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Would Eliminating Grade Levels Improve Education?

Posted May 28, 2009 12:01 AM by Sharkles

The Adams 50 school district in Westminster, Colorado has been in the news for making what some people consider radical changes to its education system.

When elementary and middle school students return to school next fall, they will no longer belong to a specific grade level. Instead, they will be enrolled in multi-age levels of learning based on their mastery of certain types of knowledge and skills. Movement upward in the school will depend on a child's ability to demonstrate a mastery of materials.

What is Standards-Based Education?

The United States Domestic Dependent Elementary and Secondary Schools (DDESS), an organization that aims to "to provide an exemplary education that inspires and prepares all students for success in a dynamic, global environment", describes standards-based learning as follows:

"Student success is measured by how much the student has learned (the achievement of standards), rather than compliance with rules and regulations. Unlike traditional norm-referenced systems, standards-based approaches believe that all students can get smarter through effort."

The DDESS website explains the differences between the "norm-referenced" (or traditional) methods and standards-based systems. These differences include:

  • Traditional learning compares student knowledge to that of other students. In a standards-based classroom, students are compared to set standards or benchmarks.
  • Teaching resources in a traditional classroom are often limited by time, number of students, etc.; as a result, students who often need help most often usually receive minimal assistance. Comparatively, standards-based models provide resources for all students in order to meet requirements; students that need assistance get it.
  • Professional development for teachers in traditional educational system is generally "episodic", often consisting of one-time workshops. Standards-based models focus on ongoing professional development for teachers as to improve instruction for students.

Small-Scale Program Proves Beneficial

The Adams 50 school district isn't the only place to implement a standards-based model. The Whittier Community School in Whittier, Alaska has also tested this approach. In addition to not belonging to a particular grade level, the students at Whittier don't receive letter grades.

Their standards-based approach is assisted by the fact that the size of the student body at Whittier is very small – just about 3 dozen students. Because of this low number, each student has a tailored lesson plan for moving through a series of 10 standards levels. In addition to learning about reading, math, science, and writing, the Whittier school provides education levels in personal and social skills, career development, and cultural awareness.

One former Whittier student, Michael Grande, told Northwest Education Magazine that he preferred standards-based learning. "You can't skate through (the levels), you have to prove you did it, and you can't just copy the work, because you can't copy an experience," he said.

Some Personal Observations

When I think back to when I was in school, my strengths and weaknesses were always clear. – even way back in elementary school. I always loved English and history, but science and math always seemed to be out of my grasp. After reading this article, I wonder how different I would be if I had gone through a standards-based educational system. Instead of just "getting by" in my weakest subjects, I would've had to stick with it until I showed that I fully understood the subject.

However, I was discussing this topic with a friend when he asked me "but, couldn't it be problematic to have so many ages in the same classes?" As I consider this, I do think it could be a problem. In the case of Adams 50 in Colorado, the school district is testing the idea with elementary and middle-school aged kids. So, I think they'll be OK. Whittier's system works with all ages because its school is so small. I will have to continue to follow this topic to see what happens/is happening elsewhere.

What do you think??

  • Do you think standards-based models could/would improve the quality of education?
  • Have you heard of other schools experimenting with this model?

Resources:

https://www.parade.com/news/intelligence-report/archive/the-end-of-grade-levels.html

https://www.csmonitor.com/2009/0210/p01s01-ussc.html?page=1

https://www.nwrel.org/nwedu/09-02/chugach.asp

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#1

Re: Would Eliminating Grade Levels Improve Education?

05/28/2009 7:02 AM

The Law of Unforeseen Consequences comes into play when there is too much grading. Too much practice for specific test stifles enjoyment and narrows the teaching.
The old topic based ideas of the 60s can be much more fullfilling...but most of it is down to the teacher...a good teacher can make almost any subject fun.
Statistics has gotta be a classic...it can be dry as a bone or real fun (break out the playing cards, smarties, dice, goats and cars.... or just talk the kids to death)
Improving eduction improves education...filling in forms, tick lists and bureaucracy generally doesn't.

As they say up North, 'You don't fatten a pig by weighing it'
Del

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#7
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Re: Would Eliminating Grade Levels Improve Education?

05/29/2009 7:28 AM

GA to you Del, love the pig quote.

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#18
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Re: Would Eliminating Grade Levels Improve Education?

06/01/2009 4:21 PM

On the other hand, tell the farmer that you will pay him more for his pig if it weighs more in two weeks and I'll bet the pig gets well fed!

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#2

Re: Would Eliminating Grade Levels Improve Education?

05/28/2009 9:20 AM

Granted but:

my oldest attended a year round elementary school in Arizona. School was year round, students went three of four quarters.

Unforeseen consequence in this case was actual subject mastery grading.

So when the six year old failed to color within the lines, they got remedial coloring lessons or got held back to repeat coloring. But their reading could continue at grade level or above.

Stigma of being "held back" disolved - you didn't have to repeat 4 classes you had mastered to get the one you needed.

Lots to be said for it.

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#3

Re: Would Eliminating Grade Levels Improve Education?

05/28/2009 10:43 AM

All is well when your sampling is a small school. Get a bigger school and you are bound to have bigger problems. People are not meant to be great at everything, it is nearly impossible. Forcing kids to learn material may seem like a good idea, but look at what it is doing to schools nowadays? Kids are so reluctant to even pay attention and even behave appropriately in class.

I think that the grade system works fine for most schools. It is the students prerogative to do well in class. You cannot give students the drive to do better, they have to find it within themselves the will to succeed. By forcing kids to face their weaknesses, I believe that few will actually stand to that challenge, many more will be discouraged.

These days very few people are able to look at their own weaknesses and find the drive to improve upon them. So the real question for me would be: How many high school students are able to look at their weaknesses and improve upon them in a timely matter? Would there be enough students these days that care about education enough to make this gradeless system work?

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#4

Re: Would Eliminating Grade Levels Improve Education?

05/28/2009 7:30 PM

Where would we be if we were reluctant to ever try something new? The idea is good, and should be investigated. Trying it at a small school is best. However I agree with JAXY concerning trying to force students to learn. It is in societies best interest to provide the best possible education to the largest number of students as possible. But everyone is different. "I always loved English and history, but science and math always seemed to be out of my grasp". I on the other hand found science and math fascinatng and easy, but struggled with English and history. (Though now as an old geezer I love history). It is very important to learn as much as we can about as many subjects as possible, but we need to be careful that we don't try to force someone to learn something they just can't seem to grasp.

I recall a previous employer who insisted on training all employees in areas where they had no interest and no abilities. It was like trying to build a tire out of a carburetor, or a steering wheel out of an axle. If we could find what interests people and what they are good at and provide as much knowledge as possible in those fields, to help them become the best they can. But still we all need at least some basic understanding of many different subjects in order to live a balanced life.

So how do we find the correct balance without attempting new processes?

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#6
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Re: Would Eliminating Grade Levels Improve Education?

05/29/2009 3:14 AM

Where would we be if we were reluctant to ever try something new?

<FLUMP THUD> .... <picks himself off floor....preens for 5mins...takes short nap>
Dunno what it's like over there but in the Uk...the education system is used as a political football and is constantly bombarded by change...'new' initiatives and beurocratic nonsense.

They have tried such 'new' ideas as ITA (Initial teaching alphabet) which left one of my junior engineers with the reading/writing skills of a Gibbon....

Del

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#8
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Re: Would Eliminating Grade Levels Improve Education?

05/29/2009 7:42 AM

OH nO!

That is EXACTLY what it like over here.

The problem I have with the usual experiments is they are designed around passing fads with no period of evaluation, and no measurables at the end. Trial runs of anything are usually a test by *feel*. Which is usually a test of the political presence of the administrator in charge.

The public is largely fed up with schools and have started slapping graduation requirements down. Incentives to schools that achieve - disincentives to those that don't.

The problem, of course, is the schools now feel they are being held accountable for things out of their control (environmental factors), and the parents *hear* them say they don't want to be accountable at all.

Public discourse being what it usually is, millions of side issues and agendas have now crowded in.

It isn't perfect, but I actually approve. And if there are problems, lets work to resolve them, but fundamentally we all have to be responsible for our output.

Let the slings and arrows begin!

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Re: Would Eliminating Grade Levels Improve Education?

05/29/2009 8:32 AM

Schools get inspected by 'Ofsted' (yet another acronym for something or other...)
It is bonkers...if the school is rated as 'satisfactory' this is perceived as not good enough. More doublethink...
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#5

Re: Would Eliminating Grade Levels Improve Education?

05/29/2009 12:14 AM

Sounds OK by me, And students who learn quickly will go op quicker than those who don't, maybe making it easier to pick out those with learning problems

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#9

Re: Would Eliminating Grade Levels Improve Education?

05/29/2009 8:15 AM

Personally I like this idea and hate it at the same time. If it works in Westminster Colorado then they should do it, but it does not mean it will work here in Pennsylvania and we shouldn't be mandated to follow suit.

The reason (at least in the US) that school taxes are collected on a local level is because how the school is run should be handled on a local level by the people in that community, not some Ivory Tower in DC. Education is an extremely complicated issue and the more complicated an issue is, the more locally it should be handled.

I understand that this will cause problems with gaining acceptance to college(s) when we aren't all going by the same standards but that was the purpose of the SAT's and people need to realize that not everyone can or should go to college. College needs to stop its transformation into a continuation of high school.

My wife is a Kindergarten teacher and every other year they are instituting a new "initiative" that is supposed to be the silver bullet to fix education. Our education system has too much political involvement.

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#11
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Re: Would Eliminating Grade Levels Improve Education?

05/29/2009 8:34 AM

Perhaps a universal set of graduation minimums - and HOW you get there is left to the locality?

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#12

Re: Would Eliminating Grade Levels Improve Education?

05/29/2009 2:00 PM

First, I'm all for any school district trying to creatively respond to their classroom demands. More districts across the country should be free to respond to the needs of their children.

What bothers me with modern public education though is the idea that administration and external forces can eliminate failure. With the exception of basic reading, writing and maybe some rudimentary arithmetic I honestly see no need for mandatory education comprehension. But don't get me wrong, I do agree with mandatory exposure to a wide variety of education. But only the two or maybe three regiments I stated should reasonable proficiency be mandatory. Those who can only meet this minimum though do not graduate from public school, they get the equivalent of an attendance voucher. Those who demonstrate sufficient proficiency graduate with an appropriate gradation public diploma. The idea that everyone can master a high school education will only be true if a high school education has no value.

I tried to explain my idea to a member of my local school board in a casual setting by telling her that about half of the students should be below average on any given topic. When she insisted that they all should be able to do better than average, I now knew that she resided in the below average half for Mathematics.

One aspect of this grade-less system approach that I do like though, I like the implied idea that a student can qualify on a topic prior to reaching a certain age. This can both permit the student more time to focus on the subjects of their limitations and to not be bored waiting for the rest of the class to catch up to them.

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#13
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Re: Would Eliminating Grade Levels Improve Education?

05/29/2009 2:24 PM

great points, they do seem to think they can eliminate failure if enough tests are taken. The only way they can eliminate failure is to have no requirements.

Thanks for the much needed Friday chuckle. When I read "When she insisted that they all should be able to do better than average, I now knew that she resided in the below average half for Mathematics." I laughed out loud at my desk, I hope you didn't try and explain the idea of a normal curve.

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Re: Would Eliminating Grade Levels Improve Education?

05/29/2009 2:43 PM

The sad truth is that I gave her a polite out by offering to her the idea she was confusing proficiency with average. She insisted that she knew the difference and repeated herself. At this point the title of a Joe Walsh album, "You Can't Argue With A Sick Mind" popped into my head, so I changed the subject to Joe's music.

Unfortunately, I never replaced my vinyl copy of the album and had to settle with Zappa's Joe's Garage collection for the acoustic wallpaper at my party.

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#19
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Re: Would Eliminating Grade Levels Improve Education?

06/15/2009 12:43 AM

Teaching kids how to think for themselves is what I have seen lost in education. repetitive memorization is not learning, it is only repeating, (to pass some test). And throw in 50% + high school drop out rates, we definitely need to start doing something different. Open your eyes and take a real look at our society. Education is the fundamental building block to improve all of our lives, bar none!

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#20
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Re: Would Eliminating Grade Levels Improve Education?

06/15/2009 4:08 PM

there was a fabulous interview with Alice Waters on 60 minutes last night, highlighting many programs instigated by her. Of special note was the school garden/cooking program, (The Edible Schoolyard) where students learn how to both grow, prepare, and cook organic food. and the kids stated that it was the most fun class they had!... fantastic.

Chris

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#21
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Re: Would Eliminating Grade Levels Improve Education?

06/18/2009 8:19 AM

Redfred..

"by telling her that about half of the students should be below average on any given topic. When she insisted that they all should be able to do better than average, I now knew that she resided in the below average half for Mathematics."

I wonder what she would have said had you asserted that the school should demonstrate on a regular basis a progressively higher average level.

j.

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#23
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Re: Would Eliminating Grade Levels Improve Education?

06/18/2009 9:40 AM

Jack,

After I realised that her definitions of English language terms and my definitions disagreed, I changed the conversation. (see my earlier OT comment) For I realized that on this topic, clear communication could not happen.

But you are probably correct that she'd think that a progressively higher average level by the school could be achieved. Never realizing the ambiguous nature of the phrase. Then again, for many good reasons politicians like ambiguous statements peppered with buzz words. So she may not have recognized the precise reasons for its ambiguity, yet still recognize the fog.

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#24
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Re: Would Eliminating Grade Levels Improve Education?

06/18/2009 10:22 AM

Redfred,

Don't get me wrong.

I think progressively higher levels for the school, for all schools, can be obtained but not on the basis of the standards they set out nor on the basis of their teaching methods insofar as they have no idea that creating an educated person involves materially changing the brain nor, therefore, what it takes to do it.

For standards I would measure progress as movement toward the highest levels of whatever is the peak of knowledge in the fields of science, i.e., math, physics, chemistry, etc., that peak, since these are school level, never being reached, being open ended, but always sought as reachable and perhaps exceeded with the rare student who might develop something new.

Of course grading does not go with such targets.

Indeed, we read here and there of some "school kid" who in one science or another achieves one of those peaks.

As for the rest of the school stuff, who cares with one exception. What passes for social science and is today garbage can indeed be approached as a science, through scientific method as can all material things, and ought to be taught that way.

Of course teachers would have to get a good scientific education on how education changes the human brain. They read Piaget but take only what pleases them instead of getting the material implications of what he was saying.

In the upper grades they would also have to be at the level of good college professors an open end that all teachers ought to strive for.

j.

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#26
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Re: Would Eliminating Grade Levels Improve Education?

06/18/2009 1:02 PM

So it appears that you reside in the camp I defined as a believer that outside forces can coerce comprehension in children. Clearly I can not force you to understand my perspective in where I feel public education stumbles.

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#27
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Re: Would Eliminating Grade Levels Improve Education?

06/18/2009 1:52 PM

Redfred,

I think you totally misunderstand me.

I absolutely do not believe you can coerce comprehension in children or anyone else for that matter.

Setting out the highest goals as an objective educators should seek, but not coerce, does not in any way force stuff down children's craw.

On the contrary I thought I set up a situation, at least conceptually, where children were not under the coercion of targets they must meet, where they are free to chose what to do with their time, in an environment where lots of tempting stuff might be put in front of them but with the absence of a grading system they are free to ignore.

The targets were conceptual for their teachers in that I think when children get to feel free and the choice of lots of interesting stuff is in front of them, they will go with curiosity which you know is as natural to children as is breathing, and getting curious enlist the aid of educators there to help them satisfy their curiosity.

I also think you know that once enlisting some children that way they will enlist their mates.

That is not coercion in any shape or form much less the impossibility of coercing comprehension.

Rather it is to put out materials to tantalize and attract with no barrier to the highest levels as opposed to the current views that children have certain age related abilities, i.e., limits.

That is why I propose the use of the experimental materials to demonstrate Ohm's Law and from there to draw out the algebraic expression of the law for children that generally are deemed not yet ready for algebra.

I believe that if the necessary attractive materials and willing staff are put in front of children they will of their own accord and natural curiosity begin to investigate and in an voluntary mode seek to understand.

I am, outside of necessary safety issues, completely opposed to making a child, making children, do anything they don't want to do even to the point of discomfort of their elders.

I, of course certainly believe that most children are far more capable than the curves educators are so fond of suggest.

In that regard I am probably far more radical than you may think yourself and I suspect some of the folks here will shortly make that very clear in vehemently opposing what I am saying although I hope that would not be the case.

j.

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#29
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Re: Would Eliminating Grade Levels Improve Education?

06/18/2009 2:58 PM

I agree that children should be enticed to learn material. They should also be assisted by well trained professionals, parents and peers when confused by a topic they wish to grasp. But the point I'm trying to convey is that only in the eyes of the law "should all men be considered equal." (I'm not trying to be sexist by that quotation fragment. ) The key item I like of the grade less approach offered here is that students rise with their level of comprehension, not merely physical age. This approach recognizes that in academia we don't all have the same skill set to work with. I just wished we could accept the down side of this, that some students cannot grasp the material, ever. Forcing these students to "achieve" alienates them and holds back the rest of a class. Another implied advantage of this grade less system though is that students need not grasp the material in one academic year. So a student who had a rough patch is not doomed or demoted.

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#28
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Re: Would Eliminating Grade Levels Improve Education?

06/18/2009 2:57 PM

Matter of fact Redfred you have my juices flowing and you are where I grew up, New York City.

I don't know how old you are. I am seventy five.

Many years ago there used to be in the Rockefeller Center Building a Museum of Science and Industry.

There, in addition to the travelling stuff there used to be a long hall with display case after display case.

In those display cases were operating demonstrations of many of the scientific principles. I, and other children brought there by our elementary school teachers and turned loose, only had to press a button on the wall and the display would start to operate.

In that way, for instance, the principles of transformers were explained and demonstrated, the principles of electrostatics were explained and demonstrated, etc., etc.

In that museum I also flew a PBY and crashed it into the ocean because when I had an engine fire instead of closing down the throttle I mistakenly opened it. I also fired anti-aircraft guns.

You have made me think. If I had the means I would set up in some large hall, all sorts of demonstrative equipment of scientific principles for instance a large Whimshurst Machine, a large Tesla Coil, a couple of towers in vacuum so we could drop a steel ball and a feather and see which falls faster, and so on and so on.

I would set up Young's Two Slit Experiment, a large Wilson Chamber, probably a small cyclotron if I could get my hands on one and I would instruct the attendants at these devices not to offer explanations except in reply to questions and not necessarily even then, instead to turn to another onlooker and solicit from them what they thought was going on.

Of course, if there was no other explanatory recourse, we would not let anyone go away without as complete an answer as they were willing to absorb.

But!!!!

We would not coerce them.

I would call it the Museum of Ignorance. I would have a big sign that said "It is absolutely forbidden to learn anything here or to do anything but have fun."

Coercion? Never. I think you will get the idea.

I have an offer from a journalist friend to buy me a cheap ticket to New York and visit. She is a Pakistani working for VOA. I would love nothing more than to find a means to stay in New York.

Know anybody that would employ me to put together such a crazy thing?

j.

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#25
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Re: Would Eliminating Grade Levels Improve Education?

06/18/2009 12:05 PM

No no, its you that doesn't understand that the top performers are getting 110 percent or more, in her classes!

LOL

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#15

Re: Would Eliminating Grade Levels Improve Education?

05/30/2009 10:45 PM

I like the idea of of individual education. Special ed requires individual education plans,which tends to provide this approach. It requires a lot more teacher and specialist and parent involvement, meaning more costs including personnel costs.I don't think the system can afford it in the schools present forms.

Educational software could help provide this ability, but that stuff is written by PHDs and it presently costs the school systems a fortune. Technology is slowly starting to provide a lot of the services necessary to implement some of this on a mass basis, but administration does not understand the complexity well enough to manage it. By the way, I think most counselors would rather shoot themselves than try to deal with the scheduling problems this would create for them. It will take a mass action on all levels of education to implement this without creating havoc for quite a few years.

I still believe that someday we will have to go to this type of system because of the rewards that will come from it. Some education systems are implementing some of the significant pieces necessary to drive in this direction. West Virginia is one of them. Currently, the federal government is concentrating on " the basics" which stifles a lot of changes.

I am still hopeful.

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#16

Re: Would Eliminating Grade Levels Improve Education?

06/01/2009 8:35 AM

I like the idea of having a set of standard knowledge that everyone is compared to, instead of being compared to each other. A major benefit I could see coming out of a system like this is a reduced amount of cheating/plagiarism due to the fact that they are no longer competing against each other to graduate and get into a good college.

In the current system, helping your peers to do better will actually hurt you because of the relative grading system. Giving a common enemy (the standards) could facilitate the use of student tutors to make up for high student/teacher ratios. Any student two or more levels above the standard for their age can tutor a student who needs help. There would need to be some sort of reward mechanism for the tutors, but it could help solve the scaling problem from small schools to large schools.

Also, having local control over the standards could be highly beneficial. As communities get smarter over time, the standards can be raised to continue to be challenging. A national standard would be important so that the bar cannot be lowered below a certain point (sort of like minimum wage).

Anyway, I'm all for this newfangled system. I always thought grading on a bell curve was ridiculous.

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Commentator

Join Date: May 2009
Location: West Point, Texas population around 200.Located between Austin and Houston
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#17

Re: Would Eliminating Grade Levels Improve Education?

06/01/2009 2:07 PM

WOW! WOW! WOW

IF this can be expanded on a large scale,then The USA will benefit beyond measure.

HOW CAN I HELP??

This Blog has entirely "Made my Day",I am forwarding it to a dozen of my friends.

Please Please do not let the Obamaites shoot it down.

My prayers are with this syllabus.

Respectfully

Joe in Texas

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Guru

Join Date: Mar 2008
Location: Atlanta, Georgia
Posts: 749
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#22
In reply to #17

Re: Would Eliminating Grade Levels Improve Education?

06/18/2009 9:07 AM

The real problem is expressed here...

"WOW! WOW! WOW

"IF this can be expanded on a large scale,then The USA will benefit beyond measure."

This whole business of education is tied so much to the creation of monetary value that it, education, is just that, a business.

Anybody that knows any history knows full well that many of the earliest discoverers were not tied to value and for one reason or another were completely free of those kinds of constraints, especially those of us who know something of the earliest stages of the development of science.

The reason they keep going to standards based education is that they are producing a commodity to in turn produce commodities.

Worse, although here and there, mostly before recent times when we have the technical tools to prove it, there were individuals who understood what the process of education did in material terms, i.e., developed specialised neuronal circuits in the brain adapted to one or another set of skills.

Failing to understand that we have instead fools such as the new, new, math nuts who insist there is no need for repetitive drills, insofar as after explaining a math procedure, we can hand out five dollar calculators (Wherein, incidentally, the circuits we need to instill in human minds through repetition are encased in physical and software circuits), and use the time saved from repetition to go on and teach the next concept.

The central problem is this business of not simply providing interesting stuff for kids to do and letting them decide what to do and seeking available help and teachers if and when they wish.

Of course that failure is central to seeing human beings as productive commodities instead of just letting them be productive in whatever way they wish if they wish.

The outcome of that is that we no longer produce individuals who may have interesting ideas that ought to be followed because the apparatus or other means to do so are not available, especially if they did not come up through the university and degree system.

This, despite the fact that as a world human society even after we would provide for the terribly poor and disadvantaged, we have the capacity to produce far more than enough, the present economic crisis and closing and destroying of factories being case on point.

Human history clearly shows that the best structure for education is the free and voluntary one. Although in gross we are pretty much the same animal, in actual practice in terms of education a free and open approach would be far better instead of the present forced system.

j.

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Commentator

Join Date: May 2009
Location: West Point, Texas population around 200.Located between Austin and Houston
Posts: 69
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#30
In reply to #22

Re: Would Eliminating Grade Levels Improve Education?

02/25/2010 12:47 AM

Benefit does not always mean $$$$$$$$,Benefit can mean a better brain pool,,By the way,,,I agree with ALL the rest of your post.

Cheers,

Joe in Texas

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