Classmates Count

I was looking for more information about the combined grades at Elvejhem (my grade school was all combined grades with team teaching and it worked very well) and I found an interesting study that I don’t think has been previously noted on SIS. It is by noted Urbanist David Rusk and looks at the effects of economic segregation and integration on academic performance in Madison schools. I hope the East and West task forces were aware of this study.
The conclusion states:

“Summing Up Part V: A school’s socioeconomic context does matter far more for low-income pupils than for their middle class counterparts. The statistical analysis did show a slight decline of middle class pupils’ test scores as the percentage of low income classmates increased. The rate of decline for middle class pupils was less than half the rate of improvement for low income pupils.
However, that apparent decline in middle class pupils’ performance most probably reflected the changing composition of the “middle class” in schools with increasingly higher percentages of low income classmates. “Middle class” schools with very few low income pupils had higher percentages of children from the highest income, largely professional households. In “middle class” schools with much larger numbers of lowincome pupils, children from more modest “blue collar” households predominated.
That was most likely the primary contributing factor to the apparent slow decline in middle class test scores and not any directly adverse effect of having more low income classmates. From a larger perspective, middle class pupils’ performance levels never dropped below 70-75% achieving advanced and proficient levels under any socioeconomic circumstances in Madison-Dane County (which had no very high-poverty schools).”

Here is a link to the pdf file: Final Report

15 thoughts on “Classmates Count”

  1. Tom,
    Two years ago when Crestwood went to the combination class I did lots of research. The problem I found is many of the studies done on multi-grade evaluation is performed on homogenous populations. Crestwood is home to Allied students and I was greatly concerned. The greatest problem is MMSD elected to use combination classes to address budget needs not academic. The combination of 1st and 2nd fairs much better than the 2/3 combination we currently have in MMSD. This combination was made to accommodate the SAGE funding. Crestwood in years past had the ideal pairing of 1/2, solo K and 3rd and 4/5 pairing. This is more ideal especially if you look at Crestwood prior to 1989 when it was 2% low income. We are close to 20% which is not bad at all for the district but the problem primarily is the reading and math for 2nd graders. Most of the teaching staff I have spoken to do not support this combination including my son’s teacher. Most however love the looping of students.

  2. THIS is the study where they had to eliminate Thoreau as a data point from the study to smooth it out because of Thoreau minority students’ extremely low test scores (see pg. 33 of the report.) I was confusing it with another author of similar papers in my comments at a recent PTO meeting. Oops.

  3. The performance at Elvejhem cannot be explained by socio-economic status. The population represents one of the more affluent (do not read wealthy)in the district and has a very low percentage of turnover. While socio-econimc influences may play a part, it is disingenous to say that the combination of 4/5 classrooms is not having a negative effect. The problem is that when you combine these upper grades (4/5)the 5th graders are not challenged. Parents should have the option of whether to participate in these experiments in education just as we have the option not to allow experimental medical procedures. Failures of either the educational or the medical profession can have profound life long effects.
    I too have seen the studies on multi-age classrooms, some of which have been highly critical of the concept. The universal conclusion is that this model is not a one size fits all solution. That is the rub with Elvejhem and the MMSD. The district that claims to want parental involvement and to provide choices has denied us both. We were given no choice, all of our classrooms at the 4th and 5th grade levels, and virtually all other grade levels, are combined. And before anyone cites spending caps and revenue cuts, multi-grade classrooms actually require higher staffing rates (according to MMSD’s lead elementary principal)than do single grade classrooms.

  4. R. Allen,
    When I approached our principal with my complaints about the 2/3 , 4/5 combinations the number one reason given was the mobility of students in MMSD. The combination classes gives the school more options to place the mobile student and it also eliminates the need to hire and fire staff because there can be a fluid count of students if you combine classes. Again, it has little to do with academics it is a financial arrangement that saves the district money and reduces shuffling at the beginning of the year when students “show up”. I know this is a great concern for public schools as parents do not inform schools they will be attending until the first day of school. I sympathize with their situation but it is another example of how the district accomodates a few families instead of the majority that plan, inform the district of their intentions and show up. We again sacrifice the many for the few.

  5. It would be ideal to hear some teachers’ perpectives on this situation. When my daughter was a 4 in a 4/5, I naively assumed this would be a wonderful way for her to be academically challenged and gain the stability of staying with the same teacher for 2 years. Well, at the end of the year they announced a return to straight grades, so we lost the 2-year benefit. There were unexpected ‘differing maturity level’ difficulties in the mixed grades at that level. A fair number of the (white) 5th-graders had already adopted that teenager attitude of ‘I don’t care about that’ and ‘what do you know about it anyway?’ They were always testing the teacher by passive and not-so-passive resistance. There was a queen bee 5th-grade girl who used her 5th-grade power to manipulate the 4th-graders, for instance maneuvering my daughter into a situation where she would exchange rings and kiss a boy and then got another girl to steal him away and got him to agree to it. They were like dolls to her. So my daughter was exposed to all that at an unusually early age. Since the 4th-graders as a group were not unusually bright and our school has amazing demographics, the teacher had quite expanded differentiation challenges. It seems like a lot of work for the teacher. And for the 5th-graders, I think it is humiliating when a 4th-grader knows more than you do. It’s really hard for them. I know of some schools for gifted children where they use blended grade levels, but I believe they select children who are all at relatively similar levels academically for one class, so perhaps they can avoid some of these problems in those schools.

  6. Sennett does this still and they just celebrated it’s 30 yr anniversary of the program. Kids are mixed with 6th, 7th, and 8th graders. I have heard it is great until 8th for those who are stong. The curriculum is on a 3 year rotation, and there are is differentiation done because of the different levels of kids. So, an 8th grader who is struggling may be doing the 6th or 7th grade work and a 6th or 7th grader could be doing the 8th grade work, but I am not sure what the 6th grade stuggler does, and the 8th grader who is advanced is unchallenged.

  7. Multi-aged classrooms sink or swim depending on the teacher and the support they get. Gompers has had k/1, 1/2, 2/3, 3/4 and 4/5 classrooms, on and off as needed, for the past 7 years. We have a great principal who is committed to making these combinations work, and great teachers who follow through. I remember Sue Abplanalp coming out to explain the functionality of multi-aged classes at their inception at Gompers. I was quite apprehensive, but now that all 3 of my kids have been through them, I think they were great!

  8. I agree that it depends on the teacher, but it also depends on the reason and the philosophy of the school. I was told that MMSD supported multi age classrooms by philosophy and that we were “moving” toward that as a district. But, our school stopped doing 4/5 because the teachers said they did not get enough district support and it was WAY more work. We ONLY have multi age when it is a numbers issue and this year, the numbers were lower than expected so they dissolved the K/1 class a month or so into the year. I do support multi age and believe the research does as well IF it is a philosophical decision and there is a concrete plan in place to assist the students in meeting the grade level standards. I support looping more, but a teacher has to want to move from one grade to another and back-which is also difficult on the teacher.

  9. I would not put much faith in Sennett’s multi-age house system. At professional development courses, many teachers that I speak with from Sennett say that they abhor the system. Also, a growing number of teachers from La Follette have expressed to me that Sennett kids, by and large, are not academically, socially, or emotionally prepared to enter high school. Many teachers at La Follette, ironically, also hate the Four Block.
    These teacher complaints range from the watering down of curriculum to accomodate struggling students to the discipline problems that arise in those settings.
    R. Allen is right, the multi-age classroom needs more staff members, not less. Team teaching is crucial for the multi age system, especially if student demographics are in a flux and needier students are served. Moreover, a school with these classes needs more training opportunities in differentiation for staff to undertake. As C. Roberts stated, the differentiation tasks are too much for teachers to handle.
    Personally, I don’t buy the mobility of MMSD students as a reason why grades are combined in the same classroom. If anything, having a set curriculum at every school based on “straight and seperate grades” can alleviate the problems associated with the ability of highly mobile students to adapt to the academic challenges of their new classrooms.
    With the MMSD schools however, things are done differently depending on the location. This is maddening to say the least. The multi age system may work depending on many factors, but according to many professionals at MMSD schools, it is not functioning properly in Madison.

  10. There is so much here and so little time…
    In a recent comment that caught my eye, FO wrote: “At professional development courses, many teachers that I speak with from Sennett say that they abhor the system.”
    If this is true, is it any wonder there are problems? If teachers don’t believe in what they are doing, the battle is lost from the start.
    My own experience in multigrade classrooms with significant percentages of students from all racial, educational and economic backgrounds and teams of teachers who believed in what they were doing tells me that this approach can be a great thing. My son’s experience in MMSD with multigrade classrooms was very good too (the right teacher at the right time for two years). I don’t know the wider literature, but it seems that (as always) the teachers, the school leadership and the support are the keys.
    I always hesitate before criticizing teachers, but if the attitudes at Sennett are as described, then the teachers are failing the students and the community. No one holds a gun to their head and says “you must teach in this school/district.” If they don’t believe in what they are doing, they owe it to those who pay them and those who count on them to leave. Otherwise, all the best research and planning is a waste of time and money. If that is the attitude, I resent the fact they haven’t left.
    I hope this isn’t the case, that they are dedicated and professional. Most teachers are.

  11. TJM,
    These teachers who hate the house system at Sennett may not be in the majority. I don’t have access to all Sennett teachers and I just referenced strictly anecdotal evidence from a limited source of individuals that I have spoken to over the past three years or so. I agree that these teachers who don’t agree with the house system should leave.
    However, transfering within the district isn’t as easy as it seems. Also, who’s to say that just because some teachers hate the multi-age house system that they are unprofessional or undedicated? These dissenters may be doing the best that they can under the circumstances.
    I also do understand that many teachers have transferred from Sennett in the past few years. The main point that I want to make about this issue is that any school or district that employs multi-age classrooms must provide the training and administrative support to make it work.

  12. I’ll also add that at Gompers, multi-age classrooms were done out of necessity. We had some really weird enrollment peaks and valleys with a grade of 48 kids followed by a grade of only 32 or so. The MMSD wouldn’t allocate a full teacher for a 3rd grade class of 16 kids in a school that wasn’t SAGE (at the time), so we had to combine grades to maximize our allocations. And, it hasn’t been annually consistent that we multi-age. As the smaller grade populations are graduating, the classic single-aged classroom has made a comeback. Our philosophy was to place more independent kids in those multi-aged classes- as opposed to the older half being slightly behind their peers, for instance- to foster a very workable environment for the teacher….plus each grade still had specials with their own grade, giving the teacher time alone with just one grade or the other.

  13. That isn’t quite fair. You talk about all the research and planning and time and money and support. Well money and support is in short supply right now and so much of what is planned can’t be implemented as planned. Teachers are working in more and more difficult circumstances as the nature of the student population changes and support personnel are eliminated. New programs are implemented without the necessary professional training, e.g. heterogeneous classes. There isn’t enough money for supplies. At our school the teachers were under the impression they would have the assistance of a math coach to help them do a better job with our at-risk kids and just recently found out there isn’t any money for it. It’s like sending the guys out in the tanks without enough armor. All the teachers I know ARE dedicated. Some of them are better at teaching than others. Some are better at disciplining difficult children than others. All are really hard-working conscientious people. But they get burned out after too many years of this with no relief in sight. At our school I think morale may be a problem, and some district intervention would be a welcome relief. But I don’t blame the teachers for that. They are cogs in this system. If the support and structure isn’t there already for them, they can’t pull it out on their own.

  14. I know this particular topic has gotten into a discussion about multi-age classes (which I heartily support based on my experience), but I just want to point out that the paper that TJ posted is about the relationship between density of poverty and achievement. I actually got a copy of this paper from a campaign aide prior to Mayor Dave’s election. Its conclusions are one of the supporting arguments for the Inclusionary Zoning ordinance that was supported by the Mayor and passed by the city council. Poor kids perform better when they are surrounded by middle income peers, so distributing low income housing more evenly throughout the community should result in improved achievement among low income kids.
    This is an interesting paper. In addition to pointing out that Thoreau had “extraordinarily low scores”…David Rusk is also “inclined to discount the stats for…Lincoln and Mendota” because, although the highest poverty schools in the district at the time of this report, they both performed above expectations. I guess it can be inferred that Lincoln and Mendota were better serving their low-income populations during that time than some of the other schools in the district. It would be interesting to see a more recent update of this report to see if the trends are still holding.

  15. Closer looks at Lincoln and Mendota might provide valuable lessons for other schools in the district. Perhaps topics the Performance and Achievement Committee might take up.
    Lincoln does have the open classroom, which, I believe, is a form of looping – having the same teacher(s) and classmates from year to year in a multi-age setting.

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