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Answer Sheet
Posted at 10:11 AM ET, 09/26/2011

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 students.

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 a significant percentage of American adults practically illiterate, our current approach is obviously not working. (According to the National Adult Literacy Survey, 14 percent scored in 2003 at below basic — meaning they could no more than the most simple and concrete literacy skills, and another 29 percent were at the basic level, meaning they could perform only simple and everyday literacy activities.)

Let’s turn community service into a real lesson that includes real, daily responsibility.

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 adolescents.

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.

Clarification: An earlier version of this post said that 40 percent of American adults were practically illiterate. This version breaks that down and cites the source.

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By  |  10:11 AM ET, 09/26/2011

Categories:  Middle School

 
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