January 3, 2007

Education Reform Suggestion: Scrap the Middle Schools?

Marc Comtois

In his innaugural address, Governor Carcieri vowed to reform our current education system. As Maggie Gallagher reports, maybe getting rid of "middle schools" entirely is one worthwhile goal.

According to the New York Post, almost 50 of the city's 220 middle schools have closed in the last two years, part of a plan to move back toward the old K-8 grammar school model. New York City is joining Baltimore, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, among other urban school districts.

Why did this take the "experts" so long? Many parents can tell you: If an otherwise decent school district has a problem school, it's going to be the junior high. And even high-functioning middle schools can be a problem for the students in them.

After a miserable two years in junior high school, for example, my niece entered high school in Oregon this fall. We all breathed a sigh of relief. A straight-A student, she was never in any academic trouble, but the social horrors of junior high school for this graceful, outgoing teen left us all stressed on her behalf. The level of peer-generated torture suddenly dropped considerably.

Apparently we are not the only ones. The most striking research result of our middle-school mania is that American early adolescents are unusually miserable, according to international survey data.

"Folks have been aware, in achievement terms, that what happens in the middle grades is disappointing," Douglas J. MacIver, a principal research scientist at Johns Hopkins University's Center for the Social Organization of Schools, told Education Week. "But I don't think they realized how stressed middle-school students are."

...This June, Pittsburgh closed seven middle schools and doubled the number of K-8 elementary schools. One advantage of the K-8 model is that it tends to spread the potentially problematic middle-graders around...Brent Johnson, a former principal in Pittsburgh, credits his school's performance...to the fact that he has between 100 and 500 fewer middle-graders to deal with than the average middle school. About half his sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders have been in the school since kindergarten, making relationships with teachers, administrators, and their "buy-in" to the school culture more likely. The K-8 model tends to keep parents more attached and involved, too, another plus for the model, according to the Rand Corp. study.

Plus, when kids stay in grade school, they tend to stay "younger, longer," reports a Long Beach, Calif., principal, and that's been my experience, too. I didn't pick a Catholic grade school for my younger son because of the K-8 structure that most Catholic schools retain, but I immediately noticed the benefits. Same kids, same principal, same parents for eight years -- it does build community. And maybe it's a "kibbutz effect," but kids who have been in class together since kindergarten seem less eager to launch into the distracting peer torture of premature dating games.

"It turns out the onset of puberty is really a bad reason to try to move kids to another structure and to another school altogether," the Rand report's primary author, Jaana Juvonen, told Education Week.

Another bad idea from ed school hits the dust.

I know that Julia Steiny, for one, has written extensively on the perils that middle schools can pose to our pubescent progeny. I realize that the current infrastructure of our school districts probably wouldn't support such a change, but I wonder if educators in RI would concur with this, at least conceptually?

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Bob Walsh. Paging Mr. Bob Walsh. Your opinion is requested. Please pick up a white courtesy phone.

Posted by: Greg at January 3, 2007 3:13 PM

Mary Anne Raywid, Hofstra University Professor Emerita and Past president of the Society of Professors of Education, whose name is used for an award that recognizes individuals who have made outstanding contributions to the study of education, has said-

“The value of small schools has been confirmed with clarity and a level of confidence rare in the annals of education research.”

Posted by: WJF at January 4, 2007 11:18 AM

I should clarify the above quote. It may seem that bringing 5-8th graders back to the elementary level is making for larger schools but that’s not so. More accurate is that we are reducing the size of the middle/high schools, thus the support for Justin's piece. The elementary expansion is more akin to the school within a school model.

Tons of research supporting this idea can be found here

Posted by: WJF at January 4, 2007 12:08 PM

Thanks WJF, and (warning: potential egotism alert) twas I who wrote this piece, not the venerable Mr. Katz! As for school size, I understand what you are saying, but I do wonder if the infrastructure of the Warwick school system (for instance) could handle the change. (20+ K-6 elementary schools w/about 250-300 students each adding in 7-8th graders from only 3 middle schools).

Posted by: Marc Comtois at January 4, 2007 1:28 PM

My apologies, Marc. Acknowledgment is deserved. I had Justin’s work on abstinence education on the brain but I’ve just had another lesson on why we should never assume.

As for your point - Restructuring for space would be needed. There are several reports (in the link above) that show the costs for two smaller schools can be less than one larger one (going against the conventional wisdom of consolidation for efficiency). While we want to consolidate for larger purchasing power and the elimination of duplicate administrators, we should not loose sight of the aforementioned benefits of the K-8 model (thus cost saving from less discipline and "support services" required).

Perhaps the space previously used for the middle schools could be utilized. It may result in 25+ K-8 elementary schools. The point is to keep the kids with the same peers throughout the entire K-8 experience. Besides the stability of peer support, a principal who has experience with a child in KG would obviously be better equipped to deal with that child when they are in older grades. Just as a parent who has a relationship with the child’s KG principal would be able to maintain (or grow) that relationship rather than start anew at each new school. Not so different from how biological parents are shown to do a better job raising a child, rather than the rotating parent model (often due to divorce).

More relevant to me (because here at Chariho we have 10 yr-olds (5th grade) attending middle school and on the bus with high school’ers) are the benefits of what we can be avoided. As you have noted, introducing kids under 14 to issues seen with those over 14 is what can keep the kids “younger, longer.”

Posted by: WJF at January 4, 2007 3:26 PM

Thanks for that link WJF, looks like a lot of good stuff. In general, it looks like the reimagining of Hope High School into three different schools (if you will) was based on some of those studies. Several seem to support such an idea and some of the infrastructure problems could be overcome by having, say, 3 K-8 schools housed in the former middle schools. Like I said, a lot to digest.

Posted by: Marc Comtois at January 4, 2007 3:53 PM

The essential reading for this issue is Focus on the Wonderyears, the Rand Corporation report on middle schools published in '04. It's the only report on middle school functioning we have that is unbiased by by an advocacy position. Its finding on the theorhetical wisdom of the "middle school model" is devasting, and yet its suggestions for where do we go from here are realistic.

Again, it's the essential reading.

Posted by: iggy at July 8, 2007 9:51 AM
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