Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The fate of the primary program

In 1990, the Kentucky Education Reform Act required an ungraded primary program for students until they were ready for fourth grade. If my memory is working right, the whole concept took only a couple of sentences.

In 1992, a KBE regulation specified the "critical attributes" for the program: developmentally appropriate educational practices, multiage and multiability classrooms, continuous progress, authentic assessment, qualitative reporting methods, professional teamwork, and positive parent involvement. The same regulation required schools to submit annual reports on what was working and what would be improved the next year--and that regulation is still on the books.

In 1998, a new statute added these directions:
Each school council or, if none exists, the school shall determine the organization of its ungraded primary program including the extent to which multiage groups are necessary to implement the critical attributes based on the critical attributes and meeting individual student needs.
That should have worked. It should have allowed schools do anything that worked about the ages of kids in each classroom (the multiage attribute in red above), provided they gave children continuous progress (in green above) and the other attributes in the list.

It didn't work. I haven't heard a live discussion of critical attributes in a decade. The Department stopped collecting school reports long ago, claiming that the needed thinking would surely be somewhere inside comprehensive school improvement plan, but making it quite clear they did not plan to go looking. If any part of KERA died "not with a bang, but with a whimper," it was primary. Where primary lives on, it's by the choice of educators who believe in it, not by any genuine state requirement.

So, can we get all young children classrooms where their progress is checked steadily and their learning activities are regularly adjusted to make sure they keep moving forward? I think we can.

From the state level, clearer standards and more focused preparation for new teachers are on the way, and from the local level, there's rising interest in balanced assessment and the student growth it can promote. If we can combine those two, and especially if we add a new commissioner ready to focus on effective instruction, we can deliver for students.

Only we won't call it primary, and we won't even mention current law as we get it done.


  1. Susan,

    As you may know, I found the Primary Program terribly difficult to implement at Cassidy School in Lexington. I'd point to three things that were most bothersome.

    1) Parents didn't readily accept the idea. Their kids were organized that way for T-ball and some express concern over it. While they were willing to go along for a while, they expected to see a smooth transition that left their children better off in the end.

    2) When Tom Boysen would talk about building the airplane as we flew it, nowhere was that more true than with the Primary Program. (OK. Maybe KIRIS. But Primary was second.) We had willing teachers who needed training and there was nowhere to go to get it. Most of the efforts at PD were reduced to workshops that criticized what teachers were doing at the time, but offered few replacement strategies. It left teachers wanting for structure.

    3) Nothing else in the system supported the goal of implementing the Primary Program. Despite the 7 critical elements, KDE really focused only on enforcing the multi-aged portion. Meanwhile, attendance was still kept by grades, students still moved through the system based on time put in at grade level, and both textbooks and the tested curriculum were graded.

    It wasn't long before our parents wanted out and when the law was amended to allow school councils to determine the extent to which a mulitaged organization structure had to exist - We chose "Zero." After a brief moment of clarification with Harry Moberley and KDE, we chose "One."

    It is my studied opinion that children can be successfully organized for instruction in a variety of ways. But whatever organizational pattern the state choses - it must be well-supported or what you'll get, is what we got with the Primary Progarm - a program that died long before it fell to the ground.


  2. Are we agreeing that primary came to mean multiage, and then died when multiage went down?


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