Female student reading the dictionary

Placing Children in “Grades” by Age Is Illogical

Age-grading is a bad idea. It was imported from Prussia in 1848. It was first implemented in Boston, in the Quincy Grammar School. It was a cost-cutting device. It was also imposed to let teachers reduce discipline problems.

The rural “little red schoolhouse” did not adopt this model. There, students of all ages were in one room. A teacher taught them. The older students who understood the material helped teach the younger ones who were having trouble. (This is the RPC model: student tutorial forums.)

This performance-based model of education did not give administrators the tight control that the pioneers of “progressive education” wanted. So, they adopted age-grading. They placed children in a classroom based on age. They isolated students from older and younger students. The #1 goal was teacher control: control over the children by the teacher, and control over the teacher by the administration. Part of this plan was teacher specialization. A teacher was grade-specific. It was easier for a new, inexperienced teacher — an inexpensive teacher — to be able to teach. It was easier for her to prepare lesson plans.

The system rested on grade-specific textbooks. The textbooks had to provide continuity up the grades. The teachers could no longer do this. They did not know what was taught to students above or below their age-specific grades. This removed the teacher from the overall educational program. The teacher became an isolated cog in a bureaucratic machine. It placed administrators in charge. They designed the curriculum. They chose the textbooks. They ran the experiments. They adopted the fads, which came and went.

John Taylor Gatto is America’s most eloquent defender of homeschooling. He was Teacher of the Year three times in New York City. He was Teacher of the Year in New York State. Then he quit. He gave up public school teaching.

In his indispensable book, The Underground History of American Education, he comments on age-graded schools.

The socialization of children in age-graded groups monitored by State agents is essential to learn to get along with others in a pluralistic society. The actual truth is that the rigid compartmentalizations of schooling teach a crippling form of social relation: wait passively until you are told what to do, never judge your own work or confer with associates, have contempt for those younger than yourself and fear of those older. Behave according to the meaning assigned to your class label. These are the rules of a nuthouse.

Gatto refers to William Torrey Harris, the U.S Commissioner of Education, 1889-1906. He says that Harris was a “leading scholar of German philosophy in the Western hemisphere, editor and publisher of The Journal of Speculative Philosophy, which trained a generation of American intellectuals in the ideas of the Prussian thinkers Kant and Hegel, the man who gave America scientifically age-graded classrooms to replace successful mixed-age school practice.” Then he cited a passage from Harris’s 1906 book, The Philosophy of Education.

Ninety-nine [students] out of a hundred are automata, careful to walk in prescribed paths, careful to follow the prescribed custom. This is not an accident but the result of substantial education, which, scientifically defined, is the subsumption of the individual.

At Mastery Learning Academy, we do not agree with Harris because we acknowledge that each child is gifted with a unique personality and skill set. If your child is racing ahead in a course, great. We will never hold a child back. We will also never leave a child behind. Our mastery learning platform meets children where they learn and we support them through the rough patches. Being in charge of their learning helps students build confidence and life-long skills that they will carry with them into adulthood.