How to fix the mess we call middle school
Elementary schools and high schools are tough enough to run, but middle
schools are a problem unto themselves. Nobody quite knows what to do with
students who are of age to be in what we call middle school. What we know about
the developmental profile of kids from age 11 to 14 tells us that a traditional
academic classroom experience is not the best option.
Puzzled educators have experimented for decades with the K-8 model, junior
highs, middle schools (different from junior highs because they have earlier
grades), and then back to the K-8 model. Nothing seems quite right.
In recent years many school districts have returned to the K-8 model, including in Washington D.C.,
where former schools chancellor Michelle Rhee promoted the model in part, she
said, because kids performed better academically — though her measure of
progress was standardized test scores, which aren’t a real indicator of progress
and the research she cited is widely disputed.
In 2008, she created 17 PreK-8 schools, but, alas, the standardized test
scores are no better than they were before, my colleague Bill Turque notes in this story. (Yet another Rhee reform that didn’t quite turn out as great
as all that.) Now D.C. schools officials are trying to solve, yet again, the
middle school puzzle.
Here’s some of what we know about kids in this age group — and why it is past
time to do something radically different:
* Students in this age group are known to be egocentric, argumentative, and —
this is not small thing — utterly preoccupied with social concerns rather than
academic goals, driven by the swirling of their hormones.
* They don’t always have solid judgment, but they find themselves in position
to make decisions that can affect them throughout their lives.
* They enjoy solving real life problems with skills.
None of this adds up to a great experience with the traditional academic
classroom. Sure, some of the problems with middle schools were caused by a lack
of resources in urban areas that made it impossible for districts to hire enough
specialized teachers and to create the programs necessary to engage
But another part of the problem is that we keep trying to do the same
kind of academic thing.
Child development expert Chip Wood has other ideas, as explained in his book,
“ Yardsticks: Children in the Classroom Ages 4-14
“Twelves (and thirteens and fourteens for that matter) probably do not belong
in formal school environments at all, but in some kind of cross between summer
camp and the Civilian Conservation Corps camps of the Great Depression — plenty
of physical activity, structured groups and time with peers, with a little
formal education thrown in.”
If you think that sounds ridiculous, think again. It’s just the ticket.
I’ve written before about such a proposal, but it’s worth repeating again as
school districts tackle the problem anew. The answer: blowing up middle school
as we know it and turning at least some of it into a “boot camp for life.”
Enough with “academic rigor.” Stop testing kids ad nauseam.
We need to create middle-school education environments that would allow kids
to learn skills in unconventional ways and that would give them far more time to
engage in physical activity outside the classroom. It is a perfect time to help
kids learn the value of manual labor while they learn to use their brain.
Let kids spend more class time reading and talking about books –books that
they select themselves. Give kids who need basic skills the time and support
they need — and let kids who want to memorize “Hamlet” have at it. With more
than 40 percent of American adults practically illiterate, our current approach
is obviously not working.
Let’s turn community service into a real lesson that includes real, daily
Today this country demands little of its citizens in regard to national
service. Community service programs are mandatory in most schools, but what
constitutes community service can be a one-time cleanup at a ball park. Really.
I know someone who did that.
What if kids went to work at a homeless shelter every day for several months?
Or had to own the responsibility for keeping clean a neighborhood park, all
year, picking up the litter every day as it reappears?
Such experience teaches commitment and the challenges and pleasures of making
a difference. If kids are old enough to watch garbage on television, they are
certainly old enough to pick up garbage and get a closer look at the real human
condition. Such a plan also has the virtue of getting kids out of the classroom.
As for new approaches to old subjects, how about teaching nutrition and
health through cooking classes? Nobody can argue that kids don’t need to learn
more, not with the obesity epidemic among young people in this country. An added
bonus: cooking can be a great way to teach chemical reactions and other
scientific principles, as well as math.
Let them learn about financial literacy by running small businesses. Knowing
how to solve a geometric proof doesn’t help them balance a checkbook.
Give kids things to take apart and to rebuild. Yes, bring back shop class.
This sparks a curiosity that will drive them to want to learn the math and
science necessary to take their tinkering to the next level. Some brilliant
mathematicians I know love to work with their hands.
As for the arts, they are vital. Let students learn music theory by playing
the music they like, with the instruments they want to play. Let
them choose the plays they want to stage, or write their own.
The sustained experimentation with middle school-age students has continued
because schools have failed to meet the emotional and academic needs of
Changing the grade configuration isn’t going to do it. More tests and a
mountain-range of data won’t do it either. We need real reform.
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