A charter school has found that an innovative method for individualized instruction is grouping students by ability instead of by age. One of the biggest challenges facing urban schools is how to teach children who are performing far below grade level while challenging students who are looking for more demanding work.
In a pilot program for grades 3 through 6 R Highlander Charter School, students are grouped by ability in math, not their age.
Schools traditionally give credit for “seat time” — students are promoted if they have passed their classes. But what happens if the student didn’t understand fractions or long division? What happens if the teacher never finished the curriculum? In those cases, students advance to the next class even though they are missing critical skills from the previous grades.
This is particularly worrisome in math, where foundational skills such as fractions are critical to understanding algebra.
Highlander is moving to a “mastery-based” approach toward math. Students are tested. If they are working at a third-grade level, they are placed in third-grade-level math, regardless of their actual grade or age.
“We place students according to their ability,” said Rose Mary Grant, Highlander’s head of school. “There could be a third grader who is ahead of a fifth grader. Students move at their own pace.”
This model has many advantages, Grant said. Students with “math holes,” or gaps in their knowledge, no longer struggle with material they haven’t mastered. One student told Grant, “I no longer feel like a failure.”
“There are no grades,” Grant said. “You have either mastered the material or you haven’t.”
It also takes some of the burden off the classroom teachers, who are no longer rushing from one small group to another, trying to teach students at different levels. Instead, teachers can work with one group of students while the rest work independently on their tablets.
“It’s had a huge impact on behavior,” said Patty Houlik, a fourth-grade teacher and former engineer. “We had kids who were really bored. Now they are challenged.”
Ali Abdul-Mumin is a fourth grader who studies fifth-grade math, where he is learning about the metric system.
“Instead of being in a lower grade,” he said, “I get to go to a higher grade. It’s more challenging.”
Highlander began the pilot program at the end of the previous school year. Although the school is still gathering data, Grant said she has seen students who were failing last year and are now passing math.
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