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More Changes in Middle Schools Needed, Report Urges

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Most middle-level schools must dramatically change their structure and curriculum if they are to meet the needs of young adolescents, says a report released here last week by the National Middle School Association.

While an increasing number of schools have begun to adopt some of the changes promoted by the emerging middle-level-school reform movement--such as hands-on, experiential curricula and increased parental involvement--many have not yet embraced such changes, NMSA leaders said.

"We must realize that young people between the ages of 10 and 15 are neither large 4th graders nor small high school sophomores," said Ross Burkhardt, the group's president-elect.

Sue Swaim, the group's executive director, estimated that one-third of middle-level schools have taken an aggressive approach to reform, one-third are moving toward reform, and the remaining third have not adopted significant changes or are just beginning to explore the climate for change.

The NMSA report, "This We Believe: Developmentally Responsive Middle-Level Schools," outlines what the group believes is effective middle-level schooling for early adolescence--ages 10 to 15. (See box, this page.)

For example, it calls on middle-level schools to ensure that every student has an adviser or "advocate" who takes an interest in his academic progress from the day he enters school to the day he leaves.

Mr. Burkhardt, an 8th-grade teacher at Shoreham Wading River Middle School in Shoreham, N.Y., who has been teaching middle-school students since 1962, cited his own advisory group as an example. He sees the same group of students four times a day--for classes and at lunch, which enables group members to get to know each other well and to provide support to one another.

Critical Study

Also last week, the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation released a frank study of its work with middle schools in Baltimore; Louisville, Ky.; Milwaukee; San Diego; and Oakland, Calif.

The report, "Believing in Ourselves: Progress and Struggle in Urban Middle School Reform," says that five years and $9.4 million after the project began in 1989, efforts had foundered in three of the five districts. Six of the 12 middle schools the foundation worked with made progress, but neither student achievement nor attendance improved significantly in the other six.

"That the outcomes were so different is not so much a reflection of what the schools did as the result of an uneven capacity of urban systems to change," concludes the report's author, Anne C. Lewis, a writer for the education journal Phi Delta Kappan.

Essential elements of successful reform, the report says, include comprehensive professional development for teachers; strong principals who are instructional leaders; and involvement from higher-education institutions, which all too often are "the missing link."

In the future, the New York City-based foundation will focus on a "standards based" approach to reform, encouraging the districts it works with to set benchmarks for achievement in math, social studies, language arts, and science, according to Hayes Mizell, the director of the foundation's program for student achievement.

Mr. Mizell said the foundation will continue working with Louisville and San Diego, but not with Baltimore, Milwaukee, or Oakland.

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