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Evaluation Spurs Questions About Ga. Investment in Middle Schools

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Georgia has spent more than $350 million since 1988 to improve education for middle-school-age students in hopes of increasing their academic success in high school.

But a preliminary evaluation of the 8-year-old middle school incentive-grant program has left some wondering whether the investment has paid off and others defending the middle schools they worked hard to develop.

The Georgia education department collected test scores and dropout and retention rates from 26 middle schools and 26 junior high schools and polled students, teachers, and parents at 14 middle schools and 14 junior highs. In fiscal 1996, incentive funds went to 315 schools in 144 school districts.

The department's sampling concluded that students in the districts that received an extra 13 percent in state funding for each middle schooler did not show any higher performance than students in traditional junior high schools. Even though middle school students were in a higher percentile than junior high students in reading and math for five years straight, the report says the differences between the two groups were not "statistically significant."

The report, initiated by state schools Superintendent Linda C. Schrenko, is part of an effort to review longstanding programs in the education department. A statewide test and a tutoring program for at-risk elementary students are also being examined.

Some middle school administrators in the state, however, say that because the sample used to conduct the study was so small, the report does not accurately depict the gains middle school students have made over the years. They are concerned that the grant program could now be in jeopardy.

"This [report] is not a valid measure," said Ruth Hamlin, the principal of Arnold Middle School in Columbus. "I've talked to too many principals around the state, and this is not what they've reported to me about their results."

The Georgia Middle School Principals Association and the Georgia Association of Educational Leaders now plan to conduct their own survey of all middle and high schools in the state in hopes of presenting the legislature with a different viewpoint and ultimately preserving the funds targeted for the program, Ms. Hamlin said.

The report itself calls for a more extensive evaluation of middle schools in the state and is not being used to draw any conclusions or make any budget decisions at this point, said department spokesman Pat Sandor.

Research Emerging

The 1985 Quality Basic Education Act in Georgia established the grants for districts that created middle school programs. To meet the criteria, the law required schools to offer at least 85 minutes of common planning time for interdisciplinary teams of teachers. Teams usually include four teachers--one from each of the core subject areas.

Junior high schools, which usually do not include 6th graders who attend middle schools, are more likely to be designed like high schools, with teachers organized by subject areas. Experts on middle-grades education believe this structure is impersonal and doesn't give adolescent students the support they need.

"Turning Points," an influential 1989 report from the Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development, recommended that schools for young adolescents organize into smaller units or "schools within schools," promote strong relationships between adults and students, eliminate academic tracking, and use cooperative learning techniques.

While there is not much proof available, research is beginning to emerge about the effectiveness of the middle school concept.

Perhaps the strongest evidence to date comes from researcher Robert Felner, the incoming director of the education school at the University of Rhode Island in Kingston.

After studying schools of varying grade configurations in Illinois, Mr. Felner found that when the "Turning Points" recommendations were fully implemented, achievement improved "across the board" on standardized tests. His studies in other states also show a decrease in discipline problems and an increase in the number of students performing at grade level.

Far too often, schools make cosmetic or organizational changes, but skip over the steps necessary to improve student performance, said Hayes Mizell, the director of the student achievement program at the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation in New York City.

"Student achievement will not increase until teachers are more competent in the subject matter they teach and more competent in teaching it, and more competent in engaging students," he said.

Middle school educators in Georgia say their program is well-respected outside the state, in part because teachers are required to earn special certification to teach at the middle school level--something that is still uncommon across the country.

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