Middle School Report Urges Academic Rigor

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More than a decade after it spawned a nationwide movement for improving middle schools, the sequel to an influential report calls on middle-level educators to make academic rigor the cornerstone of an education that is responsive to the developmental needs of students.

"Turning Points 2000: Educating Adolescents in the 21st Century," a report released last week at the National Middle School Association's annual conference in St. Louis, recommends that middle schools reorder their priorities, beginning with rigorous curricula, standards-based instruction, and more focused professional development.

"'Turning Points: Preparing American Youth for the 21st Century' was a real milestone, one accessed by a lot by middle-level educators," Sue Swaim, the executive director of the National Middle School Association in Westerville, Ohio, said of the original 1989 report by the Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development. "This one 10 years later gives us an opportunity ... to focus on what's worked and what hasn't, and what needs to be addressed more aggressively."

For More Information

"Turning Points 2000: Educating Adolescents in the 21st Century" is available for $20 from the National Middle School Association at (800) 528- NMSA (6672), or can be ordered online at www.nmsa.org.

Middle schools have come under fire in recent years for lagging student achievement on state tests. Critics charge that too many have given short shrift to students' intellectual development as they attempt to make schooling more engaging for youths experiencing dramatic physical and emotional changes.

Urged To Stay the Course

The push for developmental appropriateness, critics contend, has resulted in a shallow, ill- defined curriculum and ineffective teaching strategies. In addition, many middle-level teachers, who often are certified in elementary education, are not adequately prepared to teach middle school subjects, particularly in mathematics and science. (See Education Week's special supplement Middle Grades: Feeling the Squeeze, Oct 4, 2000.)

Some districts, such as Cincinnati, have eliminated middle schools—which typically serve grades 6-8—in favor of K-8 schools and other models to address poor student performance and discipline problems.

But "Turning Points 2000," also sponsored by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, urges educators to stay the course and continue to implement the middle school model. Advocates blame the lack of progress on a tendency to create middle schools in name without altering instruction.

"The new 'Turning Points' has a much stronger focus on curriculum, instruction, and assessment in general, but not at the expense of being responsive to the age group and not at the expense of equality" of opportunities for all students, Gayle A. Davis, one of the report's authors, said in an interview last week.

Ms. Davis, a faculty research associate at the University of Maryland College Park, was the national director of Carnegie's Middle Grade School State Policy Initiative, a grant program to help schools adopt recommendations from the original "Turning Points." She wrote the report with Anthony W. Jackson, the director of the Disney Learning Partnership and lead author of the original report while a program officer at the Carnegie Corporation.

New Strategies

The new report draws on the experiences of schools involved in various reform models, as well as recent research on teaching and learning. It provides strategies for meeting higher academic standards using active teaching techniques and innovative curriculum materials.

It also endorses principles that have guided the middle school movement over the past three decades, including: team teaching, small learning communities, a caring school environment, and parental involvement. Ensuring success for all students, the report says, is not simply a recommendation, but the plan's overall goal.

The report did not please all middle-level educators.

Placing academics above developmental needs, a worthy goal, runs counter to the middle school mission, said James M. Longo, chairman of the education department at Washington and Jefferson College in Washington, Pa.

"You cannot have high academic standards if they are not based on the developmental needs of adolescents," said Mr. Longo, who suggested the authors caved into pressure for standards-based reform. "This is a political document ... and educators are in retreat. Whose been left behind? The middle school student, the middle school parent, and the middle school teacher."

Vol. 20, Issue 10, Page 3

Published in Print: November 8, 2000, as Middle School Report Urges Academic Rigor
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