant. The phrase “worse and worse” only applies if you factor in the increases in money over the decade.

  29. Grewgills says:

    I second what just me said.

    Integrating large differences in age like the one you describe 4th and 9th graders in a small community where the parents and students know each other might work, in a large urban environment where the parents are strangers and likely not very involved in their child’s education it is not likely to produce a good situation and has high potential for very bad situations. Because of this and emotional maturity issues I think that 4th grade is too early to institute this approach.

    An approach like this could work well for many students starting in middle school or high school and for best effect should include local CCs and vocational training centers to mitigate some of the facilities issues that this approach raises. The GECA model in Gilroy CA incorporates some of this.

    More counselors, more testing, and more individualized education like what you propose costs money and that money has to come from somewhere.