Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Is this what I have to look forward to? 

Time magazine this week has a set of stories about kids being thirteen (Littlest is fast approaching her teen years, and acting the part). One of the things they face is middle school, and our local expert/Congressional candidate Cheri Yecke makes an appearance:

Coming after a period of youth unrest, when juvenile crime and drug use were rising, middle school proponents argued that old-fashioned junior highs, which usually served Grades 7 and 8 and sometimes 9, were not meeting kids' social and developmental needs. Instead, they were providing a watered-down version of high school, literally a junior high. Reformers proposed that schools for this age group needed to educate "the whole child," addressing social and emotional issues as well as building academic skills. Sixth grade became the usual entry point for new middle schools, both because of crowding at grammar schools and because puberty was occurring earlier.

Among the key tenets of the middle school movement are these: fostering a close relationship between teacher and child so that every student has an adult advocate, having teachers work across disciplines in teams (example: students read Johnny Tremain in English while studying the Revolutionary War in social studies), creating small learning communities within larger schools and stressing learning by doing. "Young adolescents learn through discovery and getting involved," explains Sue Swaim, executive director of the Ohio-based National Middle School Association. "They're not meant to be lectured to the whole day."

Some critics contend that the whole movement was soft in the head. It "had as its ideological antecedent the notion that academics should take a back seat to self-exploration, socialization and working in groups," writes Cheri Pierson Yecke, a former education commissioner in Minnesota, in a forthcoming report for the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation titled Mayhem in the Middle: How Middle Schools Failed America and How to Make Them Work. "A disproportionate regard for student self-esteem and identity development," Yecke argues, yielded a "precipitous decline" in academic achievement.

But many educators believe that ideology was not the problem. "There were some very good middle schools out there, but middle school reform never got fully implemented," says Jacquelynne Eccles, professor of psychology at the University of Michigan and a member of a task force that issued Turning Points, a landmark 1989 report on middle schools funded by the nonprofit Carnegie Corporation. Many districts created big warehouse-like middle schools to address crowding and court-ordered busing but without embracing the pedagogy of the movement. "They ended up looking very much like the junior high schools they were designed to replace," says Eccles.

That's classic: We never really tried socialism, we never really tried bullpen-by-committee, we never tried middle school reforms. LS is in a K-8 private school -- indeed, 4-8 are all in one room -- and the 12-13 year old kids there are the best behaved kids I've ever seen for that age.
But educators on both sides of the debate tend to agree that how the grades are packaged ultimately matters less than what's happening inside the school. "The exact configuration is a distraction," says Anthony Jackson, a middle school expert and co-author of the Turning Points report. What counts, he says, is good instruction and caring relationships. "You can make that happen in a stand-alone middle school or a K-8 school," Jackson adds...

Good instruction, yes. Caring relationships means what?