Middle School Inconsistency Criticized in Montgomery

By Lori Aratani
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Montgomery County educators need to eliminate inconsistencies in the way middle school children are taught and disciplined, according to an audit of the county's middle school program released yesterday.

The school system also must work hard to eliminate the perception that certain schools are better than others simply because of where they are.

The 109-page report, by MGT of America, is the first comprehensive look at the system's middle school program.

Consultants spent 11 months examining the system's 36 middle schools and interviewing parents as well as teachers and administrators. The system paid approximately $127,000 for the report, which also called for increased teacher training.

The audit praised the schools for increasing the number of students who are taking and passing such challenging math classes as Algebra 1 and Geometry. It noted that more middle school students are taking full-year foreign language courses as well. It also praised a controversial new grading policy, calling it "one of the most comprehensive grading policies MGT has seen while conducting studies throughout the nation."

But it also pointed to areas in which it said more energy should be focused: consistency in teaching, training and learning across the county. The school system might have a rigorous curriculum for all its middle school students, but the standards are not implemented uniformly at every campus, the report said.

The audit found that discipline procedures vary widely by campus and that there is little consistency with the quality and format of school improvement plans among middle schools. And while programs designed to reach kids most in need of extra help are in place, it said they are fragmented and not always connected to any overall school effort.

The report also noted that 11 of the county's 36 middle schools did not meet standards for adequate yearly progress for the 2003-04 school year.

"We don't do audits to bask in commendations," said Associate Superintendent Dale Fulton. "What this shows us is that there is a lot of inconsistency in Montgomery County."

The report also included comments from parents, several of whom felt that their children's quality of education depends greatly on geography.

"There is a disparity between the eastern and western schools of the county," one parent said. "While the schools in the western part of the county can still offer a good education to children who do not enter a magnet program, the children at schools in the eastern part of the county do not have this available. This means there are many very bright and capable students who are languishing in a substandard course of study."

Other parents said simply that the middle school curriculum was too easy for their children.

"My daughter will breeze through sixth grade next year because of the high standards at the elementary school and the low standards at the middle school," one said.

Fulton said the goals of the reforms will be to ensure that the middle school grades are as academically challenging as the elementary years and to help educators build on gains made in the early grades. He said the sentiment -- that the middle school years should be more rigorous -- is one shared by parents across the country.

Fulton said the schools will use the findings from the audit along with information from ongoing reform efforts to improve the middle school experience for all families. He noted that the school system already had taken steps to address concerns with the middle school program. Already, he said, the system has revised the middle school curriculum in reading, language arts and math.

Among the report's other findings: Teacher absenteeism is significant, an average of slightly more than 10 days per teacher. Linda Ferrell, acting director of middle school instruction and achievement, said administrators would look into the issue, but the numbers are similar to those among both high school and elementary school staffs.

Ferrell said that the school system will be seeking feedback from middle and elementary school parents as administrators move forward with changes. Within the next few weeks, they will be seeking those interested in serving on an advisory panel.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company