Thursday, January 04, 2007

Middle School a Challenge to Educational Success

This New York Times article reports that school adminstrators in New York City and elsewhere are struggling to find strategies to increase academic achievement in the intermediate grade years:

Driven by newly documented slumps in learning, by crime rates and by high dropout rates in high school, educators across New York and the nation are struggling to rethink middle school and how best to teach adolescents at a transitional juncture of self-discovery and hormonal change.

The difficulty of educating this age group is felt even in many wealthy suburban school districts. But it is particularly intense in cities, where the problems that are compounded in middle school are more acute to begin with and where the search for solutions is most urgent.

In Los Angeles, the new superintendent, David L. Brewer III, has vowed to transform middle schools as a top priority, and low-performing schools are experimenting with intensive counseling.

In Philadelphia and Baltimore, school systems are trying to make the middle school problem literally disappear, by folding grades six through eight into K-8 schools. In one Columbia, S.C., school district, all five middle schools have begun offering some form of single-sex classes, on the theory that they promote self-esteem and reduce distractions.

And middle schools across the five boroughs of New York City are experimenting with a grab bag of strategies, from adding special periods dedicated to organizational skills, to reducing the number of teachers that each student has. At the Brooklyn Secondary School for Collaborative Studies, in Carroll Gardens, which includes grades 6 through 12, school does not start until 9 a.m., because the principal, Alyce Barr, believes adolescents are by nature not morning people.

Middle schools, sometimes called intermediate schools, were created starting in the 1960s, after educators determined that seventh-through-ninth-grade junior high schools were excessively rigid and unattuned to adolescents’ personal development. But now, a battery of standardized tests, some required under the No Child Left Behind law, are starkly illustrating that many of these sixth-through-eighth-grade schools are failing, also.

The most recent results of math and reading tests given to students in all 50 states showed that between 1999 and 2004, elementary school students made solid gains in reading and math, while middle school students made smaller gains in math and stagnated in reading.

In New York State, grade-by-grade testing conducted for the first time last year showed that in rich and poor districts alike, reading scores plunge from the fifth to sixth grade, when most students move to middle school, and continue to decline through eighth grade. The pattern is increasingly seen as a critical impediment to tackling early high school dropout rates as well as the achievement gap separating black and white students.
While the article mentions that even "wealthy suburban school districts" are dealing with this middle school challenge, the real issue here is the question of minority educational underachievement in the urban setting. Reformers are certainly heading in the right directions (age-wise) with their reform agenda, for some research shows that solutions to academic performance have to focus on getting kids prepared for learning at an even earlier, preschool age. But attention must be paid to cultivating a culture of learning in minority households. The problem is particularly acute in the black community, where an anti-educational culture debilitates the learning of poor black children. Achievement for this demographic will come with good educational practices in the classroom (stressing behavioral discipline and rigorous basic instruction in academic fundamentals) combined with strong parental involvement in children's learning at home.

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