School & District Management

Coming of Age

By David Ruenzel — February 01, 1998 22 min read
After more than 30 years, the middle school reform movement has done little to improve the education young teenagers get. But a handful of schools are trying to change that.

Baltimore’s Canton Middle School is a formidable red-brick structure looming like a medieval fortress over blocks of small brick row houses. Under a sky the color of steel wool, the building looks imposing, inviolable. A cop, permanently assigned to the school, stands inside the massive front doors to keep undesirable elements out. The structure, however, is anything but impenetrable. Canton, after all, is an urban school in an impoverished neighborhood; nearly 90 percent of its 745 students qualify for the federal free-lunch program, and more than half live with a single parent or a grandparent. A drug dealer, it is said, has set up shop in the small grocery across the street. Woe, like a character in an allegory from the Dark Ages, has its shoulder pressed to the school door.

“There’s real pathology out there,” one Canton administrator says, gesturing out the window. “Sometimes it’s going to get in.”

This morning is one of those times. Just before lunch, a student punches his fist through a glass partition and is dispatched to the hospital. Then, a usually mild-mannered boy explodes in class, cursing his teacher and bolting from the room. When finally confronted by a school social worker, the boy weeps and raises his shirt to reveal a constellation of bruises. His older brother, he says, has been beating him for days.

In many urban middle schools, disruptive and violent incidents like these are commonplace. But not at Canton. Though still a problem, such disturbances are increasingly rare, thanks in part to wide-ranging reforms launched in 1991 by principal Craig Spilman. Spilman, who was a senior administrator in the central office before coming to Canton, believes that radical restructuring is the only way to make middle schools work. At Canton, he has done away with tracking and grade levels, replacing them with multiaged teams of students that stay with the same group of teachers from year to year. What’s more, he has freed his teachers to organize their days and structure their programs as they see fit.

Nowadays, the corridors at Canton are relatively quiet, the classrooms controlled. Student suspensions have dropped, and average daily attendance is 87 percent, up 10 percentage points from 1991. Test scores, too, have risen. Last year, Canton students scored higher than any other Baltimore city school on Maryland’s basic-skills writing test.

“We’ve come far in the last five years,” says the 55-year-old Spilman. “This school is working for a lot of kids. But a lot of middle schools are just surviving.”

The middle grades have long been a trouble spot in American education. To some degree, it’s the result of the challenging age group they serve. Young adolescents nettle with their weird mix of innocence and churlishness. Children who have been merely temperamental in elementary school may turn threatening, even violent, as adolescents of 13 and 14. Children who fall behind in the early grades are often painfully aware of their deficiencies by the middle grades, and some give up on school altogether.

“You’ve got to keep in mind that the middle shool reform movement originally focused on white, middle-class kids.

Howard Johnston, professor, University of South Florida

“Middle school has always been trapped in the monumental difficulty of its own task,” says Howard Johnston, a professor of secondary education at the University of South Florida and one of the nation’s foremost experts on middle-level education. “Impossible is really the best way to characterize it. You’ve got kids at all different stages of physical and emotional growth entering puberty just as they’re usually entering bigger, more impersonal school environments.”

But Johnston doesn’t let middle schools off the hook. Many, he says, haven’t served early adolescents well. Part of the problem, he explains, is that the middle school movement—the 30-year-old effort to transform the impersonal junior high into a more nurturing learning environment—has changed the makeup of many schools but not what goes on in classrooms, particularly urban classrooms. “You’ve got to keep in mind,” Johnston says, “that the middle school reform movement originally focused on white, middle-class kids, and so it was from its inception flawed by its very lack of inclusiveness. As a result, a lot of middle schools are unprepared to deal with the social conditions that overtake urban kids—abject poverty and violence.”

The middle school movement was launched almost single-handedly in the 1960s by a Cincinnati public school administrator named William Alexander. Alexander had become disgruntled with the conventional junior high, which was essentially a high school for younger kids. With masses of students being herded this way and that, the junior high, Alexander believed, was exactly the wrong atmosphere for young people with raging hormones and insecurities to match. Bells rang on a rigid schedule, and students moved platoonlike from one class to the next, where teachers preached from textbooks the size of dictionaries.

Alexander envisioned a smaller, more intimate environment for young adolescents. In a 1963 speech at a conference at Cornell University, he proposed that junior highs be transformed into middle schools that are more responsive to the needs and interests of students.

The idea of a developmentally appropriate school for young adolescents was greeted with enthusiasm, and by the late 1960s it was catching on fast. Vast numbers of junior highs were converted to middle schools. Structurally, this meant phasing out K-8 elementary schools and grade 7-9 junior highs in favor of schools for grades 5-8 or 6-8. But the middle school movement, as the reforms came to be called, embraced more than just shuffling grade configurations. It was a new way of thinking about and teaching young adolescents. Both vulnerable and impulsive, wide-eyed and rebellious, they needed a place of their own—an environment of stability, nurturance, and intellectual stimulation.

Strategies for building this gentler, more humane environment varied, but the basic idea was to make middle schools smaller and more responsive. Schools implemented teacher-student advisory groups, flexible scheduling, integrated courses, and team teaching and planning.

According to experts, the reforms have simply been too superficial to change the culture of schools and improve student achievement.

By the late 1980s, the new middle school was a full-fledged American institution, and it soon became more common than junior high and K-8 schools. According to a 1993 survey by the National Middle Schools Association, only 1,425 of the 11,215 schools for young adolescents retained the old configuration of grades 7-9. Nearly 7,400 schools, meanwhile, were organized by either grades 6-8 or grades 5-8. Many of these schools were attempting the other reforms, as well. The classic junior high, it seemed, was on the way out.

But for all the changes of the past 30 years, the “new” middle schools aren’t that much different from the old junior highs. According to a number of middle school experts, the reforms have simply been too superficial to change the culture of schools and improve student achievement. Teaching in the middle grades has changed little, too.

“Everyone agrees that authentic and durable relationships with adults are critical,” says Howard Johnston from the University of South Florida. “But too often this has translated into 15-minute advisory periods that aren’t doing it. It’s not the implementation of new practices that counts but the effects of these practices.”

“There is a feeling,” says Ron Williamson, a professor of education at the University of North Carolina, “that if you do certain things you’ll be a middle school. But people are now saying, ‘We’ve tried that; where’s the evidence that anything has changed?’ You can have teams and change structure, but you’ll never be a true middle school if you keep the same old routines.”

The 1993 National Middle School Association survey found that some 90 percent of grade 6-8 schools had not really changed their teaching. For the most part, they still relied on direct instruction—teacher presentation, drill, and practice.

“It is discouraging to note,” the study’s authors concluded, “such a strong reluctance to move away from direct instruction in middle schools.”

Canton principal Craig Spilman thinks he knows why middle schools have not lived up to their early promise. Most, he claims, are just junior high schools in disguise. “I visit schools where the bells still ring!” Spilman says, shaking his head in disbelief. “I told one principal to turn the bells off, but he said he couldn’t do that or there would be chaos.”

When Spilman visits middle schools, he first asks the principal if the school has a buildingwide schedule, periods, and bells. “If the answer is ‘yes, yes, and yes,’ you’re in trouble; you’re still a junior high,” says Spilman. “The middle school schedule should be flexible, determined by a team of teachers who are free to adapt it to the needs of their students. If a parent comes to our school office and asks where her child is, our secretary won’t know. She’ll have to call the team. That’s a sign of a good middle school—when the office can’t find the schedule of a kid.”

A sign of a good middle school is when the office can’t find the schedule of a kid.

At Canton, the team is everything. There are two within each of the school’s two “houses.” Each house has a principal and each team eight teachers, including two special education teachers and a parent who serves as a full-time substitute. A team is responsible for 185 students, and it remains with those same youngsters for all three middle school years. The members of each teacher team meet daily to determine scheduling and how to address the needs of individual students.

“If you don’t have team planning every day, then you’re not a real middle school,” Spilman says in his aphoristic manner.

Team leader and social studies teacher Patrick Mogge came to Canton from a Chicago middle school where, he says, kids dropped out on account of many of the same problems that plague Canton students—family crises, substance abuse, economic stress. But at Canton, he’s found that team vigilance keeps students from getting lost.

“In Chicago, I had five different classes of kids, and you lost track of them the minute they left your class. Here, though, we know what’s going on with each kid, and the team together decides how to address problems, whether it be acting out in class or trouble with reading.”

When Spilman arrived at Canton in 1989 from the central office, where he had been associate superintendent for curriculum development, the staff he inherited had been on a long losing streak. Test scores were among the lowest in the city, and students roamed the hallways all day. Teachers put in their hours and fled. Spilman quickly realized that the demoralized faculty could not be turned around.

“If you’re in a prison cell for five years, you begin to develop a prisoner’s consciousness,” Spilman says. “A survival mentality takes over in which you just hope to get through the day. That’s exactly what happened here, and so a lot of teachers had to move on. If you get the right personnel, you can pull the wagon. But a lot of principals make the mistake of loading the wagon and then hoping that someone can pull it.”

The “wagon” Spilman wanted to pull was middle school reform. Essentially, that meant implementing the reform agenda outlined in an influential 1989 report by the Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development titled Turning Points: Preparing American Youth for the 21st Century. Carnegie’s reform plan was organized around eight “essential principles” that furthered the middle school movement’s early emphasis on creating a more humane learning environment. Three of the principles are central to Canton’s own reform effort: that large middle schools be divided into small learning groups, that they transmit “a core of common knowledge to all students,” and that they employ teachers specifically prepared to teach young adolescents.

Recruiting the right kind of teacher has been key to making these reforms work at Canton.

Recruiting the right kind of teacher has been key to making these reforms work at Canton. As veteran teachers retired or transferred to different schools—only six teachers are left from 1990—Spilman sought new hires who wanted to work together in the small, closely knit communities that are at the heart of the middle school model. And he has looked for those who could “teach up,” that is, those who could bring an elementary school sensibility to middle-level education. “Middle schools brought a high school mentality into their schools, and that was a big mistake,” Spilman says. “I’d much rather have teachers certified in elementary than in secondary education because they’re more comfortable dealing with the whole kid.”

On recruiting trips up and down the East Coast, Spilman also tries to find young college graduates with some understanding of the urban experience. In this, he meets with mixed success. “Nothing, absolutely nothing, can fully prepare you for the experience of teaching at an urban school,” he says. “Just imagine the situation you find yourself in. You’re supposed to teach children so that they can meet certain academic standards, and then you discover that your students are lacking all kinds of skills, in addition to carrying certain kinds of emotional baggage. The new teacher, no matter how committed and primed she may be, somehow expects suburban kids.”

Although Spilman is all too aware of the discomfort young teachers face at an urban school like Canton, he nevertheless prefers them to tired veterans. “It’s a lot easier to develop new talent than to remake old talent,” he says. “So we’ve gone after people who are open to flying to Egypt tonight and bargaining at the market in Cairo. People like that are going to be fast learners, to take leadership upon themselves.”

Although getting the right teachers was important, Spilman thought more had to be done. In 1994, three years after he divided the school into houses and created teacher teams, he made a couple of bold, controversial moves to ensure that Canton would follow the Carnegie plan and transmit “a core of common knowledge to all students.” First, he moved the school’s 100 special education students into regular classrooms. The teachers didn’t like the idea. Special education teachers felt territorial; they did not want to give up their self-contained classrooms. The others worried that these “different kids” would be disruptive.

Eventually, the teachers agreed to the experiment when Spilman secured a grant to reduce class sizes from more than 40 students to about 30. With smaller numbers of students, the teachers believed they could maintain control. Now, Spilman says, “You can’t always tell who the special ed students are in a classroom.”

Spilman persuaded the faculty to agree to the elimination of ability grouping and, even more startling, grade levels.

On the heels of this change, Spilman implemented even more dramatic reforms. He persuaded the faculty to agree to the elimination of ability grouping and, even more startling, grade levels. Eleven-year-olds sit in classrooms next to kids who are 13, and all students—6th graders through 8th—get the same curriculum, with the single exception of math. Topics are taught in three-year cycles, so no child studies the same material twice.

To Spilman, this radical approach is the only thing that makes sense with middle school students. “It has long been obvious to me that grade levels are meaningless at this age—it just doesn’t matter that much if kids are 10 or 13. An 11-year-old kid may knock the socks off an algebra test or write a hell of an essay, while a 13-year-old may be struggling with reading.

“Besides, eliminating grade levels gets rid of the 8th grade problem,” Spilman says, flashing an impish grin. “Eighth graders can be a load to deal with when they’re all in the same class. Break them up, and the problems dissipate. It’s a case of divide and conquer.”

Despite all this progressive change, Canton retains a traditionalist streak, particularly when it comes to discipline. As its faculty never tires of reminding you, Canton remains an urban middle school with its share of tough, troubled kids. Maintaining classroom order is crucial, Spilman says.

“We want teachers to over-manage in the beginning. We tell them that you can’t be pals right off or they’ll chew you up. Later, once you have their respect, the whole world opens up.”

Canton teachers are encouraged to be all business, a disposition reflected in the list of rules prominently displayed in each classroom: “Do not interrupt while others are talking"; “No fighting, swearing, or teasing"; “Raise your hand before responding"; and “Sit in your assigned seat.” In some classrooms, there are wall charts blanketed with stars and checks; students get bonus points and demerits for good and bad behavior.

“These are not polite suburban kids,” one teacher says. “They need to be told very explicitly what constitutes acceptable and unacceptable behavior. A lot of them don’t know the social norms.”

Occasionally, teachers take a few minutes of class time to give their students minilessons in deportment. In a language arts class, for example, a teacher briefly halts a punctuation lesson to give his distracted students a primer in what he calls “the steps to show listening.”

“First, look at me,” he tells a group of students. “Now, keep your hands free and point a knee in my direction. There, now you’re listening.” Later, he breaks up a ruckus between two students with a short lecture on the importance of good conduct, after which he has the youngsters shake hands.

The teaching in this classroom, as in many of the others, features a lot of direct instruction— another vestige of the traditional junior high school.

The teaching in this classroom, as in many of the others, features a lot of direct instruction—another vestige of the traditional junior high school. Teachers frequently stand at the front of the room, talking students through math problems, sentence structure, or photosynthesis.

In a science class on classification, teacher Jimmy Tadlock hovers over an overhead projector, helping students slot rye, butter, cream, and other food products under the group headings “Dairy,” “Bread,” and “Poultry.” Then he shifts to a fill-in-the-blank exercise: “What is nomenclature?” “What is a binomial?” “Give an example of a genus name.”

The class is disciplined, and the responses come fast and furious. But that doesn’t mean that the material covered is going to stick, as the teacher himself acknowledges over lunch. “I get frustrated,” says Tadlock, a soft-spoken African American who came to Canton after a career as a naval intelligence officer. “They don’t remember the information they’ve learned in the past. For instance, they couldn’t remember the periodic table from a year ago. And while they do know some things, like what a hypothesis is, they can’t relate it to the real world. All they know is the textbook definition.”

Tadlock is particularly concerned about his students’ difficulties with conceptualizing. Once, he had his students make paper shoes of different kinds and sizes as part of a classification lesson, but a lot of them couldn’t get past the first cut. “They have a lot of trouble with abstraction,” he says, “and a lot them needed me to tell them they were doing OK every step of the way. It’s the same with the Internet. It’s hard for them to use it as a tool. If what they’re looking for is not on the ‘page’ right before them, they’re lost.”

But for all of his hand-wringing, Tadlock says he’s made progress with these students, in part because he’s had many of them for three years. “I push them so hard that they cringe, but they’ll work hard for me now.”

Tadlock and the rest of the Canton faculty are trying to improve their students’ conceptual thinking by giving them more complex problem-solving tasks. “We need to hit different modalities of learning—to involve them in projects that get them to move, touch, feel, smell,” says Patrick Mogge. “Textbook learning just won’t do it for them.”

Canton teachers recognize that maintaining order and emphasizing the basics are necessary first steps, but they also believe that they need to do more to promote the development of intellectual skills. Although Canton’s test scores have jumped dramatically over the past few years, the increase has come on basic-skills exams that do not assess higher-order thinking. On a statewide assessment that involves a lot more problem-solving, only 17.5 percent of Canton 8th graders performed at the satisfactory level last year. Although better than many other Baltimore schools and a dramatic improvement over Canton’s 6.4 percent showing in 1993, the results are certainly nothing to brag about.

“We had to address the culture of the school first, building the infrastructure,” Spilman says. “Curriculum could not be our priority in the beginning, but it’s our biggest priority now.”

Canton has implemented an expeditionary-learning program promoted by New American Schools, a national reform project.

This year, in an attempt to introduce more challenging, hands-on work, Canton has implemented an expeditionary-learning program promoted by New American Schools, a national reform project. Essentially, an expedition is a complex investigation into a real-world situation. In a social studies expedition called “American Can,” students pay several visits to an old Baltimore cannery that is being converted into a shopping mall and meet with the architects, designers, and developers. The expedition culminates with the students surveying the community to see what stores and services area residents want in the new complex. They then send their recommendations to the developer along with a detailed floor plan of the site.

Canton students take four expeditions over the course of a school year. The other three projects this year are: “What Is a Metropolis?” in which students design and build a model city; “Ethnic Diversity in the Canton Community,” which features a dramatization of the immigration process at Ellis Island; and “What Does It Mean To Be Green?” a study of plants that includes fieldwork at parks and nature conservatories.

The expedition classrooms are busy, noisy, and productive places. The Metropolis classroom is set up like an architectural firm, with teacher Sarah Karlinsky acting as the chief partner. The students are just beginning the unit, and Karlinsky asks them to draw a bird’s-eye view of their desks to scale.

“What’s a bird’s-eye view?” a student asks.

“It’s like how things look from an airplane,” someone answers.

“I’ve never been on no airplane,” the first student says.

Some find the drawing surprisingly difficult. They are not accustomed to this kind of conceptualizing. One kid transposes a pencil holder from the left side of the desk to the right; another draws a pencil the size of a hat pin. But eventually, with the assistance of Karlinsky and classmates, everyone gets it right.

For homework, Karlinsky asks the students to draw their kitchen tables to scale. Eventually, she will ask them to do a scaled drawing of a city.

“They’ll have to know the difference between commercial and residential construction and learn how to see things in three dimensions instead of just two,” Karlinsky says after class. “And they’ll have to be able to use some math to calculate area and perimeter. It’s hard for some of them, but it gives those who have trouble with reading a chance to express their skills with drawing and drafting.”

Karlinsky opens the door to a room where a completed Metropolis model city is stored. The cardboard houses and buildings are a bit ramshackled, and some lean to one side, but it’s a city all right—a city perhaps not all that different from the one in which the students live.

In the final analysis, a middle school’s success must be judged on the academic achievement of its students. Placing special ed kids in the regular classroom, eliminating ability grouping, freeing teachers to develop their own philosophies and approaches, and teaming them long-term with groups of students—these are important only to the extent that they promote learning.

In the final analysis, a middle school’s success must be judged on the academic achievement of its students.

“In the early years, the middle school movement was affective, too affective,” Spilman says. “There was too much talk about making kids feel good and not enough talk about curriculum and standards. We’re changing that.”

Johnston of the University of South Florida points out that middle-grades reform has its roots in humanistic psychology. “And it’s a valuable thing, too,” he adds. “Basically, it says that kids develop at their own pace and that if you screw it up too much you’ll have trouble. But this idea was sometimes carried to the extreme, and too many middle schools wrapped themselves in the banner of ‘helping children grow,’ neglecting the fact that the public holds educators accountable for achievement.”

The Long Beach, California, school district, which is nationally known for its middle schools, has avoided this pitfall. Some eight years ago, the district began teaming middle school students and teachers. It also rewrote the middle school curriculum and adopted school uniforms. But it wasn’t until the school system implemented academic standards four years ago that student achievement began to turn around, says Kristi Kahl, a district spokeswoman.

“Standards have really driven change rather than the prevalent idea that you have to create something that looks like a middle school,” Kahl says. “Teaming won’t do it nor will uniforms and portfolio assessments. Frankly, you could have a school that still looks like a traditional junior high, and if the kids are meeting standards you must be doing something right.”

Canton Middle School is clearly doing something right. Test scores are rising, suspensions are falling, and students are being asked to meet standards for the first time. But unlike Kahl, most Canton teachers insist that none of this could have been accomplished if the school had continued to look like a traditional junior high.

“We nurture kids for three years,” says LeJerne Cornish, principal of one of Canton’s two houses. “In some cases, we mother and father them. We stay on top of kids who are having problems or are not working up to par. We find out what’s bothering them and take steps to help. That’s why this school works.”

A version of this article appeared in the February 01, 1998 edition of Teacher as Coming of Age

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