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Curriculum & Instruction        < Previous


Pro's and Con's of Looping


Q. Our school is thinking about moving to "looping," or grouping the same kids with the same teacher for several years in a row. Other schools in this area have two-grade classrooms, and it seems that parents like it as long as your child doesn't get a mediocre teacher. Is this a good idea?


"Looping" is a special education technique that is thought to be very helpful for special-needs children, including the gifted, the disadvantaged, the deaf, the mentally challenged, and those for whom English is a second language.


It's a variation of the old model of the one-room schoolhouse, in which one teacher handles children of a wide variety of ages who are at different developmental and academic stages. Because the teacher has time to get to know the children very well, delivery of the curriculum is individualized and fairly successful. There appears to be a faster start for the second and subsequent school years, since the teacher knows the kids and vice versa. That's why "looping" is thought to be an answer for closing the achievement gap between inner-city and suburban schoolchildren, when combined with better-qualified teachers for inner-city schools.


That doesn't mean, however, that "looping" makes sense for the vast majority of students, who don't have special needs. There's no evidence that it pays off in higher academic achievement.


It should be noted that the one-room schoolhouse of America's past was in a context in which there wasn't any choice. There weren't any alternatives to grouping the children all in one room, other than making everybody homeschool. There were no other schools for miles, no government infrastructure, no vast revenue sources, in the rural communities that ran the one-room schools. Today's schools have many more options, except in our remaining rural areas. And there are economies and efficiencies that come from grade-level age-grouping when there are no special needs to consider.


One of the main advantages of grade-level grouping with a different teacher each year is to ensure that each child has an equal chance to be in a classroom with an excellent teacher. If the teacher in a multiage classroom isn't excellent, that child's academic development can be jeopardized.


Only a certain percentage of teachers have the adaptability and intelligence to make a multiyear class work well; for most teachers, it's too much to ask on top of all the other tasks we're piling on them, and the children get shortchanged.


What goes wrong? Observers say that, after two years with the same kids, often a teacher will slide into the role of a coddling, overprotective parent, rather than an objective, arms-length teacher.


They also say that a teacher's weak teaching areas cause significantly more deficiencies in a child who stays with that teacher for more than one year. The weaknesses are magnified, regardless of how much the teacher's strengths in other areas might be helping the child. It becomes more and more difficult to remediate, the older the child gets.


Progressive concepts such as "peer tutoring" often come along with multiage grouping, with older students helping younger ones. While this is a good idea to a point, it can become a detriment to the academic progress of the older, sharper kids. Their own progress is held back while they are helping a younger child with material they've already mastered. Everyone tends to be compared to the norm for the class, instead of point toward a higher level of accomplishment.


Another common component of "looping" is that, often, traditional grading - A, B, C, D and F -- goes by the wayside. While this may fit better with the multiage philosophy, it deprives parents of important accountability information on which to base their satisfaction with their child's effort and progress.


Homework: Here's a thought-provoking article by Kati Haycock for the Education Trust which discusses research that shows it can take two or more years for a child to recoup skills not learned in an ineffective teacher's class: Her conclusion: low standards, low-level curriculum, and undereducated teachers are what need to change, not the way we group kids.


By Susan Darst Williams Curriculum 12 2008




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