Education Commentary

Rhetoric and Symbolic Politics: President Reagan’s School-Reform Agenda

By William Lowe Boyd — March 18, 1987 6 min read

At the turn of this century, the United States became the first Western nation to recognize the need for a separate educational unit between elementary school and high school. National reports of the day pointed to the need for bridging that gap, and the junior high school was born.

But the new junior high school did not really fulfill the objective for which it was created. Because many students planned to join the work force after the 8th grade, junior high schools became miniature high schools, providing the concluding stage to a student’s education, rather than responding to the special needs of pre-adolescents.

Then, in the 1960’s, pediatric research gave rise to the middle- school movement. Findings showed that the age for the onset of puberty had dropped significantly, that students in the 7th through 9th grades no longer were at the same stage of development as had previously been charted. Studies also confirmed that most 9th graders were becoming physically, socially, and emotionally more like high-school youngsters. Similarly, increasing numbers of 5th and 6th graders began to display characteristics found two decades earlier among 7th- and 8th-grade students.

Unfortunately, the research was widely misunderstood, and policymakers responded to the findings by converting schools serving grades 7-9 to schools serving grades 6-8. Instead of creating programs that addressed. early-adolescent developmental profiles, policymakers simply shifted grades.

And today, although we recognize that pre-adolescents are facing increasing pressures and difficulties, we have not yet focused proper attention on this age group. Both politicians and educators have looked primarily at high schools and elementary schools during the past five years of the school-reform movement. Yet, neither elementary nor high-school approaches adequately fit children as they near pubescence. In fact, those approaches could be detrimental. “Effective [middle- level] schools understand the relationship of development to learning, so that students are not asked to violate the dictates of their development in order to participate fully in the educational program,” cautions “An Agenda for Excellence at the Middle Level”, published in 1985 by the National Association of Secondary School Principals.

Many state legislatures have looked at the high-school environment and determined that “more” is the key to school improvement. Others have urged that the vast majority of classroom time be devoted to “the basics.” Yet while academic achievement is important in middle-level schools, preadolescence is primarily a time for experimentation, a time for exploration. The middle school should allow--even encourage--its students to try an industrial-arts or crafts class, to investigate a foreign language or public speaking, to test their interest in the arts. It is certainly not a time to mandate the same rigid schedule for all students. To do so cheats these youngsters out of the experience they need to make informed choices about their futures.

Today, the debate over whether to have a junior high or middle school ought be resolved by recognizing that a middle school with a balanced curriculum focused on the development of the individual--rather than a junior high school modeled in the image of a senior high school--is better suited to the physical and psychological reality of the pre-adolescent.

The Roman god Janus, depicted with two faces looking in opposite directions, well represents the challenge for middle-school educators. To be effective, middle-level education’s identity must be separate and yet be articulated with the identities of both the elementary and the high school. Middle- school educators have heeded the warning of the Swiss educator Pestalozzi, who wrote that ''the failings of education spring, as a rule, from disengaging a single link and giving it special treatment, as though it were a unit in itself, rather than part of the chain.”

While espousing middle-level education, we also recognize the challenges that face it. Recent demographic studies--especially those reported by the education analyst Harold Hodgkinson--indicate that the structure of the American family is changing radically. Thus, just at the time early adolescents most need family stability, major shifts are taking place.

In addition, these youngsters are under increasing social and emotional pressures. While being called upon to apply their energies to classroom lessons, they face seemingly impossible choices and critical decisions that test their values and ethics. The instances of youth suicide and emotional illness during early adolescence are painfully well-known. In his report on AIDS, the Surgeon General, C. Everett Koop, calls this age group one “whose behavior we wish to especially influence.” He accurately concludes that they “often consider themselves immortal.” The need for adult support during these years of , ‘becoming” should be a matter of national concern.

Therefore, it would seem logical that teachers of this population group receive specifically different professional preparation to deal with the physical, social, emotional, and intellectual changes their students undergo. Fewer than 30 states presently mandate such differentiated middle-level teacher-certification and preparation programs, however. Certainly, all those concerned about educational excellence as it applies to this age group should replace programs that provide only minimal “re-treading” for teachers trained in pedagogy based upon the characteristics of either young children or mature adolescents.

Some have observed that teacher ''burn out” seems to be greater at the middle level than in either elementary or high schools. Even educators who know and understand this age group feel it is the most demanding of the three levels. In view of this, the potential for “burn out” among middle-level teachers who neither understand nor are specifically prepared to deal with their charges would seem predictably higher. This incidence might decrease if middle-level schools and teacher preparation were geared more to the developmental characteristics of the age group than to specific curriculum content.

In addition to giving appropriate professional development to teachers, we must also allow them the latitude they need to provide the best learning opportunities for middle-level children. With the support of principals who care about instruction, teachers are the shapers of sound curricula. They must take hold of the instructional program and assure that it offers students what they need at this crucial age.

Among the recommendations set forth in “An Agenda for Excellence at the Middle Level” are many that will achieve this goal:

• Establish a system that rewards exceptional teaching performance and encourages professional excellence.

• Provide a career path that encourages excellent teachers to remain in the classroom.

• Stop assigning teachers to noninstructional duties, such as supervision and clerical assignments that can be performed by non-professional staff members.

These and other actions will help us move toward a greater professionalism of teaching in the schools where students most need good teachers.

We can utilize the best of theory and practice to improve middle-level education and strengthen its interaction with the two other school levels only if we meet the cognitive and affective needs of early adolescents. In a real sense, their continuing development as maturing adolescents and adults will depend on the effectiveness with which middle-level educators make the dance of the intellect one and the same with the dance of the human spirit.

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A version of this article appeared in the March 18, 1987 edition of Education Week