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Nongraded Schools

Brief Definition, Development of Graded Education, Search for Other Models, Research Findings

This entry will seek to identify and clarify the opposite of graded schools, for which the term nongraded schools is used. Although there are secondary schools that also seek to develop nongraded structures, the primary beneficiaries of the arrangement are children at the elementary school level.

Brief Definition

Briefly, nongradedness is defined in terms of respect for, and optimism about, individual differences. It calls for the provision of a pleasurable, challenging, and rewarding learning atmosphere where there are maximum opportunities for productive interaction between the learners. Within a nongraded setting the curriculum is both integrated and flexible. Similarly the timetable for the academic progress of each unique child is flexible. The learning of facts, although important, is recognized as subordinate to the mastery of concepts and methods of inquiry. The assessment of students is holistic and individualized, and evaluation is continuous, comprehensive, and diagnostic. The entire program within the nongraded setting, especially if there is a team of teachers involved, is more under the control of the teacher(s) than is the case in grade-structured situations. Research and experience generally support the conclusion that pupils in nongraded settings work harder, albeit more comfortably, and achieve more and better results than graded students do. There is also rather strong research evidence that children in nongraded settings enjoy better physical and emotional health.

Development of Graded Education

Graded education was introduced and developed during the years 1848 to 1870, beginning with the Quincy Grammar School in Boston. The Quincy school came into being largely to provide a manageable school organization at a time when schooling in expanding cities became a much larger enterprise than had existed in the familiar one-room school serving pupils of multiple ages. It also grew out of assumptions that undergirded and made possible efforts toward universal education. Because little was known or believed in those years about stages of human development and the unevenness of readiness within age groups, the assumption was made that students may logically be grouped together by age, or actually within a twelve-month span, and taught a specific and common body of skills and subject matter.

Well into the twentieth century, the patterns of fairly rigid gradedness, with attendant nonpromotion/promotion practices, launched at the Quincy school became, in effect, universal. All the same, at that point in social history the system was in fact a significant and creative advance, appropriate to the assumptions and perceptions involved. The teachers were usually quite uneducated and insufficiently trained, and therefore there evolved the system of requiring them to master only a one-year segment of the educational program. In this way, a form of primitive specialization occurred. There was also a pattern of very strict supervision by the employers.

Search for Other Models

Before long, the disadvantages of the graded system's rigidity had become apparent, and by the end of the nineteenth century there were various efforts to create different schooling models and achieve greater flexibility. These efforts continued well into the twentieth century, handicapped to some extent by the publishing industry's success in producing agegraded textbook series that made it easier for teachers to manage their work. In the same period, socalled normal schools and later, colleges, produced teachers whose preparation assumed that each would work alone in a self-contained classroom and, except for those in smaller multigraded schools, with materials deemed suitable for one age-group of children.

Along with the search for more appropriate, flexible, and child-oriented arrangements to replace the entrenched gradedness, several influential and helpful developments occurred. Progressive education was very likely the most dramatic example. Also influential were some well-known examples of nongradedness in Europe, which in the 1920s caused many venturesome American teachers, especially from cities in Wisconsin and New York, to visit pilot programs that were located in Jena, Germany, and in several cities in Holland. Some of these programs continue to flourish in the early twenty-first century.

Over the years the label "nongraded" proved to be slightly confusing and insufficiently informative, and scholars and administrators found that labels such as "continuous progress" were more descriptive. Beginning with milestone research and related articles by Walter Rehwoldt and Warren W. Hamilton in 1956 and 1957, the discussion of nongradedness increasingly involved reference to interage or intergrade grouping, for which the term multiage was soon frequently substituted. Also in the 1950s, the nation's first experience with formally organized team teaching, and with a related notion, the use of teacher aides/helpers, redefined the organizational framework within which, it was increasingly argued with the support of research evidence, a demonstrably preferable setting could be provided not only for the pupils but also for the collaborating adults who worked with them.

Some elementary schools chose to organize classes in a pattern similar to departmentalization, with each teacher responsible for one content area, such as math or social studies; but it was not until 1957 when there was a sudden burst of interest, nurtured by seventeen universities being funded by Ford Foundation grants to support teacher-teaming and related arrangements, that the virtues of self-containment came to be seriously questioned. Some of the funded model projects, which soon sparked nationwide interest, called for aggregating multiage pupil groups (e.g., children six to seven and eight years of age) to be taught by teams of four to eight collaborating teachers. This development led to a kind of architectural revolution, because standard-size classrooms could no longer accommodate various-sized pupil aggregations. It is of interest to note that, as of the beginning of the twenty-first century, it seems probable that a great many elementary schools continue to provide at least some space flexibility to accommodate teaming arrangements.

Research Findings

The 1993 book Nongradedness: Helping It to Happen presents what is probably the most comprehensive analysis/summary of research about nongradedness. It provides a conservative yet positive story about the "substantial and generally favorable body of research on nongradedness." Not surprisingly, several of the studies show that benefits increase over time: that is, the longer that pupils are in such programs, the greater the improvement in achievement scores. Another conclusion of interest is that boys, African Americans, underachievers, and lower-socioeconomic pupils perform better and feel more positive toward themselves and their schools in a nongraded environment. Mental health and school attitudes also benefit.

In summary, then, both logical analysis and examination of the sparse but convincing research now available support the organizational arrangement that calls for (1) multiage pupil grouping to permit numerous learning opportunities, (2) teacher teaming to enable both specialization of functions and continuous professional partnerships and exchanges, (3) flexible architecture to permit a great variety of instructional groupings, and (4) the absence of grade-related nomenclature and the psychological pressure it presents. It is to be noted and appreciated that the classroom procedures and the flexible structure of a multiple-year curriculum enhance the atmosphere and, as research indicates, stimulate both good learning and what can accurately be described as the mental health of all participants.


ANDERSON, ROBERT H. 2000. "Rediscovering Lost Chords." Phi Delta Kappan 81:402–404.

ANDERSON, ROBERT H., and PAVAN, BARBARA NELSON. 1993. Nongradedness: Helping It to Happen. Lancaster, PA: Technomic.

GOODLAD, JOHN I., and ANDERSON, ROBERT H. 1987. The Nongraded Elementary School, revised edition. New York: Teachers College Press.

HEATHERS, GLEN. 1967. "Influencing Change at the Elementary Level." In Perspectives on Educational Change, ed. Richard I. Miller. New York: Appleton.

MCLOUGHLIN, WILLIAM F. 1967. The Nongraded School: A Critical Assessment. Albany, NY: University of the State of New York, State Education Department.

REHWOLDT, WALTER, and HAMILTON, WARREN W. 1956. "An Analysis of Some of the Effects of Interage and Intergrade Grouping in an Elementary School." Ph.D. diss., University of Southern California.

REHWOLDT, WALTER, and HAMILTON, WARREN W. 1957. "By Their Differences They Learn." National Elementary Principal 37 (December):27–29.


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