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Middle Grades Called 'Powerful' Shaper of Adolescents

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Zeroing in on the crucial developmental years of early adolescence, a report to be released this week offers a plan for correcting the "volatile mismatch" between the structure and curriculum of middle-school grades and the needs of students in this age group.

The report by a task force of the Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development suggests wide-ranging alterations in the way these grade levels are managed, taught, and supported. It stresses flexibility and inion, greater training and autonomy for teachers, and expanded community and parental involvement.

"Middle-grade schools--junior high, intermediate, or middle schools--are potentially3lsociety's most powerful force to recapture millions of youth adrift," the report says. "Yet all too often they exacerbate the problems youth face."

In making its recommendations, the 17-member Task Force on Education of Young Adolescents decried the fact that the middle grades have been "virtually ignored" in the school-reform debate.

This omission, it said, may prove costly because these grades represent crucial "turning points" in the lives of young people. Not only are those in the 10- to 15-year-old age group experiencing rapid physical and cognitive growth, the report notes, they are also entering a period of growing independence and experimentation--a period whose outcomes for society can be both positive and negative.

Citing the growing risks posed by drug use, sexual promiscuity, poor school performance, and social alienation, the report estimates that 7 million young people--one in four adolescents--"are extremely vulnerable to multiple high-risk behaviors and school failure." Another 7 million, it says, may be at moderate risk.

To effect its proposed "transformation" of schooling for this age group, the task force recommended:

Dividing large, impersonal schools into smaller "communities for learning," where stable, close, and mutually respectful relationships with adults and peers can be forged;

Creating a core academic curriculum for all students that would emphasize critical thinking and include health education and community service;

Eliminating tracking by achievement level and promoting opportunities for cooperative learning and maximum flexibility in arranging instructional time;

Strengthening teacher preparation for dealing with this age group and empowering both teachers and administrators by giving them greater voices in decisionmaking and governance.

In addition, the report urges schools to work with health professionals to promote students' physical well-being, and with families and communities to expand the services available to the young.

Most of the proposals will require action at the local and state levels, according to the report, and officials from the Carnegie Corporation of New York are expected this week to announce a program of support for states that convene task forces to examine the recommendations and adapt them to local needs.

The task force also stressed, however, that "the education and health of America's youth are national con4cerns requiring national leadership." Among its proposals is a recommendation that the President and other federal officials establish a comprehensive policy for youth development.

"The crisis our country faces with respect to the preparation of youth for the 21st Century is largely unrecognized by the general public," the report maintains. "A profound change is needed in how Americans view the education of young Americans, from one that tolerates institutions that regularly fail to prepare millions of young people for productive and fulfilling lives, to one that demands of those same institutions success for all young adolescents."

The task force, which includes Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas, Senator Nancy L. Kassebaum of Kansas, former Superintendent of Education David W. Hornbeck of Maryland, the Yale University child psychiatrist James P. Comer, and other leading educators and health officials, was established by Carnegie's council on adolescent development in 1987.

The council had been charged, according to David A. Hamburg, the Carnegie Corporation's president, with placing "the compelling challenges of the adolescent years higher on the nation's agenda."

Middle-grade schools, Mr. Hamburg says in a foreword to the report, ''have the potential to make a tremendous impact on the development of their students--for better or worse--yet they have been largely ignored in the recent surge of educational reform."

This has been so, the report notes, despite the fact that adolescence is perhaps the most critical period in young lives. "The period of life from ages 10 to 15," it says, "represents for many young people their last best chance to choose a path toward productive and fulfilling lives."

In contrast to previous generations, today's adolescents face particularly troubling choices, the report says. Their growing sense of independence and their period of "trial and error" learning must take place at a time when the availability and impact of adult and community support systems are diminishing.

The results can be seen, the document says, in alarming increases in motor-vehicle accidents, drug and alcohol use, teenage pregnancy, and sexually transmitted diseases.

These risks are particularly severe, it adds, for youths who are poor, members of minority groups, or recent immigrants. "[They] generally attend the weakest schools, have access to the least adequate health services, and have the fewest clearly visible paths to opportunities in the mainstream," it says.

But even among those at low risk for engaging in life-shattering behaviors, the report says, "the pervasiveness of intellectual underdevelopment" is a serious problem, one that "strikes at the heart of the nation's future prosperity."

The report places a portion of the blame for such failures on the current structure and curriculum of middle-grade schools.

"Young adolescents have a great need for intimacy, yet we put them in large, impersonal schools," it states. "Young adolescents need increased autonomy and they need to make their own decisions, yet we put them in environments of review and rote learning. Young adolescents show great variability among themselves and within themselves, yet we put them in classrooms where we ignore their variability and need for flexibility."

In its search for alternatives, the task force reviewed research findings in the field and visited sites where innovations in learning have been realized. What it came up with, the report says, is a vision for schooling that is "profoundly different" from what is now the norm.

In particular, it saw the need for carving smaller communities out of large schools, an action that would give the developing adolescent greater support by offering more opportunities for personal interaction with adults and peers, coordinated educational experiences, and guidance and counseling.

The report cites the "school-within-a-school," or "house" arrangeel10lment, in which students and teachers are assigned to a smaller unit within a building, as a successful solution to the problem of large, impersonal institutions. In addition, it recommends the creation of interdisciplinary teams of teachers and students to "ensure coordination across all aspects of the core instructional program."

The task force also proposes that schools create a core academic curriculum, and that all students have equal opportunity to complete the course of study successfully.

"Contrary to much conventional belief," it says, "cognitive development during early adolescence is not on hold."

In addition to English, fine arts, foreign languages, history, literature and grammar, mathematics, science, and social studies, the core program would include instruction in the development of healthy lifestyles. It would teach students to become active citizens by requiring service in the community or in the school.

To ensure that all students can complete such a program, the report also proposes abolishing tracking according to ability level, and recommends instead encouraging cooperative learning or cross-age tutoring.

And it urges flexibility in class scheduling and opportunities for before- and after-school learning. Such a structure "nourishes the strengths and overcomes the weaknesses of individual students," it says.

Teacher training must also be upgraded, the report says, to ensure that teachers are well qualified to deal with adolescents. They should be given greater instructional autonomy in return for greater responsibility for results.

In contrast to the current system--in which "teachers view duty in the middle grades as a way station" between assignments in elementary and secondary schools--teachers should be required to earn a "supplemental endorsement" to teach in the middle grades, the panel concluded.

The panel supplemented its call for specific instructional improvements with a recommendation that middle-grade schools provide greater access to health services.

"Although good health does not guarantee that students will be interested in learning," it says, "ample evidence suggests that the absence of good health lowers students' academic performance."

Schools should have health coordinators, the report suggests, rather than health providers. They would coordinate interactions with community health and social-service agencies, assist administrators in developing health policies in the school, and design and promote health-enhancing activities.

In addition, the document urges middle-grade schools to become models of health promotion by serving nutritious foods, banning tobacco products, and requiring of all students certain levels of physical fitness.

Copies of the report, "Turning Points: Preparing American Youth for the 21st Century," are available for $9.95 each from the Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development, 11 Dupont Circle, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20036.

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