Special Report

Missed Opportunities

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — October 04, 2000 17 min read
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Armor-clad knights and imposing castles of medieval Europe have become an oasis of opportunity for middle school teachers struggling to capture the attention of students easily distracted by the lives that await them outside the classroom door. Rain forests, chocolate, and even trendy cartoon characters have also become prime topics for classroom projects and activities that weave together history, the arts, literature, and other subjects.

Some four decades into the movement to make the middle grades more responsive to the developmental and social needs of 10- to 14-year-olds, many longtime supporters of middle schools lament that, with few exceptions, the curriculum is shallow, fragmented, and unchallenging.

“The curriculum has become a hodgepodge of teacher-developed units that appeal to kids, but that are disconnected from the larger purposes of the K-12 curriculum,” contends Joan Lipsitz, an early promoter of middle schools and a founder of the 3-year-old National Forum To Accelerate Middle- Grades Reform. “We have the structure right, and we have the climate right, and some [schools] have even diversified their instructional techniques so that the classes are very interesting. But they still haven’t looked at why they’re teaching what they’re teaching.”

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Higher academic standards, as well as American students’ disappointing performance on state and national tests and international comparisons, are now forcing that examination.

The middle school curriculum has been under particular scrutiny since the late 1990s, when the results of the Third International Mathematics and Science Study set off alarm bells among policymakers.

While the United States’ 4th graders were second in the world, behind Korea, in science and eighth in math, 8th graders were only slightly above the international average in science and below average in math. The performance of 12th graders was far worse, with U.S. students ranking near the bottom of the 41 participating nations.

Experts say middle schools create curricula that is shallow, fragmented, and unchallenging.

Similarly troubling are American middle school students’ reading scores. On the last National Assessment of Educational Progress in reading, given in 1998, one-fourth of 8th graders failed to demonstrate basic skills, and only one- third of students taking the test were deemed proficient readers.

A recent report by the Brookings Institution refers to the “middle-grade slump” in scores as a “cultural problem.”

“The importance of achievement declines in adolescence among American children more so than in other societies and more so today than in the past in our own society,” writes Tom Loveless, the report’s author.

State test scores in many places have been similarly disappointing. In New York last year, for example, fewer 6th graders could demonstrate minimum reading skills than the year before. In Illinois, school officials characterized last year’s test results as dismal after reading scores dipped slightly.

Refocus on Reading

State tests generally require middle- level students to tackle more complex tasks than those introduced in the early grades. Such tests balance basic reading comprehension with analysis of informational or expository text and the reading of real-life material, such as advertisements or train schedules.

Yet students rarely get direct reading instruction beyond the 4th grade.

Curriculum has become a hodge-podge of teacher-developed units that appeal to kids, but that are disconnected from the larger purposes of the K-12 curriculum.

“Almost all of the resources, both human and monetary, have gone into K-3 reading instruction,” says Judith Irvin, an English professor at Florida State University and a member of the Adolescent Literacy Commission of the International Reading Association. “The assumption has been that that’s enough if students can read by 3rd grade, they’re set for life.

“With the increasingly complex nature of text and what they should be able to do with text,” she says, “students need continual reading instruction from a trained reading specialist.”

The spotlight cast on poor reading performance is attracting attention and channeling resources toward helping students undertake more sophisticated reading tasks.

But many middle schools lack the staffing and materials, such as reading specialists expert in adolescent literacy and professionally staffed and adequately stocked libraries, to help students acquire the literacy skills necessary in the information age.

And the language arts curriculum—which struggles to create a bridge between the skills-based instruction of elementary school and the intensive study of literature common in high school English courses—may be losing ground because of the increased emphasis on math and science instruction, as well as such nonacademic curriculum requirements as sex education and anti-drug programs.

In many places, the squeeze on the school day and the pressure to improve test scores have forced teachers to spend more time on grammar instruction, and to use literary anthologies and other abridged texts, says Carol Santa, the IRA’s past president. And less and less time, she says, is spent on reading and writing.

An increased focus on higher academic standards has prompted many districts to pay more attention to the basics. In the urban districts that have received funding from the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, for example, educators have been forced to attend to the lack of reading skills among low-performing students, writes Anne C. Lewis, the author of Figuring It Out: Standards-Based Reforms in Urban Middle Grades.

The six districts she examined used a variety of strategies to help teachers get a better understanding of students’ skills and knowledge, she writes. Below-average students got extra reading instruction, Saturday school, and summer school help. In Minneapolis, high school freshmen who had failed the state’s 8th grade reading test—which they must eventually pass to graduate—were required to take a reading class.

The districts also struggled to introduce more abstract knowledge, such as algebra, into their mathematics classes. In Corpus Christi, the Algebra for All program calls for introducing algebraic concepts as early as 6th grade, Lewis writes. As a result, the Texas district has seen its math scores shoot up.

Easy Pieces

The middle school concept first envisioned in the late 1950s, and developed throughout the 1960s, was intended to revolutionize—and humanize—life in the classroom. The vision for instruction was one built on subject matter connected across disciplines by central themes or questions about students’ lives and the world around them, often generated or constructed by students themselves.

Instead of focusing on a particular era in history, for example, students might delve into a unit on life in the future. As part of the project-based lesson, they could study political and economic systems of the past as a starting point for imagining new ones.

Far from advocating making it easy on students in the throes of hormone-induced angst, many early champions of middle-level education say academic rigor was always a crucial part of the plan. It was, however, an element that got lost, in most cases, in the concentration on structural reorganization and developmental appropriateness.

“If all the pieces are in place, those schools are doing well,” says Carol Smith, a middle-level teacher at Shelburne Community School in Vermont and a member of the curriculum committee for the National Middle School Association. “It’s when we try to take the junior high label off the school and just slap up the middle-level sign that it doesn’t work,” she says. “The problem is that people went out and dabbled in middle-level [concepts] and picked some parts that worked [without much difficulty], and they figured they were finished.”

[Schools] have the structure right, but they still haven't looked at why they're teaching what they're teaching.

So, once advisory sessions were established, teachers from various disciplines were grouped in teams, class schedules were rearranged into larger blocks of time, and activities were created to keep students interested, many schools claimed to have completed the transition.

Too often, though, the “advisories"—short periods at the beginning of the day in which teachers were to establish deep relationships with students through frank discussions of their problems and concerns—were consumed by taking attendance and other administrative tasks. Exploratory periods that allowed students to choose brief nonacademic courses on topics that interested them were seen as little more than a break from real academic work.

And members of interdisciplinary teams of teachers, often reluctant to relinquish control over individual subjects, created simple correlations across subjects—such as writing across the curriculum—as a matter of policy rather than intricately weaving subjects together.

True curricular change is “a more perilous journey” than what many middle schools have been willing to embark on, says James A. Beane, a professor of education at National- Louis University in Evanston, Ill. He sounded a rallying cry for more rigor, focus, and meaning in the middle-grades curriculum in his 1993 book A Middle School Curriculum: From Rhetoric to Reality.

Such a journey, as he points out, involves a potentially divisive conversation about what knowledge is essential, and how it should be taught. And it requires educators to think more deeply about the purposes behind their lessons and the skills and understanding students will gain from them.

Groundwork Missing

Without a sufficient corps of qualified teachers, regular and rigorous professional development, and challenging, engaging, and standards-based instructional materials, even the best curriculum will fall short in the classroom.

All the resources, human and monetary, have gone into K-3 reading instruction. The assumption has been that that's enough.

Most middle-level teachers have not had sufficient training in creating an interdisciplinary or standards- based curriculum. And often those teachers do not have extensive backgrounds in their subjects.

They also lack the time for reflection, planning, and collaboration with colleagues that curriculum experts say is essential to setting thoughtful instructional goals and making connections across subjects.

As a result, many teacher teams simply choose a topic and leave it up to individual members to cover their own areas of instruction.

The rationale [is] that somehow, by virtue of the fact that the hormones are pumping, these kids can't learn real things.

“You can’t just say we’re going to have a unit on apples, and ask what is the math teacher going to do, what will you do in social studies,” says Judy Brough, the chairwoman of the education department at Gettysburg College in Gettysburg, Pa.

“If it’s not a legitimate fit [for integrating different subjects], it’s just fluff, and we can’t afford to have fluff.”

What many teachers do is search for integrated units written by others, or turn to textbooks and other traditional sources to frame their lessons. But those materials have been widely criticized as inadequate to meet students’ academic and developmental needs.

Middle school textbooks in history, for example, have been described as uninteresting, short on narrative detail and context, and even inaccurate. And they have become dominated by project-based lessons.

“Activities have become the curriculum,” says Gilbert T. Sewall, the president of the New York City-based American Textbook Council, which reviews history texts. “Having a cafeteria of projects and activities is an important sales tool for publishers. That’s what teachers look for.”

Those activities, Sewall says, are too often pointless and time-consuming.

In evaluations of middle school math and science textbooks, the American Association for the Advancement of Science has found that “most curriculum materials suffer from a lack of coherence and focus.”

While similar criticism has been leveled at high school texts, observers point to the importance of the middle-grades curriculum for laying the groundwork for students in the various subjects. Without that foundation, they say, students will be ill-prepared to take up more intensive studies in high school.

“This is a time when a child is on the cusp of developing reason, and pulling information about the external world and developing important habits of thought,” Sewall says. What youngsters do in middle school, he says, “so often sets the pattern for the future.”

That pattern, according to the TIMSS research, is troubling. The 1996 study, which compared test results, curriculum, and instruction in at least two dozen nations, found that the U.S. curriculum in math and science was generally lacking.

“The middle school curriculum is not very coherent and not very rigorous,” says William H. Schmidt, a professor of education at Michigan State University and the U.S. research coordinator for TIMSS. “It is not very focused, and it tries to do lots of things at each one of the grades. It takes what kids learned in their first four years of school and regurgitates it, but with more complicated problems.”

The response to the disappointing TIMSS showing, in some cases, has been to push algebra for all students as early as the 8th grade. But such efforts take a simplistic view of a complex problem, Schmidt says.

“In other countries, they move through algebra and geometry gradually over three years,” he says. “The way we do it sets kids up for failure.”

Schmidt’s evaluation of textbooks and other curricular materials used around the world shows that the highest-performing nations begin introducing basic algebraic and geometric concepts as early as 5th or 6th grade. They take a similar approach to science instruction. The textbooks in those countries cover fewer than a dozen topics in depth and give teachers a reasonable framework from which to introduce increasingly complex math and science concepts and skills.

In contrast, American textbooks, which typically are designed to address specifications in a number of states, are oversized, Schmidt says. Some 8th grade math texts, for example, cover as many as 35 concepts, usually in a superficial fashion.

And, while providing more complex math study for all students is a desirable goal, critics say, simply introducing tougher coursework a year earlier, without preparing students more appropriately, is not a reasonable approach.

“We’re the only major industrial country that starts algebra as late, as abruptly, and in so isolated a way,” says Jim Kaput, a professor of mathematics at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.

The latest strategy, Kaput says, “takes the old Algebra 1 dump truck and backs it up to the 8th grade. If it didn’t work [for all students] in 9th grade, it isn’t going to work in 8th grade.”

‘Soft-Headed’ Thinking?

A number of middle-level initiatives are taking aim at the curriculum problem.

True curricular change is a ‘a more perilous journey’ than what many middle schools have been willing to embark on.

Schmidt is now working with Achieve, a Cambridge, Mass.-based organization created by the nation’s governors and business leaders, to draft a “world class” math curriculum and accompanying assessment for the 8th grade.

The Mathematics Achievement Partnership will attempt to duplicate some of the best practices of other countries. At least 11 states have promised support for the project, which will unveil math expectations for middle schools this fall.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science is hoping to improve math and science textbooks for middle and high school through its Project 2061 reform initiative, which so far has produced harsh critiques of most texts, and is now working to advise districts on how to select high-quality materials.

Critics point to the importance of middle-grades curriculum for laying the groundwork for more intensive studies in high school.

And the National Science Foundation has subsidized projects to create more math and science materials that meet rigorous standards as well as encourage deeper inquiry and exploration of the subject matter.

Reading and social studies curricular materials have yet to receive such focused attention, though some texts—such as Joy Hakim’s A History of US, a history series that weaves historical data into a flowing narrative—have received acclaim and won a modest but loyal following.

Getting the word out that such materials exist, and providing training for teachers in how to use them, may be a bigger venture.

After spending millions of dollars on instructional materials, the NSF is now putting another $12 million annually toward implementation and dissemination centers to help educators select texts that meet their needs. But the newer materials so far lack the research base to back up their claims that they are best for students, although Schmidt expects to complete his own evaluation early next year.

Many administrators and teachers are still at odds over what the middle school curriculum should look like.

“The bigger question people are struggling with is what does it mean to have an academically rigorous curriculum,” says Barbara B. Berns, a senior scientist at the Education Development Center in Newton, Mass., which houses one of the NSF’s six dissemination centers. The center recently published a set of guides to help middle school educators make decisions about curriculum in math, science, and language arts. A volume on social studies is due out in 2001.

Beane and other curriculum experts are calling for a national discussion on what ought to be taught and how the middle-level concept can work in the current standards environment.

Standards and assessments, they say, do not have to elbow out innovation in the classroom—though some fear that is exactly what is happening.

“The standards help teachers keep in mind ... the rigor and the meaty part of the curriculum,” says Maurice Chappel, a consultant to the Kentucky education department who taught middle school for nine years. “But they are not as willing to take a risk [with innovative teaching strategies] if they’re not sure it’s going to pay off on the [state] test.”

That is good news to middle school critics, who charge that enough time has been spent on creating an inviting ethos and fluffy, feel-good curricula designed more to raise students’ self-esteem than their intellectual capacity.

“It’s about time the emptiness and folly of the middle school movement [ends],” says Chester E. Finn Jr., the president of the Washington-based Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.

Finn believes that the middle school has been a center of “soft- headed” thinking about education that has resisted standards. Integrated curricula and more innovative teaching strategies can pay off, he says, but only in the hands of a gifted teacher.

“It is an artful combination that is real hard to bring off well,” he says. “If you’re setting out to have kids learn 10 science concepts this month, it’s possible to do that very well through project-based learning and have concepts be learned more deeply and thoroughly than in a didactic or direct-instruction mode. But you’ve really got to know what you’re doing.”

‘Why Am I Learning This Stuff?’

Abandoning the tenets of middle-level education, however, would be shortsighted, many advocates of the concept say.

[Middle school] is a time when a child is on the cusp of developing reason and important habits of thought. What youngsters do [at this time] so often sets the pattern for the future.

“I can say with no hesitation that the middle school concept has been proven in practice. That practice is not widespread enough,” maintains John Lounsbury, the longtime editor of the Middle School Journal, who is often referred to as the father of the movement.

A University of Michigan study of 30,000 6th and 8th graders in the Chicago schools underscores the importance of providing the supportive environments advocated by the National Middle School Association and other proponents—but only if they are combined with high academic expectations.

“In schools with a strong press toward academics, students who experience high levels of support learn quite a lot,” Valerie E. Lee and Julia B. Smith conclude in reporting their findings in the winter 1999 American Educational Research Journal. “In schools where the academic press is low,” they continue, “even students with high levels of social support do not learn. And for students who do not have much social support to draw on, attending a school with high levels of academic press does not help them learn.”

Staying the course, and continuing to improve curriculum and instruction, will eventually pay off, in the Michigan researchers’ view.

To implement the original vision fully “is going to take time, and we are going to take our hits, but we’re going to come back,” Lounsbury says.

Critics of middle-level education argue, though, that too many students have already been left behind, and they warn against what they see as the sacrifice of another generation.

“The rationale [is] that somehow, by virtue of the fact that the hormones are pumping, these kids can’t learn real things,” Finn says. “They must be humored, socialized, accommodated, and amused. That’s ... an excuse not to teach prealgebra.”

In fact, the international comparisons suggest that the current approach is faulty, Finn says.

Both critics and supporters of the middle school philosophy agree with his assessment.

“We do need to make sure that teachers aren’t just playing games with kids,” Brough of Gettysburg College says. “But we also need to make sure teachers aren’t just throwing information at them either. Instead of defining rigor as strictness and developmental responsiveness as play, we need to talk about rigor as challenge and developmental responsiveness as making learning relevant and engaging and personally satisfying.”

Early adolescents know the difference, Brough contends. “Middle-level kids are at a stage where they question you and ask, ‘Why am I learning this stuff?’ ” she says. “We better have a good answer—better than just because it’s in the textbook.’'

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A version of this article appeared in the October 04, 2000 edition of Education Week as Missed Opportunities


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