Caitlin Hartsell
The Kansas City School District, in another effort to reform lagging schools, plans to move students into an ungraded primary system,  where students progress based on skill level, rather than age, once a subject has been mastered. From USA Today (emphasis added):
Now, in the latest effort to transform the bedraggled Kansas City, Mo. schools, the district is about to become what reform experts say is the largest one to try the approach. Starting this fall officials will begin switching 17,000 students to the new system to turnaround trailing schools and increase abysmal tests scores.

Richard Innes at the Bluegrass Institute in Kentucky points out that this was, in fact, tried in Kentucky during the 1990s, in a school district five times the size of Kansas City's district. He reports that it was generally unsuccessful, with only 25 percent of Kentucky schools still in "ungraded primaries" — although it is still on the books:
Even KERA's most enthusiastic cheer leader, the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, now admits that Primary just didn’t work out.

The fact that the education "reform experts" were unaware that this had been tried before, on a large scale, does not bode well. It didn't work in Kentucky. Can it work in Missouri?

Lessons can be learned from these failed attempts. After all, the reform itself could have some merit when implemented on a small scale, and some states like Alaska and Colorado have had success with the program. Theoretically, it makes sense: A student may have advanced math skills, but need extra time to practice reading. If implemented appropriately, that student could devote more time to skills that need improvement.

Kentucky's problems may have fallen upon the difficulty of implementation. Innes suggested, in a phone call yesterday, that the teachers would have needed "Solomonic wisdom" to successfully implement the program. Indeed, a skill progression is a difficult thing for a teacher to assess for a few dozen students in multiple subject areas. A 2002 study by CREDE found that the primary program had varied implementation, which might explain some of Kentucky's problems:
"The study of the implementation and effects of the nongraded primary program in Kentucky revealed that when teachers fully implemented the program, they were also practicing the CREDE standards fully. Teachers across the state, however, implemented the program in a variety of ways, some of which were not philosophically aligned with the original intent."

Perhaps the advent of more advanced technology will provide the piece that was missing in Kentucky. Some virtual school courses have a modular structure that allow students to progress at their own pace, which might create an easier way to assess a student's skill progression and readiness to move on to the next subject.

Whatever the case may be, I hope that Kansas City looks at all the research — the successes and failures — before they attempt such a large transformation.

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Caitlin Hartsell