School & District Management

Muddle in the Middle

By Ann Bradley — April 15, 1998 19 min read
The middle school model has come under attack for supplanting academic rigor with a focus on students’ social, emotional, and physical needs.

Ellicott City, Md.

Wander down the inviting hallways of Patuxent Valley Middle School on a typical Monday morning and pop into any classroom. Students are reading aloud the fraction-laden short stories they’ve written for math class. Giggling as they prepare to present colorful handmade posters describing African nations. Moving from station to station in an English class, preparing presentations on the book The Witch of Blackbird Pond. Taking notes from a televised computer program to try to detect the location of a “mystery probe” lost in the solar system.

Sylvester Burke, the principal of this Howard County, Md., school, exudes quiet pride at the busy, engaged students and academic focus of the classes. They are the result of a new schedule and lots of hard work. But he also knows that his school--like the 14 other middle schools in the 40,000-student county district--has a long way to go to polish its image in the larger community.

Middle schools are under the gun even in Howard County--a pioneer in the 30-year-old middle school movement and arguably the best public school system in Maryland. Like Patuxent Valley, many Howard County middle schools are now in the midst of making changes to address a harsh 1996 evaluation, in which a citizens’ review committee firmly rejected many of the core tenets of the contemporary middle school.

“Overemphasis on the social, emotional, and physical needs of the middle school student has led to neglect of academic competencies,” the report charged. “The result is a school system with vague academic expectations and complacency in the middle school years.”

Howard County educators, still licking their wounds over the report’s stern tone, have plenty of company. Middle schools these days seem to attract nothing but complaints. Headlines from newspapers across America trumpet poor test scores and discipline problems in middle schools. In New York City, the deputy chancellor for instruction, Judith Rizzo, recently dubbed them “funny little entities.”

In their new book, Standards for our Schools: How to Set Them, Measure Them, and Reach Them, Marc S. Tucker and Judy B. Codding label middle schools “the wasteland of our primary and secondary landscape.” They call for creating small, neighborhood-based K-8 schools instead.

The Southern Regional Education Board, in a report issued last month, concluded that middle schools are a “weak link” both nationally and in the 15 Southern states that are the focus of the board’s work.

Reformers often cite the results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress and the Third International Mathematics and Science Study to back up their claims that middle schools don’t measure up. The SREB report notes that nationally, 39 percent of the 8th graders who took the 1996 NAEP math test scored below the “basic” level. The scores were even worse in the South: Nearly 50 percent of the students tested there fell below “basic.”

On the international study, 13-year-olds perform less well as a group than 9-year-olds. U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley recently called the disappointing results, compared with 4th graders’ scores, the result of “drift in the middle years.” An alliance of leading education groups has made beefing up middle school mathematics to include introductory algebra and geometry a top priority, arguing that the middle school curriculum is unfocused.

As states put in place more rigorous high school graduation requirements, middle schools face increasing pressure from above.

As states put in place more-rigorous high school graduation requirements, middle schools face increasing pressure from above. State tests, like their national and international counterparts, often find lagging 8th grade performance. In Kentucky, with its high-stakes accountability system, a committee is now trying to determine why middle schoolers’ performance trails that of elementary and high school students. In Minnesota, officials have been disappointed by 8th graders’ scores on basic-skills tests as the state moves to new graduation requirements aimed at higher levels of knowledge and skill.

Eighth grade, in fact, has become the most tested of all the grades, according to the National Middle School Association, based in Columbus, Ohio. Districts increasingly are raising the standards for promotion to high school, holding back 8th graders who earn poor grades or score low on standardized tests.

A majority of middle-grades teachers, meanwhile, were prepared either to teach elementary or high school. Most were licensed to teach elementary school, leaving them unprepared to handle more-complex academic content. States, though, are creating middle school licenses.

At least one district is throwing in the towel. The 48,000-student Cincinnati school system is phasing out middle schools entirely, in favor of K-8 schools. Poor student discipline, attendance, and achievement were overriding factors in the decision. Middle schools suspend students at the rate of 79.7 per 100 students, says Monica Solomon, the district’s spokeswoman. That figure for the 1996-97 school year--which includes multiple suspensions for some students--compared with 12.3 per 100 students in K-8 buildings.

The southwestern Ohio district also faced a “large exodus” of students to private and parochial schools after 5th grade, she says, and is eager to create schools that can keep middle class families in public schools.

While there is no single explanation for the disappointing performance of young adolescents, one thing is clear: The middle school movement is on the defensive. Its emphasis has been squarely on creating nurturing environments for 10- to 14-year-olds, who often floundered in junior versions of high schools. Middle schools, which typically serve students in grades 6-8, are strongly associated with child-oriented terms like “developmentally appropriate” and with structural reforms such as teaching teams, interdisciplinary instruction, and advisory periods.

The movement is slowly coming to terms with the need to pay more attention to student achievement. The trick today is not simply to create middle schools, but to get results.

Two prominent middle school researchers have argued that one problem is the movement’s “shroud of orthodoxy” and need to conform to “an established doctrine.”

“Educators became obsessed with finding the right program, the one correct curriculum, the appropriate team arrangement, and the correct block schedule,” Ronald D. Williamson, an assistant professor of educational leadership at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, and J. Howard Johnston, a professor of education at the University of South Florida in Tampa, wrote in a 1996 paper. That outlook, they argued, “distracted educators from focusing on the needs of students in their own school.”

Some also fault middle schools’ emphasis on the developmental characteristics of young adolescents--their growth spurts, forgetfulness, disorganization, fear of failure, moodiness, and attachment to their peers--as providing an excuse not to teach them very much.

Parents had complained about middle schools for at least a decade before the superintendent and school board launched the review.

“Either the middle school movement overemphasized the affective and developmental, or their message was seriously misunderstood by practitioners in the field,” concludes M. Hayes Mizell, the director of the program for student achievement at the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation in New York City.

The foundation is a major force in middle-grades reform and is now working with middle schools in Corpus Christi, Texas; Long Beach, Calif.; Louisville, Ky.; and San Diego. All the projects are centered around clear achievement standards for students--which Mizell argues is the missing ingredient in far too many districts.

“I just kept having experience after experience where middle school educators would talk about the uniqueness of the kids or their caring for the kids,” he says, “but where you got no impression as to where kids were supposed to come out, in terms of what they know and can do.”

Here in Howard County, a mostly middle-class, suburban district midway between Washington and Baltimore, parents had complained about middle schools for at least a decade before the superintendent and school board launched the review. “I’ve been here 14 years,” says Superintendent Michael E. Hickey, “and off and on, the middle school kettle threatened to bubble over. There needed to be a real visceral, fundamental evaluation.”

That is just what the district got.

After 18 months of work--including a review of curriculum guidelines and achievement data, visits to every middle school, interviews with administrators, and surveys of parents, teachers, students, and administrators--the review committee called for a thorough overhaul of middle schools. Over that time, its membership dwindled from 41 people to just 16, as time constraints and tension among committee members took their toll. In a parallel process, meanwhile, two outside consultants looked at the same data and prepared their own report.

The residents’ conclusions echo many of the complaints and concerns that are swirling around middle schools nationally. Parents condemned the emphasis on self-esteem woven throughout the county’s formal philosophy for educating 6th through 8th graders. (It has since been scrapped.) They called for the elimination of the “Exploratory” program, an ill-defined period in the school day used for advisories, tutorials, guidance, remediation, test preparation, and completion of the state’s service-learning graduation requirements.

Instead, committee members recommended more time for core academic courses. They called for the district to establish “objective standards” to be used to judge whether students have mastered grade-level material, for students’ grades to reflect that information, for the reintroduction of previously discredited honor rolls, and for core academic classes to be organized according to students’ ability levels.

The committee took a dim view of the county’s generally heterogeneous classes, arguing that both gifted students and those needing remediation were getting short shrift and that teachers had never been trained to group an academically mixed population for instruction. To address less-than-stellar reading scores on Maryland’s school performance assessments, the committee urged that all middle schoolers take a separate class in reading, in addition to their regular English classes.

Members take pains to point out that the report was based not just on their views, but on those of 475 middle school teachers and 215 9th grade teachers. Repeatedly, middle school teachers complained that students thought school and grades didn’t matter.

“Many believe it is a playtime and doesn’t count because so many extra activities hold no accountability for the students,” one teacher was quoted as saying.

“Many students learn quickly that they do not have to do well academically in order to pass middle school,” said another.

Committee members were troubled to learn that while just 13 middle schoolers were retained in their current grades during the 1994-95 school year, 191 students were held back after 9th grade that year. Nearly two-thirds of the 9th grade teachers surveyed said students weren’t prepared to do high school work.

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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A version of this article appeared in the April 15, 1998 edition of Education Week as Muddle in the Middle


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