The social wedge

I think one of the most common awkward conversation starters from adult to child is, “What grade are you in?” You hear this on public transit, in the doctor’s office, at the playground, in houses of worship, and in the grocery store. For the vast majority of the public or privately schooled population, grade level is a familiar proxy for a child’s age and maturity level. Folks can’t really recall what they were thinking when they were exactly 8, but they have some idea of what they liked to do when they were in second or third grade! It’s an attempt to make a connection.

For the homeschool student, this question can be awkward, though. My younger son, feeling a bit cheeky one day, answered the poor question-asker with, “Well, that depends. In which subject?”

The educational dilemma

His answer of course missed the point the question– The nice gentleman wanted to have a conversation with him and was simply looking for a clue as to where to start pitching the tone. My son’s answer was unhelpful, other than to show off a certain sense of humor (once the guy caught on that my son was, while serious, completely playing him). But my son’s answer dove right to the heart of one of the best strengths– and potential weaknesses– of homeschooling. Because he was correct; he was in a different grade level in each subject. In truth, given free reign and the ability to work to their highest ability in every subject, most kids would be. One kid might be several years ahead in math, average in history, a little ahead of the game in science, and a year behind in writing. Another kid, even in the same household, might be several years ahead in composition and grammar, a year behind in math, and spot on average in history and science.

A long term homeschool parent would tell you that neither of these kids is ahead OR behind, but both are right on schedule. And different homeschoolers will give different answers regarding how to handle these disparate abilities. Some feel an obligation to feed the beast– to spend much of the school week letting the child feast on as much information as possible in the subjects they are the most passionate about, while mopping up to do due diligence in the remainders, figuring nobody is outstanding at everything. Other homeschoolers fear letting a child get “too far ahead” in a particular subject (there is a lot of persistent mythology that getting ahead in math is somehow bad for kids) and instead spend the bulk of their time working on weaker subjects, hoping to produce a well-rounded student. Still others strike what they hope is a balanced approach, simply moving at the child’s pace in each subject, but spending equal time in all areas, and still others remain firmly convinced that children should remain at the same academic level as their age-related public school peers– so if the child finishes math in November, they are done with math for the year and will not open the next math program until the following August.

How you decide to face these choices will be shaped by your own homeschool philosophy, homeschool goals, your child’s goals and any special needs you face, and whether you plan to homeschool until graduation or return to the public or private schools at some point. Fortunately, a moment’s thought reveals that relating these choices to matching a specific grade level for your child is not much of a problem. Designating a grade level is a construct that is not at all useful in the homesechool setting! Administrators managing large groups of students need a convenient way to group kids together roughly by age, and to grossly communicate progress between school and parents; this is achieved by labeling kids with grade levels K-12 (and increasingly, the manufactured “Pre-K” grade as well. In most of K-12 education, the overwhelming majority of kids simply march through, advancing one grade level per year, regardless of academic achievement.

In the homeschool setting, where the parent is free to set far more individually appropriate educational standards, moving from one grade level to the next is nonsensical. This leads to . . .

The Delaware solution

In Delaware, when we enroll our children in homeschool, and confirm their enrollments from one year to the next, we have the option to list them as being in a particular grade, just like brick and mortar schools or cyberschools. But we have another option. We can choose to list them as either “ungraded primary” (roughly grades K-8, or ages 5-13 or 14) or “ungraded secondary” (roughly grades 9-12, or ages 14-18).

Choosing ungraded has several advantages and no disadvantages. The advantages, include fluidity of progress between subjects, flexibility to deal with life events, and improved privacy. While some homeschoolers are fearful that being ungraded might impact a return to public school, I have never yet heard of a case of a public school putting a 12 year old back in first grade because the mother listed her as ungraded in their homeschool. Most schools will simply place a student in with their age-related peers, regardless of achievement or ability (some schools will work with parents more flexibly). When joining sports teams or external activities, one can simply note the child’s age or just choose an appropriate grade level based on the child’s age and maturity level to list on enrollment forms.

The fluidity of being listed as ungraded relieves a lot of stress on newer homeschoolers in particular. Once you unglue yourself from the notion of being stuck in a grade level, you realize that it’s okay if your 8 year-old is working in the fifth grade math book (or the second grade math book). Or that if you finish the science program in February because they couldn’t get enough of it, it’s fine to choose between extending the material with hands-on activities, library trips, and more resources, or moving on to the next “year’s” material. When your child is listed as ungraded, there is no concern about needing to “skip him ahead” because your third grader has moved on to all fourth grade materials. In the ungraded universe, he can just be himself.

This fluidity also helps when life doesn’t proceed as planned. Major illness, death, divorce, a move, and other major events can seriously disrupt a school year. For a public schooled kid with a fixed school year and a fixed grade level, these events usually mean a lot of missed time from school (and the “Make up work” is never really a replacement for ALL of the work missed), possibly lower grades, summer school, or being held back a grade, plus a permanent record showing high absenteeism. When you are registered as ungraded, you can help your child deal with the life stressor and take care of his immediate physical, safety, and emotional needs first, then educational needs once those are resolved, simply picking up where you left off. Because there is no individual grade level listed, there is no grade level to fall behind in. Because you are not on the district calendar, you can pick up extra school days if needed on some weekends, when it’s too hot outside in the summer, or some evenings, and get all of the originally planned, original quality work done over time, not some make-work worksheets as would happen if the child were in school. If you end up needing an extra year because the life events were particularly severe, you have the time to do it and nobody need be notified and your child is not “left behind” his peers– he can still hang out with the same group of homeschool friends and be on the same sports teams as before.

While we are discussing protecting your child’s privacy and emotional well-being when dealing with a life issue that interfered with school, let’s discuss overall privacy. Every school in Delaware, public, private, and homeschool (private schools and homeschools are called “nonpublic schools” by the state of Delaware) have their detailed demographic data published annually by the Department of Education, by state law. This information includes the race, grade level, attendance, and special needs status of every child in the school, aggregated by grade level. For private and public schools, this is not really a privacy concern; the data sets are large enough that it would be impossible to identify any individual child. However in any given homeschool, there is likely to only be one white non-Hispanic 3rd grader in the “Springfield Road Academy” in Christina School District who is a special needs child. And anybody who comes across the website will be able to see that child only attended 145 day of school this year, or if nosy enough, that the child is in the same grade level he was in last year! If you list your children as ungraded, however, the privacy goes up a notch– at the very least, the snoopy neighbor can’t be sure it’s your kid, because they can’t ascertain exactly how old he is– and they certainly won’t be able to see that he’s repeating the third grade. And if you have multiple kids, that information gets even murkier.

On the flip side, there is no negative side to listing your child as ungraded. Driver’s Ed, the College Board, sports teams, and other outside parties are going to pretty much take your word for it on grade level as long as your child’s age is in the correct range.

The breezy conclusion

The seemingly simple question “What grade is he in?” can feel like it’s opening up a big can of worms if your child is a homeschooler! But it’s not really that difficult. Socially, just answer with whatever grade pegs to your child’s age, give or take. Scholastically, follow your homeschool plan and philosophy– let those, rather than a nonsensical administrative detail, guide you. Administratively, choose between listing a grade or choosing ungraded. Realize that ungraded affords you and your child greater flexibility and greater privacy, at no cost. Like many issues you face in homeschooling, it feels like a big issue until you become comfortable with it– and this is one where you can easily change your mind from one enrollment cycle to the next. In my book, the ungraded option is one of the biggest bonuses of homeschooling in Delaware!