New York Middle Schools to Receive New Flexibility

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New York middle schools will receive more flexibility to adjust their course offerings in order to improve academic achievement, under a plan the state board of regents approved this month.

The new policy will allow most middle schools to experiment with curriculum, and to spend more time on academic subjects such as mathematics and reading at the expense of more career-oriented courses such as home economics.

School officials have complained for years that the state’s stringent course requirements do not give them enough time to teach students basic skills needed for state tests. Some administrators hope the new plan will be the first of many efforts to loosen what they consider to be outdated regulations.

The new plan, which the regents adopted Feb. 10, allows three options for schools. But not every school can take advantage of each option.

Schools must consult with groups of parents, teachers, and administrators before proposing changes. Districts are then responsible for submitting applications to the state education department on behalf of individual schools.

“All [middle schools] should be able to have some flexibility so long as they use it to help students and ensure they have high academic achievement,” the chancellor of the board of regents, Robert M. Bennett, said in a statement announcing the policy. “This approach will give them that flexibility with accountability.”

The regents determined that middle schools needed a three-model approach, rather than a one-size-fits-all model.

Choices Ahead

The first model retains the status quo and allow all schools to simply follow existing regulations.

A second model is designed for schools that have significant numbers of students who have not met state standards. Typically, those schools would be designated as in need of improvement or corrective action, or they would be newly formed charters and other schools. The model allows those schools to increase the time they spend on core academic subjects, and lifts prescribed time requirements for “exploratory courses,” such as home economics, art and music, foreign language, technology, health, and library skills.

The third model targets schools where most students are meeting state standards. It allows them to restructure their entire educational programs and be granted relief from all of the prescribed course-time regulations, or adopt specific curriculum changes that would lift the requirements for the exploratory courses.

Only 75 middle schools, however, will be approved to implement the third model.

All of New York state’s middle schools still must continue to administer state assessments to measure students’ achievement levels.

New York Commissioner of Education Richard P. Mills praised the board’s action in a statement. He said the change was needed and would help better prepare students to make the often-bumpy transition from middle school to high school.

Thomas Rogers, the executive director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents, said the new regulations were a good first step, but that administrators had hoped for more flexibility and were planning to keep pushing for more changes.

Mr. Rogers added that middle schools have been in dire need of more flexibility. The current regulations, he said, were written in the 1980s and do not reflect the shift in state and federal laws toward standards-based reforms.

“We think it’s no coincidence that middle schools are our lowest-performing schools, and they have the most amount of time locked into inflexible programs,” Mr. Rogers said. He predicted that most middle schools would want to take advantage of the program, but would not have enough time to plan and submit their applications before school begins in the fall.

Vol. 24, Issue 24, Page 23

Published in Print: February 23, 2005, as New York Middle Schools to Receive New Flexibility
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