“Building a Better Teacher,” “Why Americans Stink at Math,” and implications for digital learning—an unplanned Part 3

When I wrote the first two blog posts (part 1 and part 2) on Building a Better Teacher, I hadn’t yet seen Larry Cuban’s take on Elizabeth Green’s views. He makes a point that is valuable enough to add a coda to the earlier posts. Cuban is generally positive about Green’s views, saying that they are “well written” and that her answers “make a great deal of sense.” But then he discusses in some depth a key issue that he believes she has missed—the importance of “the power of the age-graded school to influence how teachers teach.”

“The age-graded school (e.g., K-5, K-8, 6-8, 9-12), a 19th century innovation, has become an unquestioned mainstay of school organization in the 21st century. Today, most taxpayers and voters have gone to kindergarten at age 5, studied Egyptian mummies in the 6th grade, took algebra in the 8th or 9th grade and then left 12th grade with a diploma… The age-graded school has processed efficiently millions of students over the past century and a half, sorted out achievers from non-achievers, and now graduates nearly three-quarters of those entering high school…” The age-graded school also “isolates and insulates teachers from one another, perpetuates teacher-centered pedagogy, and prevents a large fraction of students from achieving academically…[It] is a one-size-fits-all structure”

The implications for math reform—and even more so for transformative digital learning—are clear:

“Dominant social beliefs of parents and educators about a “real” school, that is, one where children learn to read in 1st grade, receive report cards, and get promoted have politically narrowed reform options in transforming schools. For example, when a charter school applicant proposes a new school the chances of receiving official approval and parental acceptance increase if it is a familiar age-graded one, not one where most teachers team teach and groups of multi-age children (ages 5-8, 9-11) learn together.”

I completely agree: the entire grade-based approach, and with it the associated expectations of letter grades and standard progression, is a critical barrier because it is entrenched in the minds of so many stakeholders. A system that is truly personalized must be able to answer the question—what happens when a third grade student finishes all third grade courses in February?

The ideal answer is that the question doesn’t make sense, because we don’t think of grade levels. But that’s a change that requires support from parents, post-secondary institutions, employers, and politicians. It is clearly a long way off.

Perhaps the conclusion to the last post—“Sit on a stone for three years to accomplish anything”—was overly optimistic. Better make it a six-year plan. Bring a pillow.