January 6, 2007

RE: Scrap the Middle Schools?

Marc Comtois

A couple days ago I mentioned about how--and why--many urban school districts are doing away with middle schools and going to a K-8 model. Apparently, Providence is looking to head in the same direction, as indicated by Mayor Cicilline:

Addressing the challenges facing the Providence School District will not be easy, [Mayor Cicilline] said, and will require a commitment from the entire community on behalf of Providence’s youth...the City is about to embark on a plan to transform Providence schools into 21st-century learning environments, with recommendations imminent for a district-wide facilities plan that features K through 8th grade neighborhood schools and smaller, more personalized high schools.

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There is indeed a push to move to K-8 in Providence. K-8 has some advantages, but also some disadvantages. It's hardly a panecea. See the article in tomorrow's NY Times.

The East Side Public Educaiton Coalition (ESPEC) has been deeply involved in this issue since the closing of Nathan Bishop Middle School. We held a panel where experts discussed the issues. The bottom line for most was that K-8 has no inherent advantage over Middle Schools- it's all in how you execute the program. Our middle schools need lots of work. Making the problem "disappear" by moving the 6-8th graders in with the younger kids is not necessarily a solution.

The Superintendent formed a committee to study and make recommendations for Bishop. It recommended that Bishop remain a middle school. The Superintendent endorsed that recommendation to the School Board. If you care to see the reports and recommendations, visit http://www.EastSideEd.org

Posted by: Tom at January 6, 2007 9:27 PM

I'm not sure I see the problems you do in the NYT article. Of course, it will not be easy for the first few grades making the transition, but that is expected.

Nadine's science problem could have been due to a poor teacher. And Kimberly, "13, with long, dark hair and snug jeans, plotted with friends about what to wear and how to meet up for a night out at a nearby nightclub’s under-18 party; she can no longer be bothered with eighth grade boys," is an example, in my opinion, why we need to make the change, not avoid it.

Posted by: WJF at January 7, 2007 8:56 AM


I don't think it's a panacea at all, but the premise of such a consolidation (which I think the NYT article actually supports) is that 6-8th graders have enough to deal with in trying to cope with how they are changing as people without also throwing them into an entirely new social environment.

These years are when they are most vulnerable and they would be better prepared to deal with such social changes when they are a bit older (ie; entering high school). It could be argued that this will only move some of the same socialization problems down the line, but the chances of kids coping successfully are much better because they will be older.

As for Nadine, if she was in the same school K-8, then her 8th grade teacher could conceivably have walked down the hall and asked her previous teachers why they passed her in science when she didn't have a solid grasp of the subject. In other words, greater accountability amongst teachers.

As for your East Side Org, I support their efforts because it illustrates another element of school reform: exercising more local control. If they believe keeping the middle school is better for their kids, that's fine. I only brought up the "scrap the middle schools" movement because it seemed like
an idea that had some merit. I'm still open to hearing pros/cons on it.

Posted by: Marc Comtois at January 7, 2007 9:37 AM

Hi, my name is Sam Zurier. I am involved with the East Side Public Education Coalition with Tom Schmeling. I also served with Tom on the committee that the Providence Schools Superintendent organized to study the question of whether Nathan Bishop School should be a middle school or a K-8 school. We recommended a middle school, but our recommendation depended upon the implementation of "best practices," including:

* Teachers would be organized in teams, all of whom would confer regularly about their students, so that if Jane had certain issues in Spanish class, those would be shared with her English teacher, etc.

* Each student would have an adult (often a teacher) who would be the student's advisor, and meet regularly so that the student would not "fall through the cracks."

* The teachers would have specialized training in educating children in early adolescence, which is a time of extraordinary physical and neurological development.

* The school would be "middle-sized," around 500 students combined in grades 6-8.

* The school would open only one grade at a time, in order to instill a mutually supportive culture.

With these important supports, our committee concluded that the school would have a better chance of retaining the student's overall interest in school.

In the meantime, a middle school has certain distinct academic advantages over a K-8 that are noted in the literature.

* In a middle school, you can have a more varied curriculum, for example, some students can take French while others take Spanish. This is important for children in early adolescence, as their brains are developing abstract reasoning skills that benefit from more stimulation than one can find in the "one room classroom" model for elementary schools.

* In a middle school, you can have differentiated instruction, so that students are grouped with classmates who are learning at the same level as they are. This makes the teacher's job easier, as classes in Providence typically have 26 students. With that said, the teachers would work with the clear understanding that their success depends upon bringing all children up to the standards.

At the end of the day (and over-simplifying slightly), our group concluded that the choice between K-8 and 6-8 is complicated by the fact that K-8's social advantages are gained at a cost of the broader academic content available in a 6-8. For that reason, we opted for a middle school model that would fully implement the social supports that most middle schools lack, and that successful middle schools implement. In that way, we are hoping that our middle school can have the best of both sides of this debate.

Posted by: Sam Zurier at January 8, 2007 10:21 AM

Thanks for the additional input Sam. Yet, I think you could still perform those "value added" sorts of things like language education within the middle school model. For instance, my elementary aged kids have a science teacher and an art teacher. They come in and teach different age groups. I have to think the same could be done for languages (even two of them). Also, there are generally 2 or 3 classes per grade level, so there wouldn't be too much trouble (I wouldn't think) in separating each class by ability. The bottom line is that a K-8 model wouldn't necessarily be just an extension of the K-5 (or K-6 as it is in Warwick). Instead, some modifications could be made. Of course, probably the best way to try this model out would be to have a few charter schools around who would follow try it out.

Posted by: Marc Comtois at January 8, 2007 6:49 PM

I dream of K-6. We (Chariho) have a K-4 model. I dare not print the stories I have heard from parents about what 10 & 11 year olds have seen on the buses (try explaining to a 10 year old why 3 people are kissing each other - I'll let you fill in the genders - and that's not the worst of it). Add the facts that they are on the bus for upwards of an hour and the lunches start at 10:00 (in order to get everyone through) and it is no wonder parents are grumbling.

Posted by: WJF at January 9, 2007 11:31 AM