June 10, 2005

Middle School: The Education System's Black Hole

Marc Comtois

One offshoot of returning to school is that it has brought me into contact with several teachers from Rhode Island and Massachusetts. Nearly all of them agree that it is in middle school that a child's educational future, and by extension post-educational future, is largely determined. If parents and teachers don't reach them then, very few will change direction in high school. The ProJo's on the Woonsocket middle school, though it may be the most drastic example that can be offered, is nevertheless a depressing case in point. And remember: the problems detailed aren't just Woonsocket's problems, they're all of Rhode Island's. The school receives $12.4 million a year to operate, and a good portion of that comes from state tax dollars. Further, and this is just a guess on my part, if the average teachers' salary's are any indication--$64,700 for elementary teachers; $61,680 for middle-school teachers; and $63,240 secondary-school teachers--it would seem that the least experienced teachers are cutting their teeth in the middle schools and then moving on when they can. Again, I can't say that for sure, this is just based on a conclusion drawn from the aforementioned average salaries. [HINT: I'm looking for some input!] Julia Steiny concurs with this assessment, and offers her own solution.

I believe that middle school is the turnkey in our education system, because the kids require a special kind of attention from us. We seem to have trouble designing schools that face, honor and help early adolescents in the midst of their huge, distracting, important and completely natural transitions. They literally can't learn unless certain conditions have been met, like giving them the feeling they've been heard if something's preying on their minds. If you can wholeheartedly wrap your arms around what's wrong with education at the middle, the rest will follow more easily, more organically.

So the first thing to understand about middle school is that the very word "middle" is a problem. "Middle" implies a central section of a continuum that takes place in a consistent transition from point A to point B. More appropriate might be to call them radical transformation schools, chrysalis schools, or when-your-world-goes-upside-down schools. I would call them Life Design Institutes, because that's what the kids want to know at that point -- who are they and what do they have to do to mold their lives into a viable form.

Right about sixth grade -- for most kids, but by no means all -- those pals you've been hanging out with are suddenly your friends, that omnipotently powerful, intriguing social entity with one judgmental mentality expressed by certain individuals. Suddenly, because of friends, or lack of them, the highs are higher and the lows lower. Whatever social rules once applied, apply no longer.

Indeed, it seems like everyone but you knows a secret language of expectations and protocols. Being left out was never fun, but now it's a misery. And to be included means you might find yourself doing something you know is wrong. Moods are wild. New, unnamed feelings blast through your mind, and the next thing you know, 10 minutes have passed and you haven't been paying attention. To fit in with your peer group's magnetic, compelling attraction -- be it by dress, behavior, interests -- you find yourself wriggling out of your parents' grasp -- especially Mom's -- frustrated and sometimes very angry in the process.

All of this is developmentally appropriate.

Middle-schoolers are people in transition. They occupy a foxhole of confusion. Traditional culture had rituals to focus community attention on people in transition -- rites of passage, attention to the newly widowed, gifts to the family encumbered with a baby. Our culture backs away from people in transition on the pretext of "giving them space" while things get worked out. So using standard, lecture-format teaching in middle schools is like saying to someone who just had twins or won the lottery: look, we understanding you're having all these moods and feelings, but you really need to do them on your own time and not here. Here we have something more important to do. Here we are learning about Egypt.

Middle schoolers are all about me. If you can figure out how to make the story of ancient Egypt inform their concerns, go for it. Early adolescents are huge information sponges, aching to learn how to put some order to their chaos. They will be eternally grateful for whatever light you can shed on their issues. I believe that 90 percent of existing curricula can be tweaked to speak directly to them. The Magna Carta will never work just as a bit of important history, but as a story about individual rights and what such rights mean to me, even that dry document will keep their attention.

As one ninth-grade dropout said: "I left school because I just couldn't park my game that long." We need to acknowledge their "game" by giving them the tools to be successful in their own terms, as well as in ours.

At this time in their lives, kids pull away from their parents' grasp. Parents need to keep hanging on no matter what the resistence, but this is when the greater community needs to step up to the plate. Alternative, extra-familial adults can catch the kids before they are swallowed up in the toxic world of peers informed mainly by the mass media. Kids may not say thank you, but they deeply appreciate adult mentors. In surveys they tell us they crave adult help.

Starting in the sixth grade, in my imaginary Life Design Institutes, teachers would say: At the end of the day, it is up to you to make your own life work. But adults are here to help. As your teachers, we'll work to equip you with a toolbox of skills, information and strategies, so you know how to go about accomplishing your own goals and how to solve whatever problems inevitably come your way. One day you're going to confront a problem and reach in and find that you have an algebra tool, an ancient history story, a scientific understanding that shows you the way to solve the issue. Rigor and discipline are essential, and we are going to hold you responsible for meeting high standards. Because only when you are successful, are we successful.

Steiny promises to continue her series on middle schools throughout the summer. Whether you agree with all or none of her recommendations or not, she has started a worthy dialogue.