As Michigan residents watch the quality of public elementary education deteriorate at an alarming rate, administrators in Flint are actively engaged in a battle to buck the trend. Although it may be resisted by teachers’ unions, the new system of education that Carmen Park Elementary school in Flint has proposed is the kind of innovative solution necessary to improve public education while still retaining local control. Carmen Park is embarking on an educational experiment that would abolish grade levels and group students by ability in each individual subject. For example, a 10-year-old student at Carmen Park could work with a science group that learns at a seventh-grade level in the morning and a reading group which works at a fifth-grade level in the afternoon. With the correct support, this program has the potential to revive a failing public school and improve the educational experience for students by allowing them to excel in areas in which they have a genuine interest.
Flint Public School Superintendent Dan Behm and Carmen Park Principal, Mary Ann Raske both fully support this education reform. They are extremely optimistic about the possibilities that gradeless education offers for their students and possibly the school district as a whole. The program will be researched at Carmen Park starting next fall and could be implemented as early as the 2006-07 school year. If successful, administrators hope to expand it districtwide. Superintendent Behm explained that, “Right now, we have a mass production system of education. We need a system that individualizes and is customizable.”
One of the underlying philosophies of gradeless education is that students often have one area of natural interest. If that interest is correctly fostered, it will raise self-esteem and a student’s overall interest in learning. However, a system this individualized cannot work unless administrators acknowledge the danger that a student may continue to excel in his naturally gifted subject, while being allowed to lag behind in another. Customizing eduction of this level has the propensity for greatness, but it should be done so that students still receive a well-rounded education.
The biggest challenge that Carmen Park will face in the transition from a traditional grade system to more individualized education is gaining the full support of the teachers. A change of this magnitude will require not only a large amount of re-training, but a shift in the practices of educators who have been teaching in the same manner for up to 20 years. Many curriculum changes are often viewed with disdain because new teaching fads routinely prove short lived and detrimental to students — any University student who had to switch over to Chicago math halfway through elementary school can relate. Unfortunately, Flint teachers, along with many of their colleagues, do not have the luxury of remaining set in their ways if they expect to retain local control.
With the Bush administration placing greater importance on a school’s standardized test scores when allotting funding, local reforms must be enacted. Right now, teachers have the opportunity to endorse a local solution to improve education — such a proposal would undoubtedly be created with their input. Gradeless education cannot be applied haphazardly; it will require serious commitment from teachers and administrators. If allowed the amount of time and preparation necessary, Carmen Park’s gradeless education can become the model for other struggling public schools looking to institute sweeping, but still local, change.