A Volatile Mismatch

Herding young adolescents through large, impersonal schools is a recipe for disaster, a new report argues

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This fall, hundreds of thousands of young adolescents are returning to schools that fail to meet their needs and may even exacerbate many of their problems.

At least this is the view of a small but growing number of educators who for more than a decade have advocated radical changes in the way we educate 10- to 15-year-olds. This past summer, their cause found a powerful and persuasive champion in the form of a distinguished 17-member panel of the Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development.

The widely publicized report by the Task Force on Education of Young Adolescents offers a comprehensive plan for correcting what it views as a “volatile mismatch” between the emotional and intellectual needs of young teenagers, and the structure and curricula of the schools that serve them.

“Young adolescents have a great need for intimacy, yet we put them in large, impersonal schools,” the task force states. “Young adolescents need increased autonomy and they need to make their own decisions, yet we put them in environments of review and rote learning. Young adolescents show great variability among themselves and within themselves, yet we put them in classrooms where we ignore their variability and need for flexibility.”

The task force was established in 1987 and charged with placing the challenges of the adolescent years higher on the nation's agenda. Panel members include Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas, Senator Nancy L. Kassebaum (R-Kan.), former Maryland Superintendent of Schools David Hornbeck, and Yale University child psychiatrist James P. Comer.

Their report, Turning Points: Preparing American Youth for the 21st Century, suggests wide-ranging changes in the way the middle school grades are managed, taught, and supported. Specifically, it recommends:

  • Breaking up large, impersonal schools into smaller communities, where stable, close, and mutually respectful relationships can be forged.
  • Creating a core academic curriculum for all middle grade students that would emphasize critical thinking, include instruction in healthy living, and require community service.
  • Eliminating tracking by achievement level, and promoting cooperative learning and cross-age tutoring.
  • Upgrading teacher training to ensure that teachers are well qualified to deal with adolescents.
  • Giving teachers and school administrators a greater say in decisionmaking and governance.

Although the middle grades have generally not been the focus of the current generation of education reformers, a burgeoning number of schools have been experimenting for more than a decade with the types of changes advocated in the task-force report.

Stressing “child-centered” teaching, these schools have abandoned the “mini high school” model, where pupils are grouped by ability and switch classes for every subject. They favor instead smaller learning units, interdisciplinary teaching teams, and advising systems that offer students regular access to at least one adult in a support role.

This quiet movement—known by some as the middle school movement—has captured growing interest lately, in part because some educators have come to view reform in the middle grades as a critical element in dropout prevention.

In making its recommendations, the Carnegie task force decried the fact that the middle schools have been “virtually ignored” in the school-reform debate. This omission may prove costly, the panel says, because these grades represent crucial “turning points” in the lives of young people.

Citing the growing risks posed by drug use, sexual promiscuity, poor school performance, and social alienation, the task force estimates that roughly seven million young people—one in four adolescents—are “extremely vulnerable to multiple high-risk behaviors and school failure.” Moreover, it states, another seven million may be at moderate risk.

“Middle grade schools are potentially society's most powerful force to recapture millions of youth adrift,” the report says. “Yet all too often they exacerbate the problems youth face.”

Vol. 01, Issue 01, Pages 18-19

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