Policymakers Urged to Heed Middle Grades

Unless middle is fixed, advocates warn, high school reforms will fail.

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Middle school advocates have launched a campaign aimed at persuading policymakers to help improve education for 10- to 15-year-olds—or, they say, watch efforts to prepare more students for college and work falter.

“It is time to make education for young adolescents a national priority,” Sue Swaim, the president of the National Association of Middle Schools, declared here last week before heading with others to Capitol Hill to push the concern in congressional offices. “Middle schools are the crucial link in the K-12 continuum.”

Despite 30 years of research showing the way, Ms. Swaim said, too many schools are not doing a good job of educating students in the middle grades because the schools lack the “full range of structures and supports” they need.

Among the supports, according to a “policymaker’s guide” released by the Westerville, Ohio-based association last week, are stronger licensing requirements for middle-level teachers; organizational arrangements at the district, state, and federal levels that put responsibility for middle-level improvement in one place; and new money for enhancements, ranging from curricula in sync with national and international standards to training in advocacy for parents.

The initiative comes as high schools have taken center stage in education policy talk. Many governors have recently put forward plans for improving them, while the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is spearheading a new campaign centered on the problem of high school dropouts. ("Campaign Seeks Buy-In for High School Reforms," April 19, 2006)

Vision Presented

Before high school emerged as a focus, education observers say, policymakers directed much of their attention to preschool and the early grades.

“Middle schools are the ones which have been left out of the discussion,” said Susan Frost, a former education lobbyist and U.S. Department of Education official who heads a consulting firm that is helping with the campaign.

Yet children in their early-adolescent years see faster growth than in any but their first three, and many decisions made in the middle grades set the course for high school and beyond, the advocates say.

They also point to the money and attention funneled to elementary schools under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which, they contend, largely bypasses the needs of middle schoolers.

“You cannot address high school reform without addressing middle-level reform,” said Gerald N. Tirozzi, the executive director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, who endorsed the middle school association’s push at the May 2 press conference here. Five state schools chiefs, including those in California and Texas, wrote letters commending the policy guide.

The report sets out a vision of middle-level education that includes:

• Teachers who have met separate requirements to teach in the middle grades, including strong content background in two subjects to facilitate interdisciplinary teams;

• Organization into “small learning communities” that provide personalized learning plans and an adult mentor for each student;

• Parent training in early-adolescent development and school decisionmaking; and

• A national middle-level database and increased use of data to improve student achievement.

In addition, the guide calls on federal lawmakers, state officials, and local education leaders to set up the policy framework and provide the funding that would help spread what Ms. Swaim calls “existing pockets of excellence” to middle grades around the nation. The changes need to come as a package, she added.

When educators began adopting the prescriptions of the middle school movement in the 1980s and ’90s, Ms. Swaim said, they erred in not making allies of policymakers. This time around, she said, “we are reaching out to policymakers.”

Association members, for instance, have been asked to take the report and its message to state legislators, to school board members, and to superintendents.

Tough Task

Getting the attention of policymakers is not easy, but the work should be undertaken, observed Judith A. Rizzo, the executive director of the James B. Hunt Jr. Institute for Educational Leadership and Policy in Chapel Hill, N.C.

“Pointing people to middle schools is important,” she said. “It’s the place where kids effectively drop out.”

But, she cautioned, the message has to be tailored to people who in turn are answerable to broad constituencies.

“There is a great deal of information out there for policymakers, and most of it is inaccessible to them because it is written in educationese … [Policymakers] need to see how all these pieces tie together, not just here’s a new initiative.”

Vol. 25, Issue 36, Pages 5, 17

Published in Print: May 10, 2006, as Policymakers Urged to Heed Middle Grades
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