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Thompson: Fixing Middle School, 100 Students At A Time

Science_fairI got my start in education working with urban middle school kids in community gardens, taking them hiking and camping, and of course, schooling each other on the basketball court, but I just bring a layman’s perspective to the National Journal discussion on fixing middle school.

The single most realistic proposal in the discussion was "the 100-students-per-grade formula." Until we develop more sophisticated personalization strategies, size matters in the middle perhaps most of all.

In the early 1990s, I heard educators deny that the middle school concept had actually been tried, and now it seems that teachers have long ago forgotten that such a pedagogy ever existed. That ancient debate remains vivid in the education experts’ discussion, however, almost serving as a Rorschach Test indicating what they believe in regard to the other education wars.

In the 1970s, I would have embraced Progressivism, and I would have been wrong. I would have focused "on personalization for students" and left out "the formal description of what middle school students should know and be able to do." 

Even then, my B.S. detector saw the danger in the idea that "adolescents should study the problems and issues of adolescence." Yet we can’t forget the other great insight of the discussion, that middle school "kids are utterly bored at a time in their lives when being utterly bored is practically a curriculum all its own."

Now, my B.S. detector focuses on reformers who prescribe engaging instruction, while still defending the testing regime that makes "worksheet science" and textbook-driven math drill the inevitable norm in many middle schools.

The best contribution was the old-fashioned horse sense, backed by social science, was Gayle Andrews'. She wrote: "Researchers from Johns Hopkins University, led by Robert Balfanz, used longitudinal methods to follow almost 13,000 Philadelphia students from 1996-2004, from the time when those students were 6th graders to one year past when they would have graduated if they had graduated on time. The research uncovered four critical predictive indicators that can identify sixth graders likely to drop out: (1) failing math; (2) failing English/language arts; (3) attending school less than 80% of the time; (4) receiving a poor final behavior grade in one class. Course failure was a better predictor of drop out than test scores. The four flags combined were 34 times more likely to predict graduation than student race. ... A common response to students who struggle in the sixth grade is to wait and hope they grow out of it or to characterize the difficulty as temporary as students adjust to a new school, more challenging curriculum, or less personalized attention. But the Johns Hopkins research demonstrates that these 6th graders don’t recover from these early struggles."

The prospect of diverting large numbers of low performing students into alternatives is truly frightening, and I don’t know whether accelerated middle schools are fundamentally different than high-quality alternative school slots, but clearly we must suck up the courage to attempt alternative scheduling and classes, either within the same buildings as "regular" schools or in other settings.

Equally clearly, Steve Peha's contribution to the discussion is correct.  Too much testing is imposed on middle schoolers but he is also right to ask whether there should be an 8thgrade graduation exam, and whether it would "be a bad idea to test for these things in middle school? And to give kids who don’t pass this test an extra year to finish? This extra year could be dedicated to an intense focus on the areas where students were struggling the most." And yet, Peha (or anyone else) can’t answer the question of what to do with the resulting "perpetual 8th graders."

As I will soon explain, a decade ago Oklahoma City funded a bipartisan reform that embodied the best of the wisdom articulated in the National Journal, as well as early education and community schools, and this week we issued our report card. I also want to bring the work of High Schools That Work into the discussion. I may not be an expert on middle school but I’ve earned some expertise in the process by which non-experts tackle the challenge of middle school reform, and I will be sharing some of those insights.

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Steve Peha was right to point to literacy as a very important and often overlooked issue in middle schools. There are quite a few middle school educators out there who, despite being maligned as touchy-feely, have become strong proponents of better reading supports.

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