Special Report
School & District Management

The Weak Link

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo & Ann Bradley — October 04, 2000 19 min read
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The middle grades are feeling the squeeze. For the past 30 years—and with particular intensity since the late 1980s—educators have labored to create distinctive middle schools, whose mission is to attend to young adolescents’ social, emotional, and physical needs as well as their intellectual development.

Yet, both proponents of the middle school model and critics of the approach recognize that too many such schools have failed to find their academic way. Instead, the original concept has been undermined by ill-prepared teachers guided by ill-defined curricula.

Middle-level education is now squarely on the defensive. The standards and accountability movement is placing unprecedented demands on the middle grades, typically 6-8. So far, middle schools don’t have much to boast about when it comes to student achievement.

The spotlight has been particularly harsh since 1996, when the Third International Mathematics and Science Study was released. While U.S. elementary students scored above average, middle and high school students’ scores lagged. The study faulted the American curriculum for being “a mile wide and an inch deep.” The National Assessment of Educational Progress and most state tests reveal similar patterns, with minority students tending to fare even worse.

“The middle school is the crux of the whole problem and really the point where we begin to lose it,” says William H. Schmidt, a professor of education at Michigan State University and the U.S. research coordinator for TIMSS. “In math and science, the middle grades are an intellectual wasteland.”

The international study has fueled comparisons of U.S. curricula with those of other nations. Societies abroad typically expect their young adolescents to begin to learn much more complex topics at earlier ages—and get results.

“In other countries,” says Kati Haycock, the director of the Education Trust, a Washington organization that advocates high academic achievement for all students, “kids have the same hormones, but there’s much more expected in terms of intellectual activity. This is a school attitude, but it’s also a general American attitude that will take some effort to turn around.”

It is not just increased testing, in itself, that is stoking attention to achievement in the middle grades. States and districts are putting policies into place that clearly hold students accountable for their school performance. Rules designed to end the social promotion of academically unready students, for example, are sending thousands of 8th graders to summer school. Students face higher hurdles, including more advanced coursework and testing, to earn high school diplomas.

Middle grades are under pressure to produce, but are undermined by unprepared teachers and ill-defined curricula.

And the middle grades increasingly are seen as a time for encouraging students to think about going to college—the focus of the federal government’s new GEAR UP program—and to take the rigorous classes that will prepare them.

“Parents are getting more scared about high school graduation and college entrance and entry-level work, no matter where parents are on the socioeconomic spectrum,” says Patrick Montesano, the president of the Academy for Educational Development, a New York City-based organization that works with middle schools in several states. “Therefore, there’s more pressure on the middle grades.”

This Education Week special report, underwritten by the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, examines some of the barriers and possibilities for middle-grades improvement.

Beyond Structure

The achievement gap is most acute for poor and minority students, for whom the middle years are a “make it or break it” time to acquire the skills necessary to graduate from high school, says M. Hayes Mizell, the director of the program on student achievement at the Clark Foundation.

The middle school is the crux of the whole problem. In math and science, the middle grades are an intellectual wasteland.

Since 1989, the foundation has poured $51 million into urban middle-grades reform, through grants to districts and a wide range of related work. Beginning in 1994, the New York City-based foundation specifically linked its efforts to standards, asking districts to set specific goals for the proportion of students who would meet challenging standards by 2001.

Mizell is blunt about his frustration with the pace of change, saying the education of young adolescents is threatened by low expectations, ineffective instruction and leadership, and schools that resist reform.

In addition, he says, the middle grades continue to be plagued by “not-yet-resolved tensions” between those who argue for an academic focus and those who believe middle schools should attend primarily to students’ psychological, emotional, and social needs.

“People seem not to be able to hold those two concepts in their minds and in their practice simultaneously,” Mizell says. “I am absolutely convinced— as a parent and as an observer with some real lessons under my belt personally— that you have to pay attention to both of those things.”

The Clark Foundation, now working in San Diego and Long Beach, Calif., and Corpus Christi, Texas, discontinued funding for middle-grades work in Chattanooga, Tenn.; Louisville, Ky.; and Minneapolis, when those districts, for different reasons, were unable to get the job done.

The League of Women Voters of Minneapolis, which has a grant from the foundation to try to mobilize grassroots efforts to improve the middle grades, examined the city’s middle schools in a 1998 study. Using surveys and “shadowing” students in the 23 schools that serve grades 6 through 8, the researchers found “high levels of student disengagement.”

“Students tended to spend most of their time listening to teacher presentations, receiving directions, participating in class discussions, and doing worksheets,” the league’s report says. “Sixth and 7th graders spent about one-quarter of their time doing worksheets, 8th graders about one-fifth.”

Despite his frustrations, Mizell recognizes one beneficial result of the focus on the middle level: Educators are now willing to say “middle school” and “reform” in the same breath, instead of viewing the mere creation of middle schools as an end in itself. What’s more, a new body of knowledge about what practices and programs have proved effective with middle school youngsters has emerged, he adds, although many educators don’t make use of what is known.

“Until we can agree on the purpose and desired result of middle-level education and seek and use the readily available knowledge to achieve it, we will continue to focus on the challenges rather than the accomplishments of middle-level schools,” Mizell told a group of educators in Washington this past summer.

Educators have expended considerable time and energy to create middle schools, which typically feature teams of teachers, interdisciplinary curricula, advisory periods for adults to be available to students, and longer class periods. The accountability movement is now forcing administrators and teachers to re-evaluate where they are channeling their energies, says Gayle A. Davis, the co-author of a forthcoming book on middle- level education.

“The pressure is making people take a second look and ask, ‘Are we emphasizing the right thing?’” Davis says. “Though structural changes like teaming and site-based management are necessary, they’re not sufficient.”

At the local level, districts are moving to beef up academic programs in the middle grades or to eliminate middle schools altogether in hopes of raising achievement.

The TIMSS faulted the American curriculum for being ‘a mile wide and an inch deep.'

“The middle school movement was born out of the belief that there needed to be a balanced program” between academics and social and emotional issues, says Peter Hamilton, the middle school director of the 54,000-student Portland, Ore., district. “Our society in some ways has changed its value system and wants much more measurable academic growth in the content areas.”

In response, the Portland system over the past two years has trained 250 middle school language arts teachers in specific strategies for reading instruction, Hamilton notes. The district also adopted a new mathematics program, Connected Math, and is trying to hire more math specialists for the middle grades.

In other districts, school boards are moving away from middle schools. Cincinnati converted its schools to K-8 buildings in response to widespread disciplinary problems and poor achievement at the middle level. Although students’ conduct has improved, officials say test scores have not.

Other cities considering taking similar steps include Baltimore, Cleveland, Dover, Del., and Pittsburgh.

Shifting Expectations

Some of the muddle over middle schools is a legacy of their history.

Over the past 30 years, schools serving students in grades 6 through 8 have gradually replaced the 7th through 9th grade junior high schools. Along with the shift came an educational philosophy built around the distinct needs of young adolescents. But because the concept originated as districts were rushing to relieve elementary overcrowding caused by the post-World War II baby boom, the configuration of grades in a building was dictated as much by convenience and cost as by an educational rationale.

In 1973, there were 2,300 public middle schools and nearly 8,000 public junior high schools, which typically included 9th grade, according to the National Middle School Association. Today, the nation has 16,000 middle schools and 2,000 junior highs.

In imitating the academic focus and short class periods of high schools, junior highs failed to reach students who were preoccupied by a range of personal concerns—a deficit that helped give rise to the middle school movement.

Joan Lipsitz, a consultant to the Boston-based Education Development Center and a longtime middle school reformer, recalls the frustration of teaching in a junior high: “The kids’ physical energies were overwhelming, and our attempts to keep them quiet and still were draining them of their motivation. We were creating discipline problems by not appealing to their interests, by trying to keep them physically confined, and by ignoring what we saw as static in their heads, but was real life for them.”

Indeed, students’ real-life concerns became a central focus for middle-grades educators. In 1982, the National Middle School Association’s “This We Believe” manifesto asserted that middle schools’ curriculum should “carefully balance” academic goals and other human- development needs. “While societal expectations are important and tradition ought not be ignored,” it said, “a true middle school curriculum will actually be based largely on student needs.”

By 1995, as the drumbeat for school improvement continued, the association’s new statement called for high expectations for all students and noted that young adolescents are “capable of far more than adults often assume.”

Middle-level educators are simultaneously frustrated with society’s attitudes toward young adolescents and pressured by demands that youngsters going through such profound developmental changes demonstrate higher academic achievement.

People in the U.S. are afraid of this age group, because they are going through tremendous changes.

“Most people in the United States do not want to deal on a personal level with middle school kids,” contends Barbara L. Brodhagen, who teaches at Sherman Middle School in Madison, Wis. “They ban them from walking through the mall in groups. They are afraid of this age group, because they are going through tremendous changes.”

“We’re trying to educate these kids while we’re trying to help them through puberty,” says Brodhagen. “Some days, that’s a pretty tall order.”

‘Little Has Changed’

Despite the late 1990s’ nod toward academics, the middle school movement continues to be plagued by unclear goals for students. As James E. Bottoms, the senior vice president of the Atlanta-based Southern Regional Education Board, puts it: “I get a sense that ‘developmentally appropriate’ has become a kind of excuse not to teach some youth challenging content.”

Few middle-level educators, he maintains, identify preparing young people to succeed in high schools as a goal, when it clearly should be their primary purpose. And most, he says, don’t coordinate closely with the local high schools to ensure that happens.

Still, middle-level educators insist they’ve gotten the message—loud and clear—that grades 6 to 8 must be a time of intellectual growth.

We have had a watered-down curriculum for middle grades. That's a terrible disservice to kids who are exploring like crazy and intellectually capable of really pushing the limits.

“There is a much more laserlike focus among middle school educators to focus on achievement, not at the expense of social and emotional development, but in conjunction with,” says Anthony W. Jackson, who served on the staff of the Carnegie Corporation of New York’s council on adolescent development. In 1989, the panel published “Turning Points: Preparing American Youth for the 21st Century,” which argued for distinctive schools for middle-grades students.

“Now, the issue is how to make that happen in schools across the country,” says Jackson, whose new Carnegie- sponsored report, “Turning Points 2000: Educating Adolescents in the 21st Century,” written with Gayle Davis, will be published next month.

In the new report, the authors say that structural changes in middle-grades education have been “fairly widespread.” But “relatively little has changed at the core of most students’ school experience: curriculum, assessment, and instruction,” they conclude.

They recommend—above all—that middle schools teach a rigorous curriculum grounded in standards for what students should know and be able to do. By reordering middle schools’ priorities to put academics first, the new volume’s tone differs from that of the original, which included a core curriculum as just one of many recommendations.

While few middle school advocates disagree that young people need to learn to use their minds well, they do part ways on how best to make that happen. Some insist that the middle school model itself is sound and simply needs to be “fully implemented” in order for students to learn more in school, putting them at odds with reformers more impatient for results and less wedded to a particular design.

Sue Swaim, the executive director of the Westerville, Ohio-based National Middle School Association, acknowledges that middle schools are “at a crossroads” and says they need to redouble their efforts to achieve “high levels of implementation” of the prescribed model. Then, she argues, parents and others will see student performance rise.

She believes that academic standards can be helpful by offering guidance on developing the curriculum. But when they are coupled with high-stakes tests, she worries, they will produce higher stress levels in students.

Indeed, many supporters of middle schools worry that the accountability movement threatens to dismantle those schools altogether.

“High-stakes testing is causing some schools to back away from important components, such as teacher-based guidance,” says Ken McEwin, a professor of curriculum and instruction at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C. “Some schools are spending more time teaching reading and math and less time on science and social studies because those aren’t tested. But when you speak against high-stakes testing, it sounds like you’re against standards.”

Moving Forward

Some states, particularly in the South, are moving aggressively to tackle the problems they see with middle-level education.

In South Carolina, a task force appointed last year by Gov. Jim Hodges pointed out that 38 percent of 8th graders scored “below basic” on the reading/language arts portion of the state’s Palmetto Achievement Challenge Tests, while 49 percent scored below basic in mathematics. Calling for vast improvements, the task force recommended a standards-based restructuring of curriculum, instruction, and assessment, combined with effective implementation of the middle-grades organizational model.

Many middle-grades teachers lack the deep subject-matter knowledge they need to help their students meet academic standards.

Part of the problem, the task force found, was that South Carolina, like most states, had not recognized the middle level in state laws or public policy. A series of studies of the middle grades conducted last year by the Southern Regional Education Board found that the middle grades in four states in the region weren’t getting their fair share of state funding: Proportionately more money was devoted to elementary and high schools.

Middle-grades students, the SREB argues, should be taught an accelerated academic core curriculum—with plenty of support—that prepares them to engage in challenging work in high school. It faults “poorly focused academic problems” for students’ lagging performance, especially given the higher levels at which elementary pupils score.

The concern that the middle grades have been ignored is reflected in the name of the SREB’s project, Making Middle Grades Matter, says Sondra Cooney, its director. The project involves 28 schools in 13 states that are working to put in place a framework built around a rigorous academic core for students. Schools administer tests based on the National Assessment of Educational Progress and use the data to fine-tune their programs and provide professional development for teachers. The states are expected to align their policies, provide technical assistance, and examine the resources they allocate to the middle grades.

“All of the states have realized that you don’t jump from early reading to higher graduation standards without doing something in between—and that’s where the emphasis has been until now,” Cooney says.

The organization also has an $11.6 million, five-year grant under the federal Comprehensive School Reform Demonstration Program to mesh its middle-grades initiative with its well-regarded High Schools That Work project. The aim of the high school project is to help low-achieving students in rural schools. The grant, one of seven awarded by the U.S. Department of Education in April, reflects the concern about poor achievement at the middle level.

But improving individual schools may not be enough. In Michigan, the Middle Start initiative has focused not just on schools, but also on building the district-level leadership and regional partnerships to sustain the effort. The Michigan Middle Start Partnership involves university teacher-preparation programs, professional-development centers, education organizations such as the state affiliate of the Coalition of Essential Schools, and other groups that provide coaching, technical assistance, professional development, and help in engaging the public in thinking about better middle schools.

The program has been successful enough that the state recognized the Middle Start design as a homegrown whole-school-improvement effort eligible for funding from the federal comprehensive-reform initiative; 20 schools received the grants last school year.

With support from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, which has subsidized the Michigan project, the initiative is now expanding to states in the mid-South, including Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi, where the goal is to build similar partnerships. “We need to make sure we have the depth and the breadth of experience to carry this work forward,” Montesano of the Academy for Educational Development says.

For all the gloomy news surrounding student achievement, the middle grades boast a network of foundation officers, state policymakers, district leaders, and researchers focused on improvement. The National Forum To Accelerate Middle-Grades Reform is trying to galvanize efforts around three intertwined goals: academic excellence, developmental responsiveness, and social equity.

The National Forum, founded in 1997, sponsors a Schools To Watch program to identify high-performing schools that serve middle-grades students and can act as beacons of hope. A spinoff Southern Forum—part of a strategy to involve regional partners—is working in 10 states. The forum also conducts research and issues policy briefs to try to guide middle-grades practice. Topics under discussion include teacher preparation and grouping students for instruction.

Even when teachers do have solid content knowledge, they often have a shortage of rigorous, stimulating curriculum models.

The Department of Education also has taken an active role in promoting improvement at the middle level. In addition to putting money into middle school models, the department has sponsored conferences and satellite “town meetings” on middle-level achievement that have prominently featured members of the National Forum.

The department also launched the GEAR UP program, a $200 million initiative to encourage students in high-poverty middle and high schools and their families to think early about college, in partnership with community organizations and institutions of higher education.

Mizell of the Clark Foundation remarks that the attention to the middle grades has produced a “technology” for improvement that didn’t exist a decade ago, in the form of new curricula, research-based professional development, whole-school designs, and the like. Much of it is available on Middle Web, the Clark-financed site on the World Wide Web that seeks to act as a central resource for middle-level educators.

Daunting Problems

As this special report will show, even if educators were united in the belief that the middle grades should stress academics, teachers at that level would still face daunting problems.

Many middle-grades teachers lack the deep subject-matter knowledge they need to help their students meet ever-increasing academic standards. And larger proportions of middle-grades teachers are responsible for classes outside their areas of academic expertise than at any other level of education.

Even when teachers do have solid content knowledge, they are often faced with a shortage of rigorous, stimulating curriculum models. Much of the fare at the middle level is repetitious and superficial, critics say, and fails to prepare students to tackle high school material.

“We have had a watered-down curriculum for middle grades,” says Diana Phillips, the director of the Education Department’s Think College Early program. “That’s very unfair and a terrible disservice to kids who are exploring like crazy and intellectually capable of really pushing the limits.”

Recent research, in fact, has underscored some reformers’ growing contention that young adolescents are keenly interested in using newfound intellectual capabilities to pursue challenging subject matter—if properly encouraged to do so.

Critics say much of the middle level curricula is repetitious and superficial, and fails to prepare students for high school material.

With all the physical and emotional changes they are experiencing, early adolescents are easily distracted, making stimulating coursework and instruction all the more important, as an Education Week visit to a middle school in Edmonds, Wash., found.

But without skilled leadership, efforts to improve teaching and learning won’t get far. Given their difficult missions, middle schools in particular need focused, capable principals who can motivate teachers and students to do their best. Too often, though, such leaders are unprepared for the middle grades. Moreover, turnover is high, creating a revolving door that makes steady improvement unlikely.

Despite the challenges, pockets of excellence in diverse communities prove that it is possible to bridge some of the sharp divides in middle-level education: to be both welcoming and challenging, rigorous and responsive. Education Week‘s special report pays visits to four such schools, which represent both the promise of middle- level education and the frustration.

“I am thrilled to the point of tears at times,” says Lipsitz of her visits to the exemplary sites identified by the National Forum, “and also enraged that all children don’t have the opportunity to go to the school I’m in.”

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Made possible by a grant from the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the October 04, 2000 edition of Education Week as The Weak Link


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