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Published in Print: May 12, 1999, as Md. Panel Urges Tougher Middle School Academics

Md. Panel Urges Tougher Middle School Academics

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A shot of academic rigor and better, more targeted teacher training may be the tonic for Maryland's middle schools, according to a state committee.

As it previewed its thinking this month for the state school board, the Maryland Learning Years Task Force joined a growing number of educators nationwide calling for a second, more critical look at the middle school movement.

In Maryland and the rest of the country, schools have shown progress in making middle schools warmer, friendlier places, said Douglas Mac Iver, a researcher from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and the panel's co-chairman. But, he added, "a lot of middle schools haven't taken the second step in becoming high-performing schools that are academically excellent."

In the 1970s, Maryland was at the forefront of the movement to create schools that are more attuned to the developmental needs of children ages 10-14 than traditional junior high schools or K-12 schools. Middle schools responded in part by creating smaller schools-within-schools, creating advisory periods, and carving out time for students to explore careers and hobbies.

But the lackluster performance of 8th graders on international assessments in recent years has led some national experts to call the middle years "an academic wasteland" where schools try to cover too many topics in too little depth. ("Muddle in the Middle," April 15, 1998.)

Nurturing and Standards

In Maryland, 8th graders' scores on state assessments have even begun dropping in some subjects, state officials say. And more students there drop out in 9th grade than in any other year.

"What the message has been previously has been that high academic standards are mutually exclusive from this whole nurturing thing, and I don't think they are mutually exclusive," said state Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick, who appointed the task force last year. The group's final report is expected next month.

In its preliminary report April 27, the 38-member task force recommended bolstering the curriculum for all students. "We need to make sure the curriculum is based on what we truly know they are capable of doing," said Alice Haskins, the middle school coordinator for the Howard County, Md., schools and a panel co-chair.

But rather than retaining or promoting students who can't keep up, the panelists said, schools should provide them with tutoring, extended-day and summer programs, or other alternatives. They called for particular attention to reading.

The most controversial recommendation, however, may be the call to require middle-level teachers to undergo more than 50 hours of training in curricular content and in the developmental needs of adolescents. Some 35 states now have specific licensing requirements for middle school teachers, but Maryland teachers can work in middle schools with either an elementary or secondary certificate.

Though he agrees with the general direction of the report, Karl Pence, the president of the 50,000-member Maryland State Teachers Association, said he was skeptical about the necessity for a separate restructuring of middle schools. "We are trying to make a commitment in Maryland to a higher level of high school graduate," he said, "and we need to make sure that everything along the way has an academic focus that leads us to be successful there."

Vol. 18, Issue 35, Page 8

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