Schools should be for learning, not for proving that one child is "smarter" than another, argue the reformers. The alternative? A gradeless system that eliminates fear, stimulates achievement —and pulls down classroom walls

JUNE CALLWOOD February 1 1967


Schools should be for learning, not for proving that one child is "smarter" than another, argue the reformers. The alternative? A gradeless system that eliminates fear, stimulates achievement —and pulls down classroom walls

JUNE CALLWOOD February 1 1967

WAYNE BETTS IS A handsome, affable seven-year-old who lives in the Toronto borough of Etobicoke, which is his hard luck. Last year when he was in grade one, he had difficulty with printing — a not uncommon experience for six-year-old boys. In the school he attends, shortcomings in a child’s ability to learn are handled in the traditional style: this year Wayne Betts started grade one all over again.

It’s ironical, since it happens that Wayne Betts lives well within the burgeoning revolution in education across Canada, a feature of which is the general agreement that no small child should ever be described as having failed a year in school. A few miles from where Wayne was struggling over his workbooks last year, a University of Toronto psychologist, Dr. John Mclnnis, was declaring that failing children in grade one is “making them wrecks,” and the minister of education in Wayne’s own province of Ontario was concurring, telling educators that the grade system with its flotila of year-end examinations and competitive report cards and promotion only of the washed and worthy is “unrealistic, particularly in the primary grades.”

Wayne Betts’s crushing personal disaster — multiplied by the thousands of “failed” children across the country — happened in a decade which is supposed to be acting on new insights into the development of children. Fifteen years ago the California Journal of Elementary Education noted: “Nonpromotion is devastating to the personality of children. It deadens initiative, paralyzes the will to achieve, destroys the sense of security and acceptance in the family circle and promotes truancy and delinquency.”

Dr. H. A. Tanser, then director of education in Chatham, Ontario, wrote in the Canadian School Journal in 1962: “Can the imagination fashion a more refined, yet more vicious form of human cruelty than that of forcing a pupil, the so-called failure, to repeat his or her whole year in the same grade, in the same classroom and under the same teacher?”

Educators now are aware of the individual differences of children. It has been established, for instance, that readiness to read and write is not distributed evenly like rain on all six-year-olds during their first roll call on the first morning of school. Children vary as much as four years in reaching the subtle amalgam of co-ordination, concentration. perception and maturity that will enable them to comprehend the squiggles on a page. Despite the wails of parents and teachers that they should try harder, effort has little power to lift the bafflement of a nonreader.

Psychologists warn that harassing a child who is not ready to read is approximately as reasonable and fruitful as demanding he become two inches taller before the end of the week.

Further, there is considerable evidence to show that failing a child during his early years in school is exactly the worst method of educating him. Small children are so demoralized by the disgrace of repeating a year, and the attendant disappointment of parents and upheaval of friendships, that they rarely advance their knowledge more than two or three months during the entire 10 months of their punishment. In recent books, such prominent educators as Paul Goodman and John J. Goodlad (the latter, co-author of The Nongraded Elementary School, this year’s handbook for progressive teachers) state that children who repeat a year in school sometimes perform more poorly the second time around. Slow achievers, they say, do better if they are promoted with their age groups.

In addition to this waste of time, money and pain, the child who fails invariably blames himself. Because he is convinced that he is stupid, his attitude toward school is likely to be disfigured permanently by anger, loathing and hopelessness. An Ontario Department of Education inspector, Dorothy Campbell, surveyed 1,000 students in special vocational and occupational classes and discovered that 500 of them had repeated grade one. “No wonder they’ve become hostile and frustrated before we meet them in the higher grades,” she comments.

Today’s educators, therefore, are inventing and improving upon a variety of schemes to ease little children into education without breaking their hearts. The most common of these is called nongrading, a term derived from its least exacting feature: GRADE I, GRADE II and GRADE III labels are removed from the classroom doors.

In theory, six-year-olds in nongraded schools are presented with a three-year primary curriculum which they absorb at their own pace, without skipping or repeating. A majority of children will reach grade four in the conventional three years; a few are ready in only two years; a few will require four years.

When it works, the child enjoys the heady delights of making progress every day, a universal tonic that enhances self-confidence, whets motivation and makes the task of learning palatable. It results in a phenomenon: a slow learner with his self-respect intact.

In Toronto's nongraded Duke of York school, report cards have been abolished and private parent-teacher interviews substituted. The children in one class were baffled at first by the absence of report cards, so the teacher ingeniously suggested that they compose their own. It's a practice she has kept for its valuable insights. One of her lowest achievers, for example, a boy two years behind his age-group norm, proudly and badly printed the news that he was doing very well in all subjects. From his point of view, the teacher realized, he was a triumph: his comprehension of what he was doing in class was improving daily.

Nongrading is available in some Canadian schools but it is patchy, extremely rare and not always the genuine article where it is said to exist. If Wayne Betts had entered grade one in Hamilton, only a few miles west of the Etobicoke school that failed him, he would have encountered a form of nongrading. Toronto, closer to him, has a handful of superior nongraded schools. If he had lived in Saskatchewan, he would have found all elementary schools there ungraded by governmental decree two years ago. In New Brunswick, Wayne would be under a brand-new provincial policy to ungrade all schools. Wayne's chances of being in a nongraded school in British Columbia, Alberta or Ontario are generally poor, but not hopeless. The odds are decidedly against it in Manitoba, Quebec, Prince Edward Island. Nova Scotia or Newfoundland. In the United States, the probabilities improve sharply. Nongrading was rare there 10 years ago but is available now in some form in 26 percent of schools.

Nongrading is one technique for taking undue pressure off young children to nourish their aliveness, but it is almost meaningless without two other reforms: the abolition of year-end examinations and competitive report cards. Both these traditional gauges are replaced by the teacher's evaluation of the student's progress, which is based on daily observation of the child plus a random-seeming pattern of small, casual tests and, ideally, consultation with the principal and other teachers in contact with the child.

In the future the report card may disappear. Instead, every teacher twice a year will have a half-hour interview with every parent. For the present, the newest look in report cards is bare. The space for ticks opposite a bank of behavior descriptions is gone, along with Times Late and Days Absent. Most significantly, there are no marks recorded for the subjects taken and no indication of where the pupil stands in the class. It is called the anecdotal progress report because its entire content is a lengthy and detailed summary by the teacher of the pupil's weaknesses and strengths, together with specific suggestions to help him.

Some teachers detest the anecdotal report cards, the nongrading, the abandoning of examinations. They are practiced at doling out a year’s curriculum per child annually, setting exams, neatly writing the results in report cards. Others are relieved. “The time I used to spend, pondering over whether to tick Is Improving or Can Do Better," sighs a Toronto principal, Mrs. Beatrice Machin. “I’m glad that’s over.” But parents worry that their children under the new system are totally at the mercy of the teacher, who is not always a fair person.

Educators reply that the child always was at the mercy of the teacher — conventional examinations and report cards gave an illusion of impartiality that was false. Since the teacher always could set as difficult or easy a test as she pleased and mark it with a wide variance of tolerance for spelling mistakes, or misunderstandings, the marks on the report cards were never more than formalized evaluations anyway, with an element of terror thrown in. A researcher found neighboring schools in the southern United States that illustrate the giddy unreliability of standards. In one school, no grade-one children failed; in the other, 28 out of 56 were required to repeat grade one.

In addition to these absurdities, the marks achieved on an examination can never be said to reflect the child's lasting and real knowledge of a subject, since all teachers anxiously drill and rehearse their classes for weeks before a final examination. What is tested, the educators dolefully believe, is only the child’s ability to write an examination.

Nevertheless, the dropping of exams and the graded report card is the reform that teachers think parents are least ready for, and in some localities they have been proved right. When Toronto boldly substituted chatty notes from the teacher for formal report cards, some parents went into upward spirals of wrath, uttering cries of “What sort of preparation is this for the rough, tough world children must face?” and, “If you eliminate competition, you eliminate drive!”

Objections are rare, however, in areas where schools are careful to inform parents beforehand and provide liberal access to teachers and principals. There was general approval. for example, when hundreds of parents gathered last November in an Etobicoke school, Rosethorn, to see samples of a mildly anecdotal report card and hear an explanation of it by the principal, John Waterhouse.

“We have been afraid for many years.” he explained earnestly, “that children have been almost destroyed by taking home report cards that compared them at too early an age. The goal of education in our time is not to specify how much growth a child must have, but to estimate what growth he actually has.”

Parents are learning at these briefings that children in a competition-free environment are more relaxed and, therefore, perform closer to their capacities. It works less well when introduced suddenly to older students, whose techniques for enduring school have calcified into lethargy, but in little children the drive to learn still comes from within, as a baby's does. In the absence of discouragement, the normal human inclination is to improve.

It was startling to businessmen whose language for success is a compendium of manipulating, striving and vanquishing that leading educators in the United States agree that one of the reforms needed in schools to provide the country with more and better scientists and creative thinkers is to abandon all grading and competition in classrooms. The now-famous Woods Hole Conference, called by the National Science Foundation when the space race was in its panic stage, found science teachers opposed to “right” answers, examinations and adherence to text books. In the U.S.. the trend is toward accepting their advice.

This new look in education is beginning to emerge in Canadian schools, but its chief characteristic at the moment is inconsistency. There are school systems, in Saskatchewan for instance, that offer a form of ungrading which is little more than that old familiar, streaming. In that province children still repeat an entire year, still bring home graded report cards, still have text books clearly marked Grade Five Reader, still have teachers tensely giving tests, harried and urging because the marks go to the superintendent.

There are schools, in Vancouver for instance, that are moving toward anecdotal report cards and a de-emphasis on final examinations but retain the old lock-step grading — one grade per year per child. There are schools, in Toronto for instance, that are not ungraded but have almost eliminated failing. They hold immature kindergarten children back in small, brilliantly taught classes called kindergarten-primary, watching for signs that they are ready to read and write before releasing them to grade one. Some children remain in kindergarten-primary for two months, some for two years.

The experiments are disjointed and faulty, without question, but they are all headed in the same direction. Educators are agreed on the revolutionary fundamentals that grading, examinations and report cards are obsolete. They know the solutions, which go beyond nongrading and abolishing report cards and examinations. They begin with the teacher, whose training is geared to yesterday’s schools and whose physical and mental health will collapse if demands on endurance and good intentions continue to increase.

Classroom size, the most expensive improvement in the education world, must gear down. As well established nongraded school districts in the United States have discovered, nongrading is all talk if a girl who can read at a grade-five level cannot be moved into a grade-five classroom because it is too crowded. Architecture is the key: egg-crate classrooms can never truly ungrade. The walls within a school must roll back or not exist at all, if a child who reads at a grade-two level but does maths at a grade-four level is to have room to manoeuvre from group to group. Next is team teaching, every child exposed to several teachers as he fits into the fluidity available to him. It makes, too, for greater confidence for parents if the anecdotal report is the product of four teachers, rather than one.

Even the school calendar must disappear. Real nongrading would mean that a child moves steadily along and meets no one else's standard just because the month is June.

Teachers, principals and administrators all over the country are expressing themselves passionately these days on the need for a massive reform in primary education. Their conventions, conferences and literature are filled with strong statements. To them, evidence that grading children is impractical is part of their daily observations. One Toronto principal, James M. Harvey, took a hard look at one of his grade-three classrooms recently and discovered that only 12 of the 35 children in the grade actually were reading at a grade-three level. The others ranged from one reading at grade-one level to one who read at grade-five level.

The most sophisticated test for child development is believed by many authorities to be the one designed by Dr. Frances L. Ilg of Yale’s Gesell Institute. Two Toronto schools are experimenting with it. One of them, Jackman Avenue school, finds that some kindergarten five-year-olds are actually only at four-year-old-development level. The difference is critical for kindergarten teachers: four-year-olds are inclined to be solitary when they play and they prefer big-muscle toys such as building blocks and climbing apparatus, while five-yearolds are ready for co-operative games and intricate handwork.

Humane, resourceful, able teachers knew all about these differences in children before there were testing tools, and ungraded their classrooms in spirit long before the game had a name. Nongrading is the good teacher's solution to classroom injustice and, by no coincidence, works best when teachers themselves draw up the blueprints. A Florence C. Kelly in 1942 ungraded her primary classroom in Milwaukee by refusing to demand that every child in the room follow the same curriculum. She now is director of 116 primary schools in Milwaukee and every one of them is nongraded. “Any child who is learning is not failing,” says Miss Kelly.

In Canada, the recent impetus toward ungrading is the legacy of isolated and valiant pioneering over many years. It was in 1950, for instance. that Col. W. I. Nurse took over a bright new school in Chatham, Ont., and abolished all the grades in it. In subsequent years he was able to demonstrate that his children not only rated better on achievement tests than children in graded schools, but that he was saving his board of education the equivalent of one classroom per year by having fewer failures.

Hamilton began experimenting with a unit system in its schools as early as 1939 and now has it across the city. The curriculum is broken into units: bright students can devour four units in their grade-one year, slower students take only two units. A study of the results showed that 21 percent of elementary students in Hamilton complete eight years of education in only seven years, about three times as much acceleration as the best grade systems produce.

Saskatchewan also has a version of the unit system, called the division system. It grew out of the exasperation of a school superintendent, Dr. Cecil P. Collins, who in 1944 found himself superintendent of a Saskatchewan school district around Kindersley, near the Alberta border, which contained 100 one-room schools, a high proportion of poorly trained teachers and a substandard education.

He called the teachers together to examine the dismal results of testing Kindersley children against national norms and asked what could be done about it. The teachers defended themselves by attacking the system: the course was too heavy, they complained, the children couldn't cover it properly. Fine, Dr. Collins told them, we’ll stop trying to cover the course.

From this practical beginning, Kindersley teachers caught a revolutionary spirit. They conferred frequently and found they agreed that primary children shouldn’t repeat a year. "Let us have three years with each child before we have to think about promoting him or keeping him back,” they asked. Go to it, said Dr. Collins. Accordingly, Kindersley in 1950 began ungrading all primary children. The teachers, excited by what they were doing, met every week: some of them regularly drove 60 miles over country roads to see their colleagues.

In 1958 Regina's separate schools began a one-school experiment with a system like Hamilton’s unit arrangement. It was designed to be a three-year test but so delighted parents and educators that it was extended to all primary classes in the city after the second year.

"There was a healthy amount of resistance and lack of interest when we started,” admits L. A. Riederer, the venturesome director of education for separate schools. "This kind of education is much harder on teachers.”

The method sold itself as it went along, however, and in 1964 the provincial government ungraded all Saskatchewan schools up to grade six.

Administrators in Saskatchewan meticulously refer to grade six now as “year six” but habits a century old die hard. Work sheets in the nongraded schools are headed “Grade 5”: principals speak of “grade-five” teachers; children, asked how they are getting along in school, answer. “Fine. I’m in grade five.”

Perhaps because they’ve been using the system longer. Regina’s separate schools are closer to a progressive educator’s ideal than the public schools. The in-service training of teachers is better, for one thing, and there are no unit-end tests. The separate schools have a remarkable record after only eight years of the division system: half of their grade-seven students at the beginning of the last school year tested close to the grade-eight level, while grade-eight students averaged above the grade-nine level.

“National norms aren’t useful to us any more,” notes the elementary superintendent for separate schools. Joseph Holash. “They just don’t apply to children educated this way."

Henry Janzen, director of curricula for the province, is modest. "I wouldn't want anyone to think we’ve got the division system working yet as it should be. It’s a long-term proposition."

One of the country’s most admired nongraded systems is in Forest Hill Village, a high-income area within Toronto that has a reputation for excellence in education. Dissatisfied teachers there led an uprising in 1960, complaining that they could not agree that repeating a year was a useful experience for a young child. They also thought something was wrong when they had to stall bright children who finished 10 months’ work in eight, and nag slower children to catch up in time for the final exams.

"We heard about schools that had a nongraded continuous approach to education and it seemed just what we were looking for." says Margaret Hincks. one of the country's few primary teachers with an MA degree.

Principals and administrators of Forest Hill co-operatively sent the teachers to scout nongraded schools in the United States and then all hands spent two years deciding on the best method and getting the backing of parents. Miss Hincks says it was worth all the trouble. Besides the benefits to the children, most teachers are happier. "It takes more of our time preparing lessons and seeing parents, but there is less strain in the classroom. You don’t have to badger some poor child into covering the reader and feel frustrated and upset if he can’t."

And there are shafts of sweetness, as when Miss Hincks’s students became aware one morning, sensitively and spontaneously, that a classmate who’d been having a struggle forming letters had just done a creditable job.

"They crowded around and admired his work and made him feel just marvellous." relates Miss Hincks. "And me, too. You realize that those children have learned to respect another individual for the effort he makes. They seem to grasp that success isn’t so much being first, as being better than you were.”

NEXT MONTH: June Call wood describes what parents, working together as pressure groups, should (and shouldn't) do to improve our schools.