Age Segregation in School

Copyright © 2013 Karl M. Bunday, all rights reserved.

Isn't it natural for children to be divided by age in school?

Some people think it is “natural,” or even beneficial, for children to be confined with other children of approximately the same age for most of each school day, but this is a recent, mistaken idea promoted by education bureaucrats.

The fact is, however, that most American schools were ungraded until the second half of the nineteenth century, the graded school having been introduced in the United States in 1848, when the Quincy Grammar School in Boston, Massachusetts, opened its doors. A number of educators, impressed with the graded schools they had seen in Germany, had been proposing adoption of the technique in this country. The Quincy School was the first built for that purpose; it contained twelve rooms of equal size, four to a floor, in which a teacher and some fifty-five children would meet for a year at a time. The men who created the school predicted that it would set the pattern of American schooling for another fifty years. Their estimate was clearly conservative.

Charles Silberman, Crisis in the Classroom: The Remaking of American Education (New York: Random House, 1970) p. 166 (emphasis added).

I first read this book as a ninth grader (who had earlier skipped sixth grade), soon after I had read John Holt's How Children Fail on the suggestion of my junior high's assistant principal. This was heady stuff for someone as unhappy with school as I was and undoubtedly accounts for my lifelong interest in education reform. Silberman goes on to quote a critic of age-grading:

It is constructed upon the assumption that a group of minds can be marshalled and controlled in growth in exactly the same manner that a military officer marshalls and directs the bodily movements of a company of soldiers. In solid, unbreakable phalanx the class is supposed to move through all the grades, keeping in locked step. This locked step is set by the 'average' pupil--an algebraic myth born of inanimate figures and an addled pedagogy. The class system does injury to the rapid and quick-thinking pupils, because these must shackle their stride to keep pace with the mythical average. But the class system does a greater injury to the large number who make slower progress than the rate of the mythical average pupil . . . They are foredoomed to failure before they begin.

This critic was writing in 1912!

The criticism of age-grading was written by Frederick Burk, first president of what became California State University at San Francisco, a teaching-training college. Burk went on to write, "Could any system be more stupid in its assumptions, more impossible in its conditions, and more juggernautic in its operation?" But age-grading survives to this day, despite repeated reform proposals.

Silberman comments that reform proposals of the 1960s nominally eliminated age-graded classes but were distorted into lock-step achievement groups.

Historian Joseph Kett, in Rites of Passage: Adolescence in America 1790 to the Present (1977), demonstrates convincingly by quoting from a vast array of contemporary documents that the natural social life of American children before age-segregated schooling consisted of groups with even distribution of ages from eight to twenty-two. In research he has done in collaboration with juvenile justice experts, he develops the hypothesis that youth crime results from an age-segregated youth culture.

I hope this is informative about how we got to where we are today, if depressing. A hopeful message about how schools could be better, by undoing some of the historical mistakes in structuring the school experience, can be found in Back to the Blackboard: Design for a Bibical Christian School by Jay E. Adams (reprint edition 1998).

Interesting evidence suggesting how much age-grading dumbs down schoolchildren today comes from the contrasting experiences of homeschoolers, who don't have to stick to the average schedule of other children their age. The Rudner 1998 study of homeschooled students [link to a different Web site] analyzed standardized test scores of a large sample of homeschooled students. Rudner is an educational researcher who is not himself a homeschooler. He notes that many homeschooling parents in his study voluntarily gave their children standardized tests for one or even two “grade levels” higher than what their children would be assigned to in an age-segregated school, but the children still scored well above national norms. This suggests, as do international comparisons, that many children in the United States could do better academically if only they were not slowed down by the age-segregation that has been part of United States public schooling since 1848.

My oldest son, who was born a few months before the time when I first wrote this FAQ article, is now of “school age” under the law of almost any country. He has not had to learn at the same pace as other children, because I have always homeschooled him. He is literate in both Chinese and English to a level similar to that of his age-mates in Taiwan and the United States, advanced in math and science, and able each day to adjust his learning to his needs, not to the schedule of some bureaucrat who has never met him. He is an auditor in the college-level Introduction to Biblical Hebrew course I teach to students in Taiwan.

My children get their socialization with people of all ages, as people naturally do when they aren't confined to age-graded schools. They are allowed to form family relationships of brotherly love rather than sibling rivalry, and to have regular contact with adults other than their parents--and schoolteachers. Here in Taiwan, where many children spend time in latchkey classes (安親班) or cram school (補習班) classes, it is sometimes difficult to find children who have the same flexibility of schedule that my children have for, well, socialization on a truly voluntary basis. But my children have friends here both from the local population and from the expatriate population, and as homeschooling is growing worldwide it becomes easier for children in any country to find homeschooled friends who have the time and flexibility to make lasting friendships. Avoiding age-grading adds flexibility to a family's education program, and helps children maximize their learning. I wouldn't trade that for all the free (really taxpayer-subsidized) government-operated schooling in the world.

What have been your experiences with age segregation in school?

[Last revision 28 January 2013]

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This School Is Dead: Age Segregation in School FAQ page is copyright © 2013 Karl M. Bunday, all rights reserved.

A general State education is a mere contrivance for moulding people to be exactly like one another: and as the mould in which it casts them is that which pleases the predominant power in the government, whether this be a monarch, a priesthood, an aristocracy, or the majority of the existing generation in proportion as it is efficient and successful, it establishes a despotism over the mind, leading by a natural tendency to one over the body.
John Stuart Mill On Liberty (1859)
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