Why We Don’t Do Grade Levels
At Acton Academy Kingwood, you will never hear us refer to a hero's "grade level.” Why?
Let's define what we mean when we talk about "grade level." In Texas, what people usually mean by “grade level” is that a young person has the same knowledge and skills as the average person their age in Texas.
How are grade levels determined?
In 1997, the Texas State Board of Education created a series of lists (one for each grade) of "essential knowledge and skills" for math, reading, writing, science, social studies, physical education, health education, fine arts, and technology applications that they determined the average young person should know and be able to do by the end of each grade level. They call these lists TEKS. So, for example, to be at first grade level in Texas means that a young person knows and can do all of the things in the following lists: English language arts and reading, math, science, social studies, P.E., health education, fine arts, and technology applications. There are similar lists for each subsequent grade all the way through high school.
Knowing that the State of Texas spent so much time, money, and effort developing these lists, why does Acton Academy Kingwood not follow them to ensure that our heroes are at "grade level?”
The simple answer is that we trust that each individual is better equipped to make decisions for their own learning than the Texas Board of Education.
My wife and I raised our two boys with the same values, philosophies, and gave them the same nurturing, environment and opportunities, but they are totally different people. We could not create a list of knowledge and skills that applies to both of them, nor do we think that would be beneficial to them. But that is what the Board of Education does for all children in Texas.
When we expect our children to be at "grade level," we are not just accepting that these lists are correct, but that the methods and philosophy used to create them are correct–that people who do not know them know what is best for them and that it is ok to set standards for them without any of their own input. We allow our unique, one-of-a-kind genius to be held to the standards created for a nameless, faceless "average" child by a committee of strangers.
It's a tempting idea to reduce the most important job in the world to a standardized process and assume our children are well served and well educated by it. The United States Air Force tried using this philosophy when designing fighter jets in the 1950's. They engineered the cockpits to fit the "average" fighter pilot because it was simpler and cheaper than creating custom cockpits for each fighter pilot. To find out the results of that experiment, watch this two minute YouTube video: Jet Cockpits and the End of Average.
At Acton Academy Kingwood, we think differently. We believe each child is a genius who can change the world in a profound way, and there can never be a one-size-fits-all approach to educating a genius. Read the biographies of Thomas Edison, George Washington, Steve Jobs, John D. Rockefeller, Abraham Lincoln, Benjamin Franklin, Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, or Albert Einstein and you will see that their stories are all very different. Their learning journeys are as unique and different as they are. None of them became a genius by the same formula or process. Each forged their own path. Albert Einstein did his most groundbreaking work--work that changed the world--as a patent clerk after being rejected as a physics professor by every university in Germany. He was the most brilliant physicist of all time, but could not get a job because his ideas were too different…too revolutionary. Einstein's journey will never be part of a TEKS.
If we ever think our children are "falling behind,” we should ask ourselves what we are worried that they are falling behind. Is it another child? Is it the TEKS? Or something else?
At Acton Academy Kingwood, our goal is for children to be strong, independent, to have character, and to take ownership over their own learning. We often refer to the hero’s-journey archetype when discussing education because life and learning is a journey, and each person is the main protagonist in their own story. When they join our school, they cross a threshold and step out of the ordinary world into the “unknown world” and begin their own unique and exciting journey of change and transformation. This is why we call students heroes.
Our teachers are different too. They don’t do what other teachers do, which is why they have a different name: guides. Guides are motivators, inspirers, and game makers. They get to know each individual and learn what makes them tick. Guides invite, inspire, motivate, encourage, equip, praise, reflect, and make learning fun and interesting. Guides ask tough questions and help heroes to set and achieve challenging goals and reflect and learn from their successes and failures. Guides know that forcing someone, when they are not willing or ready, short-circuits the learning process and snuffs out curiosity, desire, and motivation. Guides never talk about heroes being “behind,” but pay close attention and observe when heroes are avoiding hard work and find out why, and then help them overcome those specific obstacles and make heroic decisions.
Does this mean that our school is free-for-all with no standards where young people do whatever they want? No. We have standards for each studio that heroes must achieve to move on to a higher studio (these standards can be found in our parents handbook under “requirements to move from one studio to another”). And the great thing about our studios being mixed-age is that heroes can take as long as they need to meet those standards and decide when they are ready to move to the next studio. And our standards are not just academic, but also focus on kindness, character, and self-reliance because a hero’s journey is not just about succeeding in academics, but in life.