What About "Grade Level?"

I spoke at a local curriculum fair a couple of days ago and later posted a transcript of my talk, entitled "Is the Perfect Curriculum Out There?" As an addendum to that piece, I discussed my beliefs about the concept of "grade level," but I feel so strongly about the issue that I wanted to also publish my thoughts on the matter as a separate post.

I wish there were something we could do to rid the institutional schools of the stupefying idea of "grade level" - though, of course, doing so would be like turning the Queen Mary in a bathtub. However, at the very least, those of us who educate our own kids can banish the concept from our homes. And here - in the reprinted addendum to the original curriculum article - is why I believe we must do so:

Even bigger than the myth of public schools having some kind of corner on the ideal scope and sequence is the fallacy that the concept of "grade level" has any objective merit. In reality, "grade levels" only exist in institutional schooling because grouping children according to age is most convenient for the adults. But that doesn't mean it's best for kids. In fact, in regards to learning, the reality (which each of us knows in our gut if we're honest with ourselves) is that there is a vast range of readiness and ability among any given group of same-aged kids at any "grade level." Thus, you'll see kids in "4th grade" who can comprehend and enjoy books at a much higher reading level, and others who still struggle with phonics. And you'll notice a wide range in terms of those kids' abilities to understand whatever math is being taught in the "4th grade" classroom as well; in fact, some of the "high" readers might be the ones who struggle most with math! It doesn't mean there's anything wrong with any child; it just means that each is an individual whose abilities and needed pace of learning differ from that of other children and across the various academic areas of study.

The system of institutional schooling has to deal with that in one way or another. Tragically, in most cases the sad truth is that the "powers that be" simply insist on standardization (i.e., all kids in a certain "grade level" are taught the same things...at the same time...in the same way...at the same rate). Of course, that doesn't mean the children are all engaged in the process (the ones who function at higher levels are bored out of their heads!) or are all learning (the ones who have slower natural rates of learning are being dragged along but still don't "get it"). But - beyond a few teachers who try to make allowances to some degree within the constraints of the system - that's just the way it is.

In contrast, though, with homeschooling we have the freedom to actually teach our children at each one's ability level and pace - without regard to what the system says is a certain "grade level." In practical terms, what that means is this: Even if you choose to go with a traditional (i.e., textbook-based) curriculum and use separate materials for each child, you do not need to - in fact, you should not - simply go with one "grade level" for every subject. If you do that, you're probably not truly meeting the child's needs, and that would be a shame considering that individualization is one of the main blessings of home learning

Thus, don't use the default "grade level" label based on your child's chronological age when choosing curriculum. Instead, evaluate where your child is in terms of what he knows and is able to do - many companies provide placement tests to help in that process - and start there. If that means he's six but using a "5th grade" math book (I met a child this spring for whom that would likely be true!), meet his needs. And, if that means he's 10 and needs "2nd grade" reading, meet his needs. Start from where your child really is on Day 1 of your home learning program and be diligent about making regular progress...but go at your child's pace of learning, whatever that is.

In the end, your child will be just where she needs to be upon high school graduation. She won't have gone through the cookie-cutter, assembly line schooling offered by the institutions; instead, she'll have been given an individualized program of study that took her real needs into account in every facet of learning. As such, she'll be able to soar in her particular areas of giftedness while still being more than competent in other areas. She'll also be much more emotionally healthy than her institutionally-schooled peers...and will come out of her educational experience with a love for learning and a desire to continue learning throughout her life. And isn't that what education should really be about?

Photo Credit: priscillavorng


Jen Sones said...

Great information. Will have to come back again and digest it even more when I have more time. Thanks for posting and confirming that it is a good decision to have my seven-year-old in first grade level reading and doing math in a book with a big three on the cover. It's liberating to get away from the whole grade level thing!

geralyn said...

A group of moms and I were joking about this topic yesterday. Out of my 4 children, only one can identify herself with a particular grade level. When anyone asks my children what grade they are in, they tend to look dim-witted as they stammer for an answer. I often interject on their behalf and explain that they are home educated and that each child overlaps multiple grade levels.

It's still frustrating when I try to explain to 'non' homeschoolers that our children are not restrained by conforming to grade levels. My three boys' school work overlaps greatly depending on their strengths and weaknesses. To identify a child by a grade level is to restrict their unlimited educational abilities.

Kelly said...

Preach it sister. Homeschooling allows us such flexibility; why any parent would try to force their child to fit a particular curriculum or grade level is always beyond me, yet I see it so often.
Great article. I will be sharing!

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