Muddle in the Middle

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The school no longer has an Exploratory period, because the community didn't support the fuzzy, unstructured time in the school day.

For Burke, the Patuxent Valley principal and a 23-year veteran of the Howard County schools, the report was a blow. Still, he recognized truth in some of its criticisms. He and 8th grade guidance counselor Wayne Danley have identified some 20 8th graders who aren't ready for 9th grade; these students are now trying to improve their study skills and bring up their grades. "My goal is not to retain students," Burke says, "but if you skate through this year, you're going to be skating with us again next year."

Two years ago, when he arrived at 673-student Patuxent Valley with a mandate to improve discipline, Burke and the faculty switched to a block schedule that gives teachers and students more time together. Instead of rushing to nine 42-minute periods, students have double that amount of time for most classes. The school no longer has an Exploratory period, because the community didn't support the fuzzy, unstructured time in the school day. But students do have the opportunity to take enrichment classes, including writing for an electronic literary magazine, quilting, peer mediation, and photography.

Patuxent Valley, which won an architectural award, boasts a home economics room brimming with rows of sewing machines and several full-fledged kitchens, a light-filled art studio, and a well-equipped band room with carpeted risers where skinny 7th graders wrestle with shiny tubas.

While Burke doesn't argue with the need for focused academic work in school, he does take issue with the committee's recommendation to change the district's "related arts" program for middle schoolers. Currently, students take a quarter each of art, music, home economics, and technical education. The committee complained that the rotation "trivialized" the courses, and the panelists called for students to pick one class and stick to it for a year or at least a semester. The clash underscores the tension between middle school educators who want to give students time to explore and grow, and parents and community members intent on seeing that students gain academic mastery.

Over the years, Burke has seen the bar rise for middle schools: First, they were to prepare students for and administer Maryland's functional tests, required for high school graduation. Then came the state's 75-hour service-learning requirement, which Howard County assigned to the middle schools. Now, the low-level tests are to be phased out in favor of the state's rigorous end-of-course high school exams.

"The expectation is that middle schools will get them ready," the principal says. "We have the shortest amount of time with kids, and the toughest time in kids' lives. It's a tough job, and it's one of the age groups that people are least likely to want to work with."

It used to be, says Principal Harriette Greenberg of Howard County's 720-student Clarksville Middle School, that people who couldn't get jobs in the county high schools landed in middle schools. Now, she sees more applications from elementary teachers who want to move up. Still, Greenberg, a member of the board of directors of the Maryland Middle School Association, would like to see the district offer more-systematic training for middle school teachers.

Alice Haskins, the K-12 instructional coordinator who oversees the county's middle schools, agrees. This year, for the first time, she's teaching a class for middle-level educators called "Making the Most of the Middle."

"We have not had the quality of instruction in Howard County," Haskins says bluntly. "It's not the middle school movement--it's the people. You can go into classroom after classroom and see teachers say, 'Open the book and read the problems.'"

Haskins, who says middle schools have gotten "lost in the shuffle," laments the fact that Maryland doesn't have middle school certification, and she faults the district for not spending enough on professional development.

Some worry that critics will overlook research suggesting that some components of middle schools really do improve student learning.

Such issues aren't just local concerns. The National Staff Development Council, a professional organization of some 8,000 members based in Oxford, Ohio, has launched a two-year project to identify professional-development opportunities for middle school teachers that can show a link with increased student achievement. The programs must be grounded in one of the four core academic subjects.

Joellen Killion, the executive director of the Edna McConnell Clark-funded project, says it's time for student learning to move front and center. "We've attempted to identify the contextual factors of middle school--for example, teaming and advisory--but that doesn't really hit the mark in terms of hard-core instruction and deep content knowledge," she says. "That's where the next focus needs to be."

The concern about teachers' knowledge is especially acute in mathematics and science. The Learning First Alliance, an umbrella group of 12 leading education organizations, this year identified middle school math as an area of critical concern. Fewer than half of 8th grade teachers have taken the math courses necessary to teach algebra and geometry, according to a paper prepared for the alliance. And fewer than 10 percent of teachers of grades 5 to 9 have a specialization in the content and techniques of middle school math, it says.

Faced with those issues at the same time the public is clamoring for results, a number of associations and foundations that support middle-grades reform are putting their heads together. The National Forum to Accelerate Middle Grades Reform, still in its early stages, plans to come up with a joint vision for middle schools and ways of collaborating to bring about sustained improvement.

"We shouldn't be talking about either/or," argues Sue Swaim, the executive director of the National Middle School Association. "The middle-level concept, from its initial development, always expected that a key point was high achievement for middle school students."

Sue Galletti, the director of middle-level services for the National Association of Secondary School Principals, worries that critics will overlook research suggesting that the familiar components of middle schools really do produce improved student learning. "There is a strong attitude in the community right now that middle schools in general are touchy-feely organizations that de-emphasize academic achievement," she says. "We just need to say, 'We've got this list of things we know work, and why aren't schools doing it?'"

Galletti and other middle school proponents cite a study of Illinois middle schools organized according to the principles in "Turning Points: Preparing American Youth for the 21st Century," the influential report issued in 1989 by the Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development. The researchers found that schools that had thoughtfully and fully implemented team teaching, common planning time, and other structural reforms made greater gains with students--especially those at risk--than those that did not.

"The model is OK," insists Ken McEwin, a professor of curriculum and instruction at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C. "We need to implement it more thoroughly and carefully and universally. When we start doing that, achievement scores will stop dropping."

The focus on test scores, and the public's uneasiness with the middle school concept, worries middle school supporters like McEwin."The danger is it could lead to losing ground and falling back to old practices that are more familiar and not effective," he cautions, such as the fragmentation of the junior high school.

In Howard County, educators are trying to walk a delicate line between satisfying residents' concerns about middle schools and doing what research and their own experience with young adolescents suggest will work.

To increase time for academics, schools like Patuxent Valley and Clarksville have switched to block-schedule formats. All middle schools in the district will do so in the fall.

"I truly believe our intentions have always been good, but times change."

Harriette Greenberg,
Clarksville Middle School

At the same time, the county will phase in reading teachers to allow all middle schoolers to take reading. Now, only 6th graders and students in 7th and 8th grade who are having trouble take reading as a separate subject. Other students use that time to study a foreign language, but in two years, all Howard County students are scheduled to have the opportunity to study French or Spanish.

The county is now pilot-testing grade-level assessments geared to its curriculum for middle schools as part of an overall focus on standards and assessments. The grading policy is also being revised and standardized to show parents whether their children are at grade level.

But a leader of a parent watchdog group called People for Accountability in the School System, or PASS, is skeptical that the county will really hold students' and teachers' feet to the fire.

Fran Wishnick, who served on the middle school evaluation committee and later ran unsuccessfully for the school board, says she fears the district won't really use the assessments for making critical decisions about promoting students and about which teachers are doing a good job.

"We want this to be used by the school and the school system to measure whether the curriculum and teaching methods and the whole academic program are, in fact, resulting in content-area mastery," she says.

Brenda von Rautenkranz, another parent who served on the review committee, is less skeptical about the district's willingness to follow through on the parents' recommendations. "I'm very positive that we can keep on moving in the right way," she says. "We hit a little nerve. We have to keep at them and say this is what we want for our schools."

Howard County middle schools are taking a hard look at nonacademic time. At Clarksville, students now have a period called ''Q time'' that is built into their core academic classes, rather than a separate Exploratory period. Those who play in the band or sing in the chorus can leave during Q time, while their classmates receive extra help from teachers, make up tests, or do enrichment activities. The only rule is that teachers can't introduce new material while some students are out of the class.

"It's flexible, but it stays academic," Principal Greenberg explains.

Teachers at Clarksville, where 8th graders recently completed a schoolwide unit on soap, bristle at the notion that they don't have high expectations for students. They point out that the unit, which culminated with presentations in the school's media center, required students to conduct scientific experiments, write advertising copy, study manufacturing processes, and form mock companies to compete against each other for market share.

"I can't imagine that a parent would witness that and say that it's not academic enough," says Linda Baer, an 8th grade special education assistant.

Other teachers are frustrated by what they see as a false dichotomy between self-esteem and academic achievement that has tended to dominate the debate here--and elsewhere.

"The two go hand in hand," says Debbi Holihan, a 6th grade English teacher at Clarksville. "If a child feels successful with academics, then the self-esteem is high."

Although her first impulse is to feel defensive about the ongoing debate over middle schools, Greenberg knows that won't suffice. "I truly believe our intentions have always been good," she says of middle-level educators, "but times change."

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