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December 06, 2000 8 min read

I applaud your recent special supplement on the challenges and possibilities of middle-grades education (“Middle Grades: Feeling the Squeeze,” Oct. 4, 2000). You provided administrators, teachers, and parents with a great deal of information on the history of middle-grades reform, current tensions and struggles, and promising practices.

To the Editor:

I applaud your recent special supplement on the challenges and possibilities of middle-grades education (“Middle Grades: Feeling the Squeeze,” Oct. 4, 2000). You provided administrators, teachers, and parents with a great deal of information on the history of middle-grades reform, current tensions and struggles, and promising practices.

Sixteen people interviewed for the supplement are members of the National Forum to Accelerate Middle-Grades Reform, a group of about 45 individuals dedicated to making high-performing middle-grades schools the norm across this country. Collectively, we have a wealth of experience in middle-level education. For the past three years, we have been working together to accelerate learning and foster the healthy development of middle-grades youngsters nationwide. As the facilitator of the national forum, I feel it necessary to clarify some important messages about middle-grades education that may be misunderstood by readers or obscured by your use of phrases like “feeling the squeeze” and the “weak link.”

First, the forum’s vision of high-performing middle-grades schools represents a continuation and elaboration of previous middle-grades reform efforts. Neither our work nor the recently published “Turning Points 2000" should be interpreted as a pendulum swing back to the failed junior high school model that preceded the modern middle-grades reform movement. According to the forum, high-performing middle-grades schools are characterized by three elements: academic excellence, developmental responsiveness, and social equity—and we view these elements as inextricably linked. We envision schools where (1) all students learn to use their minds well; (2) the standards are high for all students; (3) high-quality teaching and challenging classes are offered to every child, along with extra help and supports for those who need them; and (4) the unique challenges faced by young adolescents are respected, and attending to such needs is not outside the school’s purview.

Second, the forum’s message is not a message of failure, but of hope. We know that such schools are possible. Two schools featured in your supplement were selected by the national forum as “Schools to Watch": Barren County Middle School in Glasgow, Ky., and Freeport Intermediate School in Freeport, Texas. Other forum schools to watch include Thurgood Marshall Middle School in Chicago and Jefferson Middle School in Champaign, Ill. But many more such schools exist. Middle-grades schools in North Carolina and Texas, for example, have shown dramatic improvement on statewide assessments over the past several years. Schools in Long Beach, Calif., and San Diego have made considerable progress as part of the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation’s Program for Student Achievement. And schools participating in Michigan Middle Start, sponsored by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and the Middle-Grades State Systemic Policy Initiative, funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, have all demonstrated marked improvements. Most important is that the more these schools reflect the forum’s vision of high performance, the better their student outcomes.

Third, the national forum purposely uses the phrase “middle grades” reform in our title rather than “middle school” reform. It’s not the grade structure that makes a school a positive learning environment for young adolescents, it’s what goes on within the school community. “Middle-grades schools” refers to any school with two contiguous grades including grade 7. A K-8 school can be a high-performing middle-grades school, if it integrates all three elements of our vision. Similarly, a 5-8, 6-8, 7-9, or 6-9 school can also be effective in meeting the needs of young adolescents. High performance can be achieved in any grade configuration, so let’s not get distracted by changing grade configurations. Rather, let’s make all middle-grades schools high-performing.

Finally, we know what it takes to create high-performing middle-grades schools. In such schools, everyone in the school community is inspired by a shared vision of excellence. The school has a team that leads its improvement effort, but learning is everyone’s job: The principal spends a part of every day visiting classrooms and providing feedback, teachers work in small groups to look at student work and discuss improving their practice, and parents are actively engaged in their children’s learning. Teachers participate in ongoing professional development that increases their knowledge and skills. The school is part of a larger learning community. It collaborates with parents, community groups, businesses, colleges, and universities, while also linking with networks of educators. Finally, the school holds itself accountable and constantly checks on its progress in making the vision real.

With these ideas in mind, we issue a call to action: We urge every middle-grades school to develop a vision of excellence and create the structures and processes that lead to continuous improvement. For those readers who would like to see the forum’s vision and criteria for high performance in their entirety, I encourage them to turn to www.mgforum.org.

Nancy Ames

Facilitator

National Forum to Accelerate Middle-Grades Reform

Education Development Center Inc.

Newton, Mass.

To the Editor:

I appreciate your editorial focus on middle schools, and am grateful none of my own children attended one. How did education’s emphasis evolve from challenging students to coddling them?

The middle school movement grew in the 1980s, emphasizing students’ emotional and social needs, self-esteem, and a cooperative learning environment. Educrats who pushed for these “reforms” argued that students who feel good about themselves perform better academically. It should be noted that this was the same era in which phonics disappeared from reading instruction, and fuzzy discovery math replaced programs based on sequenced skills and concepts.

Somehow, the line between elementary and secondary teachers was blurred. Today’s middle schools are filled with elementary-credentialed teachers who, a few decades ago, would not have been permitted in classrooms beyond grade 6. I cannot comprehend how that occurred—did nobody grasp the consequences? But the results are clear. The rigorous academics of traditional junior high grades 7 and 8 have been diluted in middle schools staffed by elementary teachers.

No blame is directed at teachers, who serve at the discretion of educrats. Teachers have the least input of any group in our education system, now being comandeered by politicians, publishers, and business leaders. Blaming teachers when students fail to reach test-based standards, despite factors beyond their control, further erodes teacher morale and effectiveness.

It is the curricular content in middle schools that has diluted academic achievement, and that is also beyond the control of teachers. Your article “Algebra Benefits All Students, Study Finds” (Nov. 15, 2000) states: “Some experts have called for supplanting elementary and middle school math programs, which tend to focus on basic math skills, with a curriculum that builds algebraic-reasoning skills.” What an idea!

Middle schools, in which elementary teachers predominate, offer an extended elementary school curriculum. Traditional junior high schools, taught by teachers qualified for high school courses, taught content that prepared students for success in those high school courses. They were part of a curricular continuum. Algebra offers a perfect example.

During the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s, junior high students studied rigorous pre-algebra courses prior to taking algebra. When the feel-good, discovery-math era arrived in 1989, courtesy of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics standards, pre-algebra textbooks and courses were often deleted. This was the era of middle schools, and rigorous pre-algebra was perhaps considered too challenging for students with fragile self-esteem. Further, elementary teachers were not always comfortable teaching algebra.

Today, all over America, bright, capable students begin high school by taking a 9th grade algebra course for which they are totally unprepared. Your article states that “some math educators argue the traditional algebra course—offered in 8th or 9th grade without providing students with the prerequisite foundation in algebraic thinking—only sets students up for failure.”

Actually, it is more than “algebraic thinking” that is missing. There is a whole foundation of math skills and concepts necessary for success in algebra. Pre-algebra courses taught integers and exponents, solving multistep equations and inequalities, a geometry unit, and graphing linear equations, along with mastery of fractions, decimals, percents, and various approaches to problem-solving.

Middle schools have lost that continuum of rigorous content, duly diluted to meet mandates for emotional and social well-being. There is little or no communication between middle school and high school teachers, crucial in cumulative subjects like mathematics and to students’ success and well-being. How do students fare when they meet failure in high school courses for which they are unprepared? Did the educrats foresee the ripple effect of their “reforms”?

Another article, “Middle School Students ‘Gear Up’ for College” (Nov. 8, 2000), shows the muddle we are in. Too many middle school students are not focused on, nor preparing for, college. Hence, Gear Up is a national effort directed at middle schools and determined “to promote rigorous, college-bound coursework and to increase college awareness.”

The problem is that middle schools have an elementary school atmosphere, not the traditional secondary school rigor that focused on preparation for college and adulthood.

Betty Raskoff Kazmin

Willard, Ohio

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A version of this article appeared in the December 06, 2000 edition of Education Week as Letters

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