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Muddle in the Middle

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The middle school model has come under attack for supplanting academic rigor with a focus on students' social, emotional, and physical needs.

Ellicott City, Md.

Wander down the inviting hallways of Patuxent Valley Middle School on a typical Monday morning and pop into any classroom. Students are reading aloud the fraction-laden short stories they've written for math class. Giggling as they prepare to present colorful handmade posters describing African nations. Moving from station to station in an English class, preparing presentations on the book The Witch of Blackbird Pond. Taking notes from a televised computer program to try to detect the location of a "mystery probe" lost in the solar system.

Sylvester Burke, the principal of this Howard County, Md., school, exudes quiet pride at the busy, engaged students and academic focus of the classes. They are the result of a new schedule and lots of hard work. But he also knows that his school--like the 14 other middle schools in the 40,000-student county district--has a long way to go to polish its image in the larger community.

Middle schools are under the gun even in Howard County--a pioneer in the 30-year-old middle school movement and arguably the best public school system in Maryland. Like Patuxent Valley, many Howard County middle schools are now in the midst of making changes to address a harsh 1996 evaluation, in which a citizens' review committee firmly rejected many of the core tenets of the contemporary middle school.

"Overemphasis on the social, emotional, and physical needs of the middle school student has led to neglect of academic competencies," the report charged. "The result is a school system with vague academic expectations and complacency in the middle school years."

Howard County educators, still licking their wounds over the report's stern tone, have plenty of company. Middle schools these days seem to attract nothing but complaints. Headlines from newspapers across America trumpet poor test scores and discipline problems in middle schools. In New York City, the deputy chancellor for instruction, Judith Rizzo, recently dubbed them "funny little entities."

In their new book, Standards for our Schools: How to Set Them, Measure Them, and Reach Them, Marc S. Tucker and Judy B. Codding label middle schools "the wasteland of our primary and secondary landscape." They call for creating small, neighborhood-based K-8 schools instead.

The Southern Regional Education Board, in a report issued last month, concluded that middle schools are a "weak link" both nationally and in the 15 Southern states that are the focus of the board's work.

Reformers often cite the results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress and the Third International Mathematics and Science Study to back up their claims that middle schools don't measure up. The SREB report notes that nationally, 39 percent of the 8th graders who took the 1996 NAEP math test scored below the "basic" level. The scores were even worse in the South: Nearly 50 percent of the students tested there fell below "basic."

On the international study, 13-year-olds perform less well as a group than 9-year-olds. U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley recently called the disappointing results, compared with 4th graders' scores, the result of "drift in the middle years." An alliance of leading education groups has made beefing up middle school mathematics to include introductory algebra and geometry a top priority, arguing that the middle school curriculum is unfocused.

As states put in place more rigorous high school graduation requirements, middle schools face increasing pressure from above.

As states put in place more-rigorous high school graduation requirements, middle schools face increasing pressure from above. State tests, like their national and international counterparts, often find lagging 8th grade performance. In Kentucky, with its high-stakes accountability system, a committee is now trying to determine why middle schoolers' performance trails that of elementary and high school students. In Minnesota, officials have been disappointed by 8th graders' scores on basic-skills tests as the state moves to new graduation requirements aimed at higher levels of knowledge and skill.

Eighth grade, in fact, has become the most tested of all the grades, according to the National Middle School Association, based in Columbus, Ohio. Districts increasingly are raising the standards for promotion to high school, holding back 8th graders who earn poor grades or score low on standardized tests.

A majority of middle-grades teachers, meanwhile, were prepared either to teach elementary or high school. Most were licensed to teach elementary school, leaving them unprepared to handle more-complex academic content. States, though, are creating middle school licenses.

At least one district is throwing in the towel. The 48,000-student Cincinnati school system is phasing out middle schools entirely, in favor of K-8 schools. Poor student discipline, attendance, and achievement were overriding factors in the decision. Middle schools suspend students at the rate of 79.7 per 100 students, says Monica Solomon, the district's spokeswoman. That figure for the 1996-97 school year--which includes multiple suspensions for some students--compared with 12.3 per 100 students in K-8 buildings.

The southwestern Ohio district also faced a "large exodus" of students to private and parochial schools after 5th grade, she says, and is eager to create schools that can keep middle class families in public schools.

While there is no single explanation for the disappointing performance of young adolescents, one thing is clear: The middle school movement is on the defensive. Its emphasis has been squarely on creating nurturing environments for 10- to 14-year-olds, who often floundered in junior versions of high schools. Middle schools, which typically serve students in grades 6-8, are strongly associated with child-oriented terms like "developmentally appropriate" and with structural reforms such as teaching teams, interdisciplinary instruction, and advisory periods.

The movement is slowly coming to terms with the need to pay more attention to student achievement. The trick today is not simply to create middle schools, but to get results.

Two prominent middle school researchers have argued that one problem is the movement's "shroud of orthodoxy" and need to conform to "an established doctrine."

"Educators became obsessed with finding the right program, the one correct curriculum, the appropriate team arrangement, and the correct block schedule," Ronald D. Williamson, an assistant professor of educational leadership at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, and J. Howard Johnston, a professor of education at the University of South Florida in Tampa, wrote in a 1996 paper. That outlook, they argued, "distracted educators from focusing on the needs of students in their own school."

Some also fault middle schools' emphasis on the developmental characteristics of young adolescents--their growth spurts, forgetfulness, disorganization, fear of failure, moodiness, and attachment to their peers--as providing an excuse not to teach them very much.

Parents had complained about middle schools for at least a decade before the superintendent and school board launched the review.

"Either the middle school movement overemphasized the affective and developmental, or their message was seriously misunderstood by practitioners in the field," concludes M. Hayes Mizell, the director of the program for student achievement at the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation in New York City.

The foundation is a major force in middle-grades reform and is now working with middle schools in Corpus Christi, Texas; Long Beach, Calif.; Louisville, Ky.; and San Diego. All the projects are centered around clear achievement standards for students--which Mizell argues is the missing ingredient in far too many districts.

"I just kept having experience after experience where middle school educators would talk about the uniqueness of the kids or their caring for the kids," he says, "but where you got no impression as to where kids were supposed to come out, in terms of what they know and can do."

Here in Howard County, a mostly middle-class, suburban district midway between Washington and Baltimore, parents had complained about middle schools for at least a decade before the superintendent and school board launched the review. "I've been here 14 years," says Superintendent Michael E. Hickey, "and off and on, the middle school kettle threatened to bubble over. There needed to be a real visceral, fundamental evaluation."

That is just what the district got.

After 18 months of work--including a review of curriculum guidelines and achievement data, visits to every middle school, interviews with administrators, and surveys of parents, teachers, students, and administrators--the review committee called for a thorough overhaul of middle schools. Over that time, its membership dwindled from 41 people to just 16, as time constraints and tension among committee members took their toll. In a parallel process, meanwhile, two outside consultants looked at the same data and prepared their own report.

The residents' conclusions echo many of the complaints and concerns that are swirling around middle schools nationally. Parents condemned the emphasis on self-esteem woven throughout the county's formal philosophy for educating 6th through 8th graders. (It has since been scrapped.) They called for the elimination of the "Exploratory" program, an ill-defined period in the school day used for advisories, tutorials, guidance, remediation, test preparation, and completion of the state's service-learning graduation requirements.

Instead, committee members recommended more time for core academic courses. They called for the district to establish "objective standards" to be used to judge whether students have mastered grade-level material, for students' grades to reflect that information, for the reintroduction of previously discredited honor rolls, and for core academic classes to be organized according to students' ability levels.

The committee took a dim view of the county's generally heterogeneous classes, arguing that both gifted students and those needing remediation were getting short shrift and that teachers had never been trained to group an academically mixed population for instruction. To address less-than-stellar reading scores on Maryland's school performance assessments, the committee urged that all middle schoolers take a separate class in reading, in addition to their regular English classes.

Members take pains to point out that the report was based not just on their views, but on those of 475 middle school teachers and 215 9th grade teachers. Repeatedly, middle school teachers complained that students thought school and grades didn't matter.

"Many believe it is a playtime and doesn't count because so many extra activities hold no accountability for the students," one teacher was quoted as saying.

"Many students learn quickly that they do not have to do well academically in order to pass middle school," said another.

Committee members were troubled to learn that while just 13 middle schoolers were retained in their current grades during the 1994-95 school year, 191 students were held back after 9th grade that year. Nearly two-thirds of the 9th grade teachers surveyed said students weren't prepared to do high school work.

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