Are split grades really so bad?

Why more elementary schools are forming multigrade classrooms, and what parents need to know.

Getty Images

Getty Images

Last year, in an administrative move that filled parents with dread, my daughter Avery’s grade-two class was split up. Six of the children were lumped in with the grade-one students, while the rest merged with the small grade-three class.

In the weeks before the class lists were posted, I wondered where they would shuffle Avery, and I worried how the year would play out. What if she ended up with the little kids, or was separated from her friends? Would she learn everything she needed to from a new teacher juggling two curricula? As it turns out, my concerns were for naught. Assigned to the two-three class, Avery thrived. This year she’s in another split: a grade three-four class with an instructor who is well versed in the Alberta curriculum and has taught many different grades at our southeast-Calgary school.

“I like being able to work with the grade-four students in math, or read to my level in guided reading,” Avery, an enthusiastic little scholar, recently told me one day after school. “It challenges me.”

Being in the same classroom with older kids for two consecutive years has also expanded Avery’s social circle and improved her self-confidence, two more noted perks of the combined-classroom arrangement. (Admittedly, I’m not thrilled that the grade fours will be learning about puberty later this year, and will no doubt share the details with the younger kids, including my daughter, during recess.) Overall, a split has been a great fit for my kid—a good thing, considering our small elementary school relies on them to adjust class numbers. There simply aren’t enough grade four, five or six students to make straight grades.

Multi-age or multigrade classrooms—the terms educators use for split classes—aren’t a new concept. I spent a couple years in a four-five grouping back in the ’80s, when two split grades were divided between two teachers. Neither are they universally loved—some parents question their educational benefits or, like me, worry about teachers forced to take on two grades at once.

Love them or loathe them, split classes are becoming more common, so chances are good your child will end up in one at some point, even if you don’t live in a small town or school district. According to a 2007 report, “The Preparation of Teachers for Multigrade Teaching,” published by St. Patrick’s College of Education in Dublin, Ireland, split classes are a worldwide phenomenon that’s on the rise. Canadian elementary schools increasingly use them as a strategy for balancing class sizes and juggling teacher resources, in order to accommodate class caps and finite funding. A 2009 report by People for Education, an Ontario-based independent organization that works to support public education, found that 78 percent of Ontario elementary schools reported having split-grade classes (an increase from 74 percent in 2008). And they’re certainly becoming more and more common where we live in inner-city Calgary.

“Often split grades are implemented for financial or budgetary reasons, or to combine two grades together due to declining enrolment or uneven numbers of students in particular grades,” says Cynthia Prasow, a professor in the Werklund School of Education at the University of Calgary. Sometimes multi-age classes are instituted because educators deem them a better form of instruction. They point to research that demonstrates integrated groupings promote cognitive and social growth, and they argue that split environments can motivate the younger students while providing the older students with leadership opportunities.

Yes, please! The case for multi-age classrooms
Prasow, whose focus is early childhood education, emphasizes that no matter the reasons behind split classrooms, educators will put thought into how they divide the students.

“Even in a single-grade classroom you can’t pigeonhole everyone in grade three as functioning at a grade-three level across all subjects,” says Prasow. “Some will be doing grade-two reading while others are ready for grade-four math. Children are growing and developing at different rates.” In a multigrade classroom, kids will be combined according to their areas of strength and areas of need, and grouped for academic success and social development, she says.

“Multi-age classrooms kind of give you the best of both worlds,” says Allison Killins, a mother of two in Lakefield, Ont. Her eight-year-old daughter, Samantha, is in a three-four split and her son, Ryan, who’s seven, is in a one-two split in the French immersion program. Their school is part of the Kawartha Pine Ridge District School Board, where 56 percent of the elementary classes are combined-grade classes.

Though her daughter has encountered some repetition of subject matter (a common complaint), Killins says her son has come into his own socially and academically while learning alongside older students and same-age peers. “It motivates him,” says Killins. “That’s the thing I like about it—kids have the opportunity to stretch, mentally, a little bit more.”

Killins likens her son’s classroom to a “living organism” where children move around as they gain new skills. Prasow calls it a “continuous and dynamic” learning environment that changes and evolves throughout the year. Unlike a traditional straight grade, where kids are expected to progress at about the same rate over the school year, children in a multi-age class should move along at their own pace, creating more fluidity in the classroom.

In my daughter’s classroom, the kids shift between three or four different workstations depending on their level. When Avery masters a math concept, for example, such as adding three- or four-digit numbers, she moves over and works with the children learning multiple-digit subtraction. This set-up enables the teacher to float between groupings and give help where it’s needed. For subjects such as science and social studies, the class is taught as a whole.

Research has shown there’s no difference in academic achievement between children in split classes versus straight grades. One theory is that schools often assign their best teachers to splits, which ensures good educational outcomes for all kids, whether they’re one of the youngest in the class or the oldest. Having a good teacher is key. Prasow says that because a multi-age teacher is instructing two curricula at once, it falls upon him or her to think creatively in order to deepen and enrich learning across a broader range of students.

“Your best combined-class teachers are going to be your best straight-grade teachers—creative, innovative, collaborative,” says Jeff Anderson, the principal of École Varennes, a French immersion K–8 school in Winnipeg. He adds it’s important for a split-classroom teacher to be able to integrate different subject matters and bring students together to promote a one-class atmosphere.

“Teachers find very creative ways to teach to different levels,” concurs Terri Wolfe, a Winnipeg mother of six who has substitute-taught various split-class configurations, and whose 11-year-old daughter, Daniele, is in grade six of a five-six split. Wolfe says it’s harder to teach combined classes when kids are younger because there’s more variance in ability. Math—a subject that’s learned sequentially—also poses challenges. Teaching math to one grade, while the other grade works on something else, is a common strategy.

As a sixth grader, Daniele benefits from having the same teacher she had in grade five, one who already knows her strengths. This kind of consistency from year to year is important for multi-age classes to work, says Anderson.

No, thanks! Grades exist for a reason
But not all educators and parents buy into the idea of split classes. Sarah McIntosh taught straight grade-one for eight years and was saddled with a one-two split this year, a change she calls “challenging.”

“What I’ve experienced as a one-two teacher is that the kids are coming in from kindergarten not prepared for the grade-one curriculum we have to teach. So I have grade-one kids who are way down at one end of the spectrum, and some grade-two kids who are ready for grade three,” says the Brantford, Ont., teacher and mother of two. Meeting every child’s needs is difficult, but McIntosh expects it will get easier as she becomes more familiar with the grade-two curriculum.

Meanwhile, her eldest daughter, Julia, who’s six, is one of the oldest children in a blended kindergarten class (junior kindergarten combined with senior kindergarten). McIntosh fears that some of Julia’s younger classmates won’t be prepared for grade one.

North Vancouver mom Donna Burgart, whose son Nigel is in one of three grade six-seven splits at his school, worries about both academics and social dynamics. Nigel is one of the older kids—he’s in grade seven of the six-seven split—and has reported a lot of repetition of material he already learned, particularly in science and language arts. “You don’t want your kid to be bored and think, ‘I already did this,’” says Burgart.

It was also difficult for Nigel to be pulled away from some of his long-time classmates. “The kids don’t like it—they want to be with their friends,” his mom adds.

I can see how it could be devastating to a preteen like Nigel and his grade-seven friends to be separated on the cusp of junior high. But I also might argue that being thrown into an uncomfortable social situation teaches children to adapt, which is an important life skill. (As adults, we don’t always like our co-workers, for example.)

Maybe I’m naive, but I like to think—as Prasow points out—that no matter the reasons behind multi-age classrooms, the educators splitting up the kids have their best interests at heart. Each classroom experience and each teacher’s dynamic with his or her pupils is unique year to year, whether it’s a split or a traditional grade. Judging from Avery’s insatiable love of reading, writing and arithmetic this year, combined with her curiosity about everything from renewable energy sources to Komodo dragons, I’d say they’re doing something right.

A version of this article appeared in our April 2014 issue with the headline “Split the difference,” pp. 38-40.

Read more:
What to do when you don’t like your child’s teacher
20 secrets of kindergarten teachers
Teacher confessions: 5 things parents should never do

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