‘Uneven Progress’ in Improving Middle Schools Found

By Debra Viadero — September 09, 1992 5 min read
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The 15 states that received Carnegie grants to continue their efforts are: Alaska, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Mexico, North Dakota, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Texas, and Vermont.

The 115-page report, compiled by the Council of Chief State School Officers, describes more than a year of efforts by 27 states to re-examine and improve their middle-level education programs.

“We knew going into this we were going to find an unevenness of progress,’' Gordon M. Ambach, the executive director of the council, said in releasing the study here last week. “This is a report showing warts and all.’'

The reform efforts the council tracked are outgrowths of a 1989 report on educating adolescents by the Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development. That report described a “volatile mismatch’’ between the needs of this age group and the structure and curriculum of the middle grades. (See Education Week, June 21, 1989.)

Achieving a better fit is crucial, the Carnegie report said, because “the period of life from 10 to 15 represents, for many young people, their last best chance to choose a path toward productive and fulfilling lives.’'

It called for a number of changes, including: the creation of small “communities for learning’’ where adults can develop close relationships with students; the elimination of student tracking by achievement level and the promotion of cooperative learning; the development of a core academic curriculum that includes health education and community service; and the strengthening of teacher-preparation programs for middle-level educators.

To help spur such changes, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, which had set up the adolescent-development group, gave 27 states a total of $1.6 million in seed money in early 1990. The foundation provided another $400,000 last year to help 15 of the states continue their efforts.

The philanthropy hired the school officers’ group to guide the states’ efforts and to report on their progress.

‘Success in Progress’

The new report characterizes states’ actions so far as a “success story in progress.’' Mr. Ambach estimated that those efforts have produced improvements in 15 percent to 20 percent of the schools serving young adolescents in the states tracked.

But lasting, widespread changes in middle-level education, Mr. Ambach and others said, is “going to take a long, long time.’'

“No one has made the assumption they were going to penetrate each and every classroom in the country, fast,’' Mr. Ambach said.

States’ efforts so far have taken a variety of forms, some of which were outlined during last week’s press conference on the report.

In California, for example, where middle-level reforms have been under way since 1987, state school officials have created an in-service training network for teachers that involves 250 schools.

“We had teachers who’ve been in the classroom five, 10, 15 years and had never been able to observe someone in the classroom next door to them,’' said Thaddeus Dumas, who oversees such efforts for the state.

A key focus of the new training is team-teaching across disciplines, he said.

In an effort to create awareness of the special needs of middle-school students, the state also created a series of videotapes.

Illinois Starts With Research

In Illinois, school officials began by talking with 600 educators, health professionals, and community leaders and by surveying 2,500 young adolescents.

“It looked pretty dismal,’' Sheryl Poggi, the project director for the Illinois initiative, said of the research results. “There were more schools that aren’t doing something than are.’'

Based on that research, a state task force developed its own recommendations for middle-level education, which have since been approved by the state school board and have been distributed statewide.

Ms. Poggi said schools in her state also are attempting to link middle-level reform efforts with other, ongoing reforms at the elementary and high school levels.

Massachusetts has focused its efforts on improving training for middle-level teachers and fostering collaboration between middle schools and colleges and universities, said Susan Zelman, the associate commissioner for education personnel in the Massachusetts education department. Such partnerships are under way in six urban middle schools.

Progress Thwarted

Other states’ efforts have met with considerable obstacles.

New York State, for example, which did not receive a second-year grant from the Carnegie Corporation, encountered problems and delays in enlisting cooperation from non-education state agencies and in agreeing on curriculum objectives for the middle grades, according to the report. Turnover among top state education officials who were supportive of middle-level reform and a temporary freeze on state spending for schools also thwarted New York’s progress.

“I always underestimate how much time it’s going to take to change people’s behavior, attitudes, and thinking,’' David A. Payton, a supervisor in the New York education department, said. He added that the state still intends to continue with several of its planned activities.

Efforts to provide interagency services for young adolescents proved difficult in other states as well.

According to the report, such activities never coalesced in New Mexico, for example, because the state education agency was underfunded and understaffed and because of “a general lack of cooperation’’ in the state among school districts, health and human-service agencies, and juvenile-justice authorities. The state nonetheless received a continuation of its grant from Carnegie.

In Washington State, the report notes, a major conference on middle-level education was canceled when the state teachers’ union went on strike.

And in one other state, it says, middle-level reform efforts became overshadowed by other education-reform priorities.

The 15 states that received Carnegie grants to continue their efforts are: Alaska, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Mexico, North Dakota, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Texas, and Vermont.

Copies of the report, entitled “Turning Points: States in Action,’' are available for $15 each from the Council of Chief State School Officers, Office of Public Information, 1 Massachusetts Ave., N.W., Suite 700, Washington, D.C. 20001-1431.

A version of this article appeared in the September 09, 1992 edition of Education Week as ‘Uneven Progress’ in Improving Middle Schools Found


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