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Author of 'Shadow Studies' Examines 'Crisis' in Middle Schools

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A Conversation with John Lounsbury

In a study released this month, "Inside Grade Eight: From Apathy to Excitement," the National Association of Secondary School Principals concludes that too many 8th graders spend their day as "sponges," passively soaking up their lessons without being asked to participate or think critically.

The report is the third in a series of "shadow studies" by the association--earlier ones looked at the 6th and the 9th grades--in which educators nationwide each observe one student throughout the day and record what happens.

John H. Lounsbury, dean emeritus of the school of education at Georgia College and the former editor of the Middle School Journal, was the senior author of the 8th-grade study and a co-author of the two previous nassp studies. He spoke about their methods and findings with Staff Writer Millicent Lawton.

Q. Why did you choose the technique of a shadow study?

A. Typically, we look at teachers at work. We look at the public performance of the teacher and equate it with learning. We find, however, that every student makes his or her own curriculum, really. And that, in order to get a more intimate picture of what education is like from the consumer's standpoint, we can focus on an individual pupil to see what literally does happen to him or her throughout a school day.

It gives you a very different and a very dramatic series of snapshots of what it really is like to be a student.

Q. I noticed on the list of schools studied that there seemed to be a preponderance of suburban schools, and that there did not appear to be any from the inner cities or large cities. I noted also that the two schools in Washington, D.C., were private. Can you address that?

A. We have solicited volunteers at the national [nassp] conference or through the [nassp] newsletter. We depend on volunteers. The people who are professionally active are the ones who volunteer.

We, then, knowing that we didn't have enough inner-city, large-city [schools],made some effort to get them, and were only partially successful. But you are correct. The sample is stacked to suburban schools. ...

I guess you could say in all honesty that, if anything, the results, even though they may have been negative, were probably a little more positive than they would have been if we had had a technically random sample. ... [I]t's obviousthat if these [suburban] schools pointed up these things, we can be sure they ought to be dealt with.

Q. Looking at the studies you have conducted over the past 30 years or so, what are some of the common themes?

A. The key thing as I see it is the excessive fragmentation that really impedes learning ... [and] the low level of intellectualism. The kids are not challenged to use their minds. They answer questions and go on to the next question.

The other one would be the irrelevant curriculum ... which does not adequately deal with the things that they are concerned about.

Q. Why is it that more progress hasn't been made in making changes as a result of the knowledge gained through research on the developmental needs of this age group?

A. One of the things that we noticed when we compare the early shadow studies with the one just done [is] it's obvious that the middle-school movement has made a difference. It is obvious that the teachers' attitudes toward students are better. The climate in the schools is better, but the curriculum or content is almost exactly what it was 30 to 40 years ago. ...

Now, if we've known all this, why haven't we changed? ... The first and fundamental reason, in my judgment, is that the American public generally has not been understanding of and appreciative of the age of early adolescence. ...

And then a second one is the old notion that, you know, "School was good enough for me, and look how well I turned out. It's good enough for you."

Q. What are the three or four things that a middle-school administrator or teacher can do to make the most urgently needed changes?

A. They can organize the school day to provide some continuity of caring so that teachers and kids can have some relationship that goes beyond one subject, one period.

They can increase the degree to which children and teachers are interacting in the classroom to reduce the passiveness of learning. They can push kids to think. They can try to deal more directly with critical thinking. They can focus more completely in all subject areas on the skills of communication.

Q. Is there hope?

A. I think so. Oh, I'm encouraged. I think the times are such that the crisis is so real that people now are facing up to it.

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