4th Grade proves to be key

Where are we starting from?

Nationally, every 2nd child is  below grade level in math by 4th grade.  In many cities, less than 20% of students are at grade level in core subjects such as math in the 4th grade.

Why do so many students fail?

A major reason why so many students fail is that in many classes, there is a great variance in students’ prior knowledge, the home/family support available to them outside of school, their attitude toward learning in general and therefore their willingness to put in effort to learn.  Ask a typical 7th or 8th grade math teacher to get almost every student to close to 100% grade level by the end of the year and almost all will tell you that that is impossible  (see “Why many fail” for more details).

If, on the other hand, we promised those teachers that 100% of their incoming students were straight A students in math in the prior year and saw themselves as responsible for their own education and therefore were active rather than passive learners (took the initiative in their learning), most teachers would feel comfortable in pledging to get almost all such students to close to 100% grade level mastery by the end of the year.

The goal:

The goal is therefore to get most students to be 100% grade level ready when they enter a new grade, meaning

  1. 100% mastery of all material from the previous grades
  2. 100% acceptance of responsibility for their own education
  3. 100% willingness to put in whatever effort is needed to master the material of the current grade

Very few would argue with this goal, but even fewer see this as attainable.  How do we envision taking the current situation where the students in almost every class in troubled schools already vary greatly in ability and motivation or worse, are mostly already far behind (multiple years) and lack both motivation as well as the belief that anything can help them succeed and then help them achieve the goal of 100% mastery?

What is likely not to work:

Anything that requires every student in upper grade levels (in the country) that is behind to get caught up, to have a positive attitude and to have developed the positive habits that will make them good students.  The following are some of the challenges what will make this almost impossible to accomplish on a nationwide scale:

  1. the learning deficit that would have to be overcome is very great in many cases
  2. many students have developed an attitude and are not receptive to input from adults, especially teachers and others they see as belonging to an “establishment” they have grown to distrust if not hate
  3. students have years of hearing what failures they are and how they get so much wrong
  4. there are many powerful distractions in upper grades, from sports and other extracurricular activities to the impact of puberty
  5. There is often significant peer pressure in 5th grade and above to not be perceived as a striver to do well in school (peers now often include older youths from the neighborhood)
  6. it is very difficult for teachers to provide the individualized support that such a diverse number of situations need to get on track

(There are many examples of individual teachers and schools that have succeeded greatly in turning such students around.  Jaime Escalante is perhaps the most famous of these.  Such examples are so few, however, they have no bearing on trying to change the entire student population nationally.)  

What about lower grades?  The lower grades have great potential for reducing the variance in ability, attitude and motivation of students as they reach higher grades.  However, until we have highly effective pre-school from age 1 onward, the variances due mostly to socio-economic and cultural backgrounds will still be significant.  Studies such as “Providence Talks” show that children from mostly lower socio-economic backgrounds have very significant deficits already by age 4 that means these children are already far behind as they enter kindergarten or 1st grade.  Many of exactly those children we are targeting that are 8 and younger also usually have not developed the maturity to accept greater responsibility for, or play that active a role in, their own education.

Why is 4th grade special?

As mentioned in the previous paragraph, the ideal situation would be to have very effective preschool starting about age 1 that would level the playing field so that all children would enter kindergarten or 1st grade roughly equal in ability, attitude and support.  Unfortunately, that is not yet the case nor is there any indication that this will be the case anytime soon.  What is the alternative.

Given the above, students entering the 4th grade are likely to still vary greatly in knowledge and ability from prior grades and the lack of many habits and self-management traits that are important for success in school.  Why then do we see 4th grade as being special and the key to turning the entire education system around?

  1. most starting 4th graders (just 2 months out of 3rd grade) generally still respond positively to praise from teachers and parents and are receptive to guidance from teachers
  2. the learning deficit (knowledge/skill gaps) that 4th graders have to overcome is nowhere near as great as for most older students
  3. most 4th graders do not yet that influenced by a history of failure and have therefore not yet adopted a tough outer shell as a defensive move that makes them less receptive to efforts to help them (showing how tough you are is often more important than academic achievement).
  4. most of the powerful distractions in upper grades, from sports and other extracurricular activities to the impact of puberty do not yet exist
  5. 4th graders are not yet as impacted by negative behaviors such as drugs, alcohol, gangs, pregnancy, etc.
  6. their peer world has not yet begun to pressure or bully those that would strive to succeed in school (and most of these children are not yet under the influence of the older negative groups of their neighborhoods such as gangs, etc.)
  7. 4th grade (maybe 3rd grade in some cases) is the first grade where most students have reached a level of maturity to take some responsibility for their own education.
  8. 4th grade is a grade where the content level is still relatively simple and a large % of the population is able to jump in and help as formal or informal tutors and coaches. This cannot be said for Algebra, Trigonometry, etc.
  9. 4th grade is last chance for many. Many schools are not effective in helping students entering 5th grade far behind grade level recover and become successful.

Changing one grade level changes all grade levels

Successful 4th graders means 5th graders are starting with the 100% grade level readiness we discussed at the top of this page.  They are likely to continue to be successful in 5th grade which means most will enter 6th grade 100% grade level ready and a year later enter 7th grade 100% grade level ready and so on.  Within 8 years at the latest, almost every student 4th grade and above will be at 100% grade level mastery and have developed the learning skills and character traits that will not only help them succeed in school but also in life in general.

Another Perspective – Same Results:

Most teachers would agree that the performance/achievement of students in immediately prior grades is a good determinant of the likely performance/achievement of most students in the current grade.  In other words, most students that were straight-A students in the past few years are likely to do well in the current year; most students that were problem students in prior years that did not achieve well are likely to not do well in the current grade.  This supports our previous statement that if we get students to be straight-A students for a year, most will continue to be successful in the current year.

The last challenge: How do we get the 4th graders to 100% grade level mastery?

Most of the other sections on this website focus on how we can change the results for most 4th graders and therefore change the results for all grade levels over time.