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The Perils of Split Grade Classrooms
It's been a bad week for school news. We had the school bus beating video, which is just horrific.

But on the home front, I have a number of friends with kids in the school system who are just so unhappy with their kids' teachers/classes this year.

I'm not going to comment on anything specific, but let me talk about the problem from a generic point of view.

We live in Ontario, Canada, where the Liberal provincial government put down a law a few years ago saying that grade four classrooms and under could not exceed 20 students. After all, the early years are the most important, so we need more one-on-one time. So let's mandate it!

The only problem is, this had already been tried in California and had been a miserable failure. The best teachers with the most seniority vied for these "easy" jobs in small classrooms, while the new teachers took the higher grades, often with 35 kids. Portables sprung up all over the place because you needed more classrooms. They had to hire people who weren't properly trained to teach to make up for all the extra classrooms that were now needed.

But the worst thing of all: split grades.

And that's what's happened in Ontario, too.

Take a rural school that doesn't have a lot of kids. Let's say you have 18 in kindergarten, 23 in grade one, 22 in grade 2, and 19 in grade 3.

You have a problem, because your grade 1 and grade 2 classes are too big. So you can move a few grade 1's down to the kindergarten class and make a split grade. Then, with the extra grade 1 you move him or her up to grade 2. You now take the two extra grade 2 students and put them in grade 3, which creates 1 extra grade 3 child, that you have to move up to grade 4. Etc. etc.

It gets to be an even bigger nightmare if the numbers are more like: 16, 24, 26, 17, or something.

So here's the question: is it easier to teach 28 grade 1 students, let's say, or a class with 14 grade 1's and 6 grade 2's? Remember, you still have to cover all of the curriculum. You may have fewer students, but you have a harder job.

In any given classroom, you have a two grade standard deviation on either side. So in grade 3, for instance, you have some kids working at a grade 1 level and some kids working at a grade 5 level. You've already got a mixture of abilities and learning styles there.

If you add children a year younger, you now increase the ability level even more. A good teacher will try to individualize work to where those kids are, but it's hard when you're trying to cover more curriculum.

What some teachers do is to just give up trying. They just teach to the middle, and the rest fall by the wayside. The gifted grade 2's who may have received individual care in a complete grade 2 class now can't get that because the teacher has to spend spare minutes teaching the other grade.

And what's worse is that if your child is labelled on the "lower" learning end, so they go in the top of a split (so a grade 2 child in a 1/2 split rather than a 2/3 split) may never make up that difference. The other grade 2's spend an entire year hearing the grade 3 curriculum. The smart ones probably do the grade 3 curriculum. But the grade 2's stuck in a 1/2 split hear the same material they learned last year again. If they get put back in a straight grade 3 class the next year, they'll start the year behind the grade 3's who were in the 2/3 split the previous year. They were already in the bottom 50%; how can they ever make it up now? You've now taken a child in grade 2 and labelled him or her, probably for their whole school career.

And all of this was done because it was supposed to help kids.

Governments often do things that "sound" good without thinking through the ramifications. In this case, there are huge ramifications and very little good that can come out of it. It makes a nightmare for principals who have to juggle numbers to get the right class size, and a nightmare for teachers who have to teach to such disparate learning levels. And who does it really help?

Split classes were done years ago just to help the gifted kids get ahead. If you were gifted, you were often moved up just so you could hear the next lesson. I can sort of understand that, although you do hit a ceiling. I had a friend whose son was gifted, and he was always on the lower end of a split. So in grade 7 he learned all the grade 8 material. When he got to grade 8, there was nowhere else to put him, so he had to sit through that year all over again (they don't skip kids anymore, after all). So it ended up being a waste of time.

Today, though, they split grades just to make the numbers match. It's ridiculous. And I don't think it helps education. It may help teachers' unions, since it creates more jobs, but it doesn't help the kids. And a bunch of my friends' children are currently suffering for it.

I have lots more posts on education, parenting, and marriage! Stay a while and read a bit!



At 12:50 PM , Anonymous Malee in Ontario said…

Actually, Sheila, it's not entirely true that they no longer bump kids up a grade. It just happens so rarely (and school boards tell us that their policy is that kids are no longer allowed to skip grades) that we hardly ever see it anymore. It also happens only in the lower grades, to my knowledge. My oldest daughter skipped Senior Kindergarden and is now in gr. 8. When her teacher originally said she wanted to skip her ahead, she told us she had already spoken to the principal and school board and had even had her tested to see if she could handle skipping a grade in all areas. Often, children who are labeled 'gifted' are only gifted in 1 or 2 academic areas, not accross the board. That means skipping them ahead would, in the long run, cause more education problems for them than keeping them in their proper grade and suppplementing their education in the areas they're gifted in. Anyway. My point is, skipping does still occur, just VERY rarely.


At 1:36 PM , Anonymous Ann-Marie said…

HI!, I'm a teacher in England, and of the 16yrs I spent fulltime in the classroom (I'm now a supply teacher at my old school to give me more time at home with my own children!) I taught a split class for 14yrs!

Some years were easier than others, depending on the maturity (not age) of the children, but it was an enjoyable experince - for me at least. Finding ways of helping the majority of children is fine, what I enjoyed was the challenge of finding ways of helping the more or less able participate and excell at their own level.
We also have (in England at least) maximum class sizes. Ours are 30 in Keystage 1 (ages 5-7, although the 5yr olds are now part of the Foundation stage and the curriculum is different) with no limit on older years. When I had yrs 3 and 4 (7-9yr olds) I often had 32 or 34.


At 1:45 PM , Blogger Cassie said…

a well-written post.
although i chuckled at the bit about the +/- 1 for any grade level.
If that was only true that a kid in any grade would at the worst be working one grade below - teachers would rejoice! Sadly, I taught high school for 11 years and there are many of those kids that read at a 3rd or 4th grade level. (And we've never split grades to my knowledge in our district).


At 1:57 PM , Blogger AnneZ said…

These things just make me shake my head in amazement. Why don't they just hire teacher assistants and keep the student:teacher ratio at a lower number rather than trying to split grades. It goes down with our school administrators who build a new school that will end up opening at 100% capacity in an area that has continued development! Why not build a school that is just a little larger rather than having to worry about class crowding, portable classrooms and the like by the second year? If *I* was queen of the world, things would be done so much more logically! ;)


At 1:59 PM , Blogger Amanda #1 said…

I disagree with you, for a number of reasons.

First, for personal reasons. In fourth grade, I was in a split class: half third grade, half fourch grade. While I certainly can't speak for the teacher, all of us in the class completely enjoyed it. The older kids were able to help the younger ones, and the younger ones inevitably absorbed some of the upper-level information. And for me, personally, it was fabulous to be able to help the younger kids, particularly in math, a subject with which I struggled. By helping those younger than me, not only did it boost my confidence, but it also helped to reinforce the past concepts that might not have "sunk in" so well the first go-round.

Second, don't parents who homeschool do this all the time? Granted, we're talking on a smaller scale--one kid per grade, not 10, but it's the same concept. And for many homeschool parents, we're not talking just two grades, we're talking three, four, five, or more grades.

Third, isn't this fundamentally how schooling was done in the days of one room classrooms. Certainly it could be argued that there wasn't as much to learn back then, but since your post seems to be primarily addressing lower grades, I don't think it's so far off. Even with all the advances we've made in the last 100-200 years, we're still teaching first and second graders basically the same things as we were then: reading, writing, math.

Now, as an adult thinking about the teacher's position, I can certainly see where it would be a great deal more work to have to figure out two lesson plans, to try to cram all the material for two grades into the same amount of time.

Nevertheless, I still don't think it's fair to say across the board that split-grades are bad.


At 2:18 PM , Blogger Sheila said…

Thanks for all your comments!

Amanda--A couple of things. I homeschool, and I teach multiple grades. Not hard at all. But I have taught three kids, not 25. I think that's the big difference.

In the multi-grade schoolhouses, they often had very different material to learn, and the grades weren't often as cut in stone. Read Anne of Green Gables, for instance, and you'll see that she completed four levels of readers in one year. It wasn't as rigid in terms of classes.

Personally, I think teachers SHOULD be able to teach split grades. I think they should all be like our commenter Ann-Marie, and enjoy the challenge. They can assign some kids some work, and then work with others, and it should, theoretically, be fine.

But the point is not all teachers are able to do that (you can argue they should be able to, but the truth is most, in my experience, don't do it well). They don't even handle the different learning styles/abilities in a single grade; add a second curriculum to the mix, and it's a disaster.

If we had a system where teachers were all able to individualize instruction (as many of the teachers were able to back in the days of the one-room schoolhouse), then it would be fine. But given that is not what we have, we're only making things worse by artificially creating split grade classrooms.

We have so many mandates for things that teachers need to cover, including a ton of testing, anti-bullying curriculum, swimming, etc. etc that has nothing to do with academics that teachers are already pressed for time. Put two different curricula, and teachers are in a tough spot. So what they'll tend to do is just teach the same curriculum to everyone, which I think is inherently unfair for those in the "bottom 50%" of their grade.

And that, I think, is my main point. I hope I made it clearly this time!


At 2:18 PM , Blogger elaine @ peace for the journey said…

Have mercy... that hurt my head just reading! Imagine what the kids are going through.

Anyway, we have our own struggles here with a dyslexic son. Getting him the help he needs has been a constant source of struggle/frustration. We send our kids to a private school to get away from the public "nonsense" we are no longer willing to tolerate. Next step? Homeschooling, which isn't ideal, but if we have to do it, we'll do it!



At 7:11 PM , Blogger Kathleen said…

WOW!! That sounds incredibly COMPLICATED!! I teach 4 grades but only have 4 students who also happen to be my own children. It's challenging enough to teach various levels at home; I can't imagine it in a classroom setting!!


At 7:19 PM , Blogger Angel Borland said…

I am glad someone else thinks this makes no sense! No proffesion has as many people telling them what works best for them than education. Teachers hear how to do their jobs from the government, from doctors, researchers, psychologists, etc. It seems like no one trusts teacher to just use their training and do what they need to do anymore. The people passing down all of these regulations have little to no idea what it is like to teach, to actually be in the trenches! So frustrating!

- Fourth grade teacher in Kentucky


At 5:36 PM , Blogger ErinS said…

I completely agree. I was in a third grader in a split 2/3 class. I then went into 4th grade- and I missed a ton of information! I never learned fractions or capitals of states, and I still suffer. I got to spend one day in the real third grade classroom when the 2nd graders went on a field trip- it was the best day of third grade!


At 9:16 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said…

My children attend an elementary school where every class is a split one. I don't like it, but my real problem with the education system is teachers not being required to change schools. My children have had the SAME teacher that their DAD did!! Give me a break. (He's in his forties, the kids are now in high school and gr.6). And this isn't the only teacher that is on their way to becoming a "lifer". It's way past time for a change. It's certainly a system set up for the benefit of the union and their members, and NOT for the education of our youth.


At 10:13 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said…

As a teacher of a split-grade class, I have several concerns with your article.

First of all, have you read the IRPs for your child's grade? I suggest you do, in addition to the other grade that is combined with your child's class.

You'll see that there are many areas that overlap, especially in language arts. So, what teachers do is make sure all curriculum areas are covered, and the children are held to the expectations for their grade level. They are NOT two completely different programs. In addition, teachers collaborate and ensure that no units are repeated (i.e., a child who studies pioneers one year will not the second year).

I see you fail to recognize the benefits of having a combined class (I use the word combined because I believe it is a better term, as the children are not physically "split" in the class, nor are the programs completely separate). The older children are encouraged to take a leadership role, while the younger children benefit from these role models.

In response to your concerns about the wide spectrum of needs within a combined class, I would urge you to speak with any elementary teacher, as they will tell you how the range of needs and abilities in a straight-grade classroom can be just as significant as in a combined grade class.

Please think twice about titling your work the "perils" of split grade classroom. You make it sound as if the child were in some sort of imminent danger, which is ridiculous. Your child will survive if he or she has a combined class in school. S/he will continue to learn and grow throughout the year. This is a fairly common occurrence, and teachers are well-trained on how to deliver the curriculum in such a class.

I believe that there is so much unecessary apprehension and fear surrounding the "split class". I recognize that parents want the best for their children, but in many cases, their concerns are completely unwarranted.

Please talk with your child's teacher. I'm sure he/she will be happy to clarify how they deliver their program for the two grades. I'm sure they will also dispel the myth that the "low" children will always go into the higher grade of a combined class. This is not true. Teachers and administrators look at the class composition as a whole, and would never put all the "low" children into one classroom.

Once again, please check your sources for this information regarding combined classrooms. I'm sorry you are upset about your child's school situation, but trust me, the sun WILL rise tomorrow!


At 12:11 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said…

Thank goodness for the last post to add some clarity and accountability to this topic! I have been teaching for 13 years in Ontario and will have my first combined class of grade 1/2 in Sept. I landed on this website in the middle of July because I am actively planning my program for next year. Through my years of teaching experience I can certainly attest to the fact that every grade has students with a multitude of abilities. I lovingly joke about being a one-room school house teacher! The ministry of education recognizes this and promotes differential instruction in all curriculum areas. This means we look at opportunities to break tasks into different levels so all students can experience success and have a chance to take the various steps they need to achieve the expectations. Smart planning, combing similar curriculum links, well established routines and expectations and teaching with care and creativity will make for an effective “split class”. Many teachers in this situation will, as I have, make the necessary collaborative efforts to share teaching responsibilities; for example, another grade one teacher will take my 6 grade one students for science and social studies and I will take the two’s from another combined class. Split grade are sometimes unavoidable, but not undoable! I take offence to your accusation that teaching 20 young students is an “easy” job! I look forward to the challenge of next year and plan on giving all my students the best experience I can!


At 2:10 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said…

In response to the above posters supporting the split class.

My son just started grade 2, but him and 3 others were put in a grade 1 class with 18 grade 1 students.

We were not told anything about this and just happened to notice he was grouped with the grade 1s and then started asking questions.

Are you seriously saying this is a good thing? Do you really think he will get a good grade 2 education like this? Do you support this 'stealth' placement with zero communication?

Welcome to the real world of split classes from a parents point of view.


At 4:39 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said…

Hello again,

I'm the one who wrote: 'In response to the above posters supporting the split class....

So an update, it was 4 days later when we finally got something from the school stating he was in a split class.

I have been calling the school and sending emails in an effort to get him moved. I was told there will be class adjustments going on for a while and I agreed to wait another week.

If after that time he is still in the split, I will be meeting with the principle and his teacher to discuss a list of concerns I emailed them.

Anyway, on Friday I asked my son what he did. Seems he spent at least part of the day sitting in the hall reading with 2 other grade 2's while the teacher taught the 18 other grade 1's in the class room.


At 1:22 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said…

>If they get put back in a straight grade 3 class the next year, they'll start the year behind the grade 3's who were in the 2/3 split the previous year. They were already in the bottom 50%; how can they ever make it up now?
It is often a disaster to put weak kids in a split grade. What you need actually, are kids that can work independently and who are at least average in ability.

The scenario where weak grade 2s are placed in a 1/2 split would make it easy for the class to receive mostly a grade 1 curriculum (bad) and it would only be a matter of time before the strongest 1s eclipsed the weak 2s (also bad).

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Name: Sheila

Home: Belleville, Ontario, Canada

About Me: I'm a Christian author of a bunch of books, and a frequent speaker to women's groups and marriage conferences. Best of all, I love homeschooling my daughters, Rebecca and Katie. And I love to knit. Preferably simultaneously.

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