Eliminating grade levels in public schools

One of my flight instructors had been a high school English teacher.  “Scott, how could you quit an $80,000/year union job to become an $8/hour flight instructor?” I asked. He explained that it was too painful to watch students being failed by the system of locking a class together for an entire school year.  “A student falls behind a little bit in French I.  Now the lectures are over his head so he gets a C for the year.  The next year he is promoted to French II.  Everything is way over his head, so his time in the class is a complete waste and he gets an F.”  How should it have been organized?  He thought that students should be reevaluated and reshuffled every 4-8 weeks, as they are at many adult language schools, so that a student was always in a class appropriate to his or her level.

Now it appears that one school district in Colorado has adopted his idea… story.

15 thoughts on “Eliminating grade levels in public schools

  1. Phil, what is the back story with your flight instructor? The dollars
    don’t quite make sense: $8/hr flying as a substitute for
    $80K+benefits. Retirement? If it was retirement, the story
    is quite a bit less compelling, more like “I got tired of teaching,
    so I retired, needed something to get me out of the house”.

  2. The optimum system is individual education. A teacher for every student who adapts for each student. 30 years ago, they predicted all education would be individualised using personal computers by 1990. Each student’s personal computer would ensure each concept was successfully conveyed before doing the next concept. Micro education.

    What happened? We suspect the death of personal computers & rise of less functional appliance devices. Cell phones & set-top boxes probably didn’t have the interactivity to pull it off & no-one wanted to invest in a new PC technology.

  3. Rick: What’s the back story on Scott, the unionized-teacher-turned-CFI? He was in his 30s when he left his union job. Like most flight instructors, he eventually graduated to a job as a professional pilot. He doesn’t have union benefits, government employee benefits, or tenure. Nor will he likely equal the salary he would be making had he stayed a teacher (right now he is earning about 40% of what a senior schoolteacher earns, adjusted for hours worked). But he enjoys flying airplanes!

  4. Surely didn’t expect that. My experiences parallel yours in aviation – I am
    consistently amazed by the quality of the people I run into. One of my flight
    instructors was a dentist. He left his practice in Queens thinking an
    airline job was for him, that after a bunch of years flight instructing.
    He eventually went back to dentistry after a year or so in
    the airlines making $30K-ish type money they pay. Couldn’t resolve
    the Queens lifestyle with the dream, unfortunately. Thus the question about your teacher-instructor.

  5. The bucketing question is difficult. There is real value in being forced to explain your newly acquired knowledge to the less talented in a group of mixed ability, so long as the gap is not too great.
    I suspect the best ratio is not 1:1 but 1:3. Anyone who’s used a private tutor for eg. languages will have likely noticed that exhaustion sets in after an hour or so of one-on-one. Two or three fellows seem to spread the load enough to usefully extend instruction.
    Of course, the American system for teaching foreign languages is almost totally ineffective anyway, so we might as well eliminate it and use that time to let kids sleep an hour later in the morning, the only intervention proven to universally improve grades.

  6. Reshuffled every 4-8 weeks is just too short and will confuse students before they can adopt. Here is a better way to do it, which is what my kids school does and why I placed them in it, a private school.

    At the end of the school year, students are given an exam which covers the topics the learned and some. Base on the score, performance for the year, and teachers recommendation, each student is given a color code, red, blue or green (red means above average). For the next school year, the class room is divided into color groups, and schedule. The red group are always given extra work, and more complex homework; they are also 3-4 chapters ahead in the book then the green group. The blue group are given a bit less complex topics (then red) while the green group are given the standard subjects. This grouping is done for 4 to 8th graders.

    A private high school that I know of, have a similar program but it’s from freshman to senior. Here, students are put into honors program (those who qualify). In honors, they not only do extra, more complex work, but they are also required to do extra reports, projects and presentation to the class room.

    Both of my kids are attending those schools, and this grouping of students, has been very effective on both of them.

    — George

  7. This a little off-topic, but why is flying airplanes so enjoyable? Do all professional pilots enjoy it so much, or do some of them get bored of it after a while?

    Also, of all the people who abandon good jobs to become professional pilots, or take it up as a hobby, how many are women? I have a feeling that it might be 5% or fewer. If that’s the case, why do you think that might be?

  8. This is more to Jack’s and D’s comments about 1:1 or 1:3 ratios… you might enjoy this recent blog post by Peter Gray:

    Rousseau’s Errors
    “… Émile spends the first 25 years of his life in the company of his tutor, referred to as the master, who is presented by Rousseau in the first person. The master is an extraordinarily intelligent, accomplished, devoted man who continuously studies Émile, gets to know his every motive and whim, and uses that knowledge to provide the boy with just those experiences that best impart the exact lessons that the master deems appropriate. The student-teacher ratio is one to one.”

  9. Vince: That IS an off-topic question… Why is flying airplanes so enjoyable? You’ve got the great view out the front window. You’ve got the satisfaction of handling a difficult challenge with precision. You get to work without a supervisor breathing down your neck. I think about 30 percent of airline pilots do get bored, but 70 percent seem to love going to work even after 20+ years.

    How many professional pilots are women? Probably about 10 percent of the younger generation. Why so few? Objectively speaking it is not a very good job and women may be more sensible than men. They’d rather earn 3-5X as much with better job security in health care. A guy, by contrast, sees more value being able to puff out his chest and say “I fly jets” [and eat at McDonald’s because it is all that I can afford].

  10. philg- I was really heartened to hear this. My singular best education experience was elementary school math in San Antonio, which functions in a way similar to what is described here. Each year was broken into a set number of topics, around 15, as I recall. We would rotate between topics and teachers every 2-3 weeks. At the beginning of a school year, say 4th grade, you take all of the third grade topic pre-tests. If you get less than 90% on any of those, (more than one wrong out of 10), you have to spend 2-3 weeks studying each one that you missed, until you are ready to take the post-test. If you get 90% on that, you move onto the next topic you missed. You then take all of the 4th grade pretests, and follow the same plan.

    It was very nice for me, because I was often just studying alone or with one or two others (most topics had 20 or so students in them). I could usually master a topic in a day or two and just keep moving on, until they literally ran out of material to cover and I just started taking regular advanced classes, at which point things became boring again (more work, less progress).

    I have no idea what George’s comment above about confusing students by changing classmates means. The plan he describes is inferior because it holds back truly advanced students and doesn’t force mastery of each topic, hurting those that are forced to go faster than they could. As much as I could race ahead in math, I suffered in foreign language classes because I didn’t have the basics down as fast as the average student, and I just couldn’t ever catch up. If had been able to go over the basics until I got it at the 90% level, I wouldn’t have been forced to fake my way along. I really hope this proposal gets some legs.

  11. Very interesting to me personally in a couple of areas:

    In my early childhood I attended a grade 1-6 one-room private school of roughly 20 kids. My first teacher encouraged me to work at my own pace and by the time I’d finished my 2nd grade work for the year, I kept on going to the 3rd grade material (no one really told me to do so, as I recall, I just found it easy, got the books, and did it). So I was a year ahead. After several years of this and then a single (awful) year of public school I was home schooled for grades 6, and 8-10 as I recall.

    After my home schooling stint, I thought it would be a good idea to try out conventional high school. The local public school superintendent made the mistake of threatening me with being denied admission to state university unless I went along with their rules to repeat some work, so I decided to ignore his advice and head straight to college.

    I then enrolled in community college at 15 and then on to a four-year college at 16.

    So I agree with your suggestion fundamentally. I am not as hot on the frequent re-shuffling idea. I suggest more research in this area; I am no education expert.

    OK, second point, on the CFI pay. Relevant to me as a pilot and one studying for his initial CFI certification now: Either you had yourself a sucker or are a great business manager. Or, were you paying a flat $8/hour for an entire days’ work irrespective of whether they flew? Benefits?

    I’ve paid most of my instructors over the years directly. The flight school made money (or tried) on aircraft rental only. When I began flying in the mid 1990s I paid my CFI $25/hour. This was in a rural town with lower median income than I’m guessing you have in Boston. I’ve never anyone less than that since, aside from friends who donated instruction time to me. The going rate for **independent** CFIs these days in California is $40-60 per hour (many charge more)., and a good instructor is worth it. I suppose people working for a flight school will accept an inferior wage for a while if they know the time they’ll be building is more valuable, but I personally think that a good CFI who cares about safety, their students’ success, and conduct themselves professionally deserve a better wage.

  12. JK: I think you are under the misapprehension that I own or manage a flight school. I do not. The schoolteacher-turned-CFI was one of my instructors. At the time, $8/flight-hour was a market-clearing wage for CFIs in the Boston area. During the 2005-7 aviation boom, the market-clearing wage went up a bit and flight schools had to pay as much as $25/hour. Right now the market-clearing wage is almost surely below the minimum wage. If you would like to pay $60/hour because you think that CFIs deserve it, I can give you a long list of guys who would be delighted to fly with you! (I might put myself on the list…)

    [Note further that instructors in most parts of the country work for a flight school, which has to make a profit. The flight school might charge the customer $40 or $50 per hour for the CFI, but they would not survive very long if they paid out 100 percent of revenues. This is no different than a law firm, which might charge the customer $200 per hour for an associate’s time, but certainly does not pay the associate $200 per hour.]

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