Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Grade Level What?

This post originally appeared on Getting Smart.  The theme came up in my discussions with Smart Parents author Tom Vander Ark and Getting Smart Managing Editor at the iNACOL Symposium. The factory model of schooling is giving way to more flexible options for personalized lifelong learning pathways. This is one close-to-home story about that transition...

At a recent holiday gathering I witnessed an interesting exchange between my son Benjamin and a relative who hadn’t seen him in a while. My relative asked, “What grade are you in now?” There was a long pause… I smiled. I could see the wheels turning as he thought about how to respond. What would have been an easy answer for me when I was Benjamin’s age is more complicated now. He could have given several different correct answers.

My son is an example of how “grade level” is becoming an outdated concept. In his public virtual high school he was enrolled this year as a sophomore, but his classes include a dual-enrollment writing class at a local college, and high schools classes usually taken by “9th” and “11th” graders. He also self-enrolled in self-paced guitar lessons via an iOS app and he is supplementing his French class with the DuoLingo app. From middle school to high school he jumped ahead and back in “grade-level” when changing schools, first after 7th grade and then changing high schools between “9th grade” and “10th grade”. So, he was never technically enrolled in 8th grade, but he took classes that sufficiently covered 8th grade learning standards.

Benjamin’s case is not unusual. He has friends that are home schooled and taking college classes as 15 years olds, and others enrolled in WPI’s Mass Academy, a public school in Massachusetts whose students attend a private university full-time as seniors in high school. According to ECS:
Forty-seven states and the District of Columbia have statute and/or regulations governing one or more common statewide dual enrollment policies,” and “three states leave dual enrollment policies to the discretion of local districts and postsecondary institutions/systems.
It’s not new that high schools determine a student’s grade level based on credits earned rather than age or cohort. What is new is the growth in options that allow student to advance at their own pace and earn college credit while in high school. Students that used to depend on the capacity of the local high school to offer an advanced placement class can now take advantage of AP or college-level online courses.

With dual-enrollment the lines are blurring between K-12 and postsecondary education, even as the institutions and public policy remains deeply rooted in the cultural inertia of separate domains.
With school choice and course choice, lines are also blurring between school districts. A student’s education is no longer fated to be on the same course and pace as everyone else that happens to be in the same zip code and age grouping. Students are benefiting as the factory model of education erodes and more student-centered options emerge. Benefits include greater potential for success and reduced costs for college and career training.

As a parent, I’m encouraged that my children have and will have options for lifelong learning that were not available when I was their age. I also see that they have new responsibilities as 21st century learners. They will need to take more ownership of their own learning. I grew up in an age of spoon-fed, one-size-fits all, everyone-moves-at-the-same-pace schooling. To take full advantage of emerging student-centered options, students today need to learn a new set of mindsets and dispositions. 

As a parent, I also have a responsibility to encourage and guide my kids in those attitudes and dispositions. So I need to keep learning. Resources like Smart Parents and Mindset: The New Psychology of Success are helpful. I can also help by learning about course choice options as they become available and learning how to evaluate what is a good fit for each of my children.  (I also have a child that is thriving in a traditional brick-and-mortar school.) By doing all this learning myself, I am modeling what it means to be a lifelong learner. Someone once told me that children learn more from what their parents do than what they say.

So, my son had multiple right answers when asked, “What grade are you in?” He could have said “I haven’t yet completed 8th grade,” or “I’m in 10th grade,” or “I’m in college.” I think he ended up saying something like “based on the courses I’m taking, I’m mostly in 11th grade.” Someday we will stop asking, “What grade are you in?” With the shift to lifelong student-centered learning, a more relevant and more interesting question (for all ages) can be “what have you been learning?”

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