Coming of Age

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After more than 30 years, the middle school reform movement has done little to improve the education young teenagers get. But a handful of schools are trying to change that.

Baltimore's Canton Middle School is a formidable red-brick structure looming like a medieval fortress over blocks of small brick row houses. Under a sky the color of steel wool, the building looks imposing, inviolable. A cop, permanently assigned to the school, stands inside the massive front doors to keep undesirable elements out. The structure, however, is anything but impenetrable. Canton, after all, is an urban school in an impoverished neighborhood; nearly 90 percent of its 745 students qualify for the federal free-lunch program, and more than half live with a single parent or a grandparent. A drug dealer, it is said, has set up shop in the small grocery across the street. Woe, like a character in an allegory from the Dark Ages, has its shoulder pressed to the school door.

"There's real pathology out there," one Canton administrator says, gesturing out the window. "Sometimes it's going to get in."

This morning is one of those times. Just before lunch, a student punches his fist through a glass partition and is dispatched to the hospital. Then, a usually mild-mannered boy explodes in class, cursing his teacher and bolting from the room. When finally confronted by a school social worker, the boy weeps and raises his shirt to reveal a constellation of bruises. His older brother, he says, has been beating him for days.

In many urban middle schools, disruptive and violent incidents like these are commonplace. But not at Canton. Though still a problem, such disturbances are increasingly rare, thanks in part to wide-ranging reforms launched in 1991 by principal Craig Spilman. Spilman, who was a senior administrator in the central office before coming to Canton, believes that radical restructuring is the only way to make middle schools work. At Canton, he has done away with tracking and grade levels, replacing them with multiaged teams of students that stay with the same group of teachers from year to year. What's more, he has freed his teachers to organize their days and structure their programs as they see fit.

Nowadays, the corridors at Canton are relatively quiet, the classrooms controlled. Student suspensions have dropped, and average daily attendance is 87 percent, up 10 percentage points from 1991. Test scores, too, have risen. Last year, Canton students scored higher than any other Baltimore city school on Maryland's basic-skills writing test.

"We've come far in the last five years," says the 55-year-old Spilman. "This school is working for a lot of kids. But a lot of middle schools are just surviving."

The middle grades have long been a trouble spot in American education. To some degree, it's the result of the challenging age group they serve. Young adolescents nettle with their weird mix of innocence and churlishness. Children who have been merely temperamental in elementary school may turn threatening, even violent, as adolescents of 13 and 14. Children who fall behind in the early grades are often painfully aware of their deficiencies by the middle grades, and some give up on school altogether.

"You've got to keep in mind that the middle shool reform movement originally focused on white, middle-class kids.

Howard Johnston,
University of South Florida

"Middle school has always been trapped in the monumental difficulty of its own task," says Howard Johnston, a professor of secondary education at the University of South Florida and one of the nation's foremost experts on middle-level education. "Impossible is really the best way to characterize it. You've got kids at all different stages of physical and emotional growth entering puberty just as they're usually entering bigger, more impersonal school environments."

But Johnston doesn't let middle schools off the hook. Many, he says, haven't served early adolescents well. Part of the problem, he explains, is that the middle school movement—the 30-year-old effort to transform the impersonal junior high into a more nurturing learning environment—has changed the makeup of many schools but not what goes on in classrooms, particularly urban classrooms. "You've got to keep in mind," Johnston says, "that the middle school reform movement originally focused on white, middle-class kids, and so it was from its inception flawed by its very lack of inclusiveness. As a result, a lot of middle schools are unprepared to deal with the social conditions that overtake urban kids—abject poverty and violence."

The middle school movement was launched almost single-handedly in the 1960s by a Cincinnati public school administrator named William Alexander. Alexander had become disgruntled with the conventional junior high, which was essentially a high school for younger kids. With masses of students being herded this way and that, the junior high, Alexander believed, was exactly the wrong atmosphere for young people with raging hormones and insecurities to match. Bells rang on a rigid schedule, and students moved platoonlike from one class to the next, where teachers preached from textbooks the size of dictionaries.

Alexander envisioned a smaller, more intimate environment for young adolescents. In a 1963 speech at a conference at Cornell University, he proposed that junior highs be transformed into middle schools that are more responsive to the needs and interests of students.

The idea of a developmentally appropriate school for young adolescents was greeted with enthusiasm, and by the late 1960s it was catching on fast. Vast numbers of junior highs were converted to middle schools. Structurally, this meant phasing out K-8 elementary schools and grade 7-9 junior highs in favor of schools for grades 5-8 or 6-8. But the middle school movement, as the reforms came to be called, embraced more than just shuffling grade configurations. It was a new way of thinking about and teaching young adolescents. Both vulnerable and impulsive, wide-eyed and rebellious, they needed a place of their own—an environment of stability, nurturance, and intellectual stimulation.

Strategies for building this gentler, more humane environment varied, but the basic idea was to make middle schools smaller and more responsive. Schools implemented teacher-student advisory groups, flexible scheduling, integrated courses, and team teaching and planning.

According to experts, the reforms have simply been too superficial to change the culture of schools and improve student achievement.

By the late 1980s, the new middle school was a full-fledged American institution, and it soon became more common than junior high and K-8 schools. According to a 1993 survey by the National Middle Schools Association, only 1,425 of the 11,215 schools for young adolescents retained the old configuration of grades 7-9. Nearly 7,400 schools, meanwhile, were organized by either grades 6-8 or grades 5-8. Many of these schools were attempting the other reforms, as well. The classic junior high, it seemed, was on the way out.

But for all the changes of the past 30 years, the "new" middle schools aren't that much different from the old junior highs. According to a number of middle school experts, the reforms have simply been too superficial to change the culture of schools and improve student achievement. Teaching in the middle grades has changed little, too.

"Everyone agrees that authentic and durable relationships with adults are critical," says Howard Johnston from the University of South Florida. "But too often this has translated into 15-minute advisory periods that aren't doing it. It's not the implementation of new practices that counts but the effects of these practices."

"There is a feeling," says Ron Williamson, a professor of education at the University of North Carolina, "that if you do certain things you'll be a middle school. But people are now saying, 'We've tried that; where's the evidence that anything has changed?' You can have teams and change structure, but you'll never be a true middle school if you keep the same old routines."

The 1993 National Middle School Association survey found that some 90 percent of grade 6-8 schools had not really changed their teaching. For the most part, they still relied on direct instruction—teacher presentation, drill, and practice.

"It is discouraging to note," the study's authors concluded, "such a strong reluctance to move away from direct instruction in middle schools."

Canton principal Craig Spilman thinks he knows why middle schools have not lived up to their early promise. Most, he claims, are just junior high schools in disguise. "I visit schools where the bells still ring!" Spilman says, shaking his head in disbelief. "I told one principal to turn the bells off, but he said he couldn't do that or there would be chaos."

When Spilman visits middle schools, he first asks the principal if the school has a buildingwide schedule, periods, and bells. "If the answer is 'yes, yes, and yes,' you're in trouble; you're still a junior high," says Spilman. "The middle school schedule should be flexible, determined by a team of teachers who are free to adapt it to the needs of their students. If a parent comes to our school office and asks where her child is, our secretary won't know. She'll have to call the team. That's a sign of a good middle school—when the office can't find the schedule of a kid."

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