Thursday, April 29, 2010

Grades vs. Phases

In this school district we have something called the continuos progress model also known as the phase system. The phase system was created so that students could move at their own pace as they progress through their education. There are 19 reading phases, 19 writing phases and 24 math phases. Once you pass all of them you are done. You could finish when you're 16 or you could finish when you're 21 or never. You might finish all of your reading phases but take another two years to finish your math phases. Again, the idea is that a student can move at her own pace.
There's a lot that is good about this. Students are grouped according to ability rather than age, social promotion is bypassed and specially designed instruction - the method of delivering special education services - is built into general education classes.  (This is usually a real problem elsewhere.  Here it's a non-issue.)
Downside is that if the students don't pass the phases (this means passing quizzes in math, completing a particular set of pieces for writing and demonstrating certain skills in reading) then they don't move up to a new grade level. This has resulted in 15 year old students in 5th grade (normally 11 year olds are in 5th grade) and very few students graduating at 18. Also it has led to a great deal of "teaching to the test" in math. Students learn a skill well-enough to pass a short quiz but often don't understand the underlying concept which leads to problems later down the educational road.  Also, you might have students in 4 or 5 different phases in one class making instruction very difficult.
Students here often tell me that the grade system is easier which is why I, and almost everyone I know, graduated at 18. I have often told them that I would have graduated at 16 in the phase system. The debate has been, "Which one is easier?".
Typing this I realize that the phase system would probably be easier for me because I was motivated and held accountable by my parents (and of course, was taught in my first language and the language spoken in my house). In addition, the expectation of my community and most of the community I grew up in was that college was necessary so high school graduation was a must. Here, some students are expected to do well in high school but very, very few people in this community have attended college. The upshot is that many students move very slowly through their phases because there's no real worthwhile goal at the end of high school (because there are so few jobs here) and little expectation to do be successful at school coming from the community.
There are other factors at work here too: drug use and drinking are problematic.  Plenty of kids in my high school drank and smoked pot but for the vast majority of these students they kept their partying to the weekend. Not so here. Many students are up very late every night making school success very difficult the next day. Also, the kids are bored. They don't have to participate in subsistence activities most of the time and there's not much else to do. Bored teenage students without the expectation of school success is a pretty good recipe for failure at school. Finally, the school has a rotating cast of teachers experiencing 30-50% turnover per year.
This is all to say that the question of Grades vs. Phases is not answerable.  My circumstances (and the circumstances of most of my classmates) were such that we were set up for school success.  The circumstances here are quite different.  There's no comparing beyond that.

1 comment:

  1. Just wanted to add a few things: first of all, a lot of the kids get set back at least a year behind their lower 48 counterparts because of the transition year, which is a year they spend basically doing 2nd grade again, this time in English, after spending K-2 in Yup'ik only classes. So it would actually be completely on track for a kid to graduate at 19, not 18.

    Also, I don't think that the phase system has eliminated social promotion. Yes, it's true you have 15-year olds in 6th grade, but you also have 10th graders who are still in Junior High or even (in some cases) elementary phases - so clearly they were advanced a grade or several, despite being in low phases.

    Finally, grouping by ability rather than age is a good thing in some ways, especially for planning purposes, but in other ways it's detrimental. Kids are so different at 9, 11, and, and trying to motivate, discipline and engage kids at all those ages (I have a few of each in my 7-student class) is REALLY hard. Also, I think it can be difficult for the older kids to develop socially in accordance with their age when they're stuck with younger and younger kids.

    Just my two cents...