The last time the Montgomery County public schools took a serious, comprehensive look at middle school reform, 15 years ago, the recommendation that drew some of the most vocal public response did not deal with what children were taught, who taught them or how. It was a suggestion to get rid of competitive sports.
About that time, the county had just finished adding sixth-graders to junior high schools -- which previously had comprised only seventh- and eighth-graders -- transforming them into middle schools. But that was pretty much it for the focus on middle school.
Much of the reform since then, and particularly since Superintendent Jerry D. Weast arrived in 1999, has been devoted to elementary schools and high schools: all-day kindergarten; smaller classes in the primary grades; small "learning communities" in high schools; more Advanced Placement classes; and a push to get more students to take the PSATs.
Middle school finally is being added to the reform movement.
The school system is in the midst of a comprehensive study of middle schools, with the results of an internal study expected in early fall and an audit by an independent management consulting company, MGT of America Inc. of Tallahassee, slated to arrive in January. From there, Weast will make recommendations to the Board of Education, school system officials said.
"The reality is, we do need to make some changes," said G.J. Tarazi, the county's director of middle school instruction and achievement. "Organizational, systemic changes."
Many feel that middle school is a make-or-break time for children, and they are backed up by a cold fact: Test scores fall as students progress from elementary to middle school. "Looking at the scores, I think there is the sense from some that the middle schools are not necessarily getting the kind of results we'd like to see," said Alton Sumner, principal of North Bethesda Middle School and a member of the committee that has guided the internal review.
When American junior highs began turning into middle schools in the 1960s, a concept accompanied the structural change: Children in early adolescence are going through vast changes and are so emotionally vulnerable that educators must keep those needs at the forefront of their work.
While Ursula Hermann, Westland Middle School principal and another committee member, agrees that the whole child must be considered, "what I think hasn't happened enough, probably nationwide, is the idea of intellectual rigor for kids this age," she said. "I think we went sideways a number of years ago when someone decided that middle schoolers, because they are going through significant physical and emotional changes, cannot think. And it's not the case. This is a wonderful age to continue to explore really rigorous learning."
That balance between rigor and nurture is being discussed in the review. Other questions under consideration: Is there a best way to make a middle school schedule? (Classes now might be 45 minutes or 80 minutes, daily or every other day, depending on the school.) Is the curriculum appropriate, and is it being taught well? How effective are programs for students who are accelerated in their studies and students who are behind?
Should teachers at a given school continue to meet in grade-level teams to plan and discuss students, or should they be organized instead by the subject matter they teach?
Should the county continue to use middle schools as a training ground for aspiring high school principals? Now, Tarazi said, administrative turnover is so high that half of this year's middle school principals have no more than one year of experience in the job.
"That's quite a challenge for this office to provide support, especially when the middle level becomes more in the spotlight," Tarazi said. "That should be a career goal: 'I want to be a middle school principal.' . . . An experienced middle school principal is invaluable."
Tarazi hopes one end result of reform will be more lessons that incorporate several subject areas -- science, math, English and social studies at the same time, for example -- and require students to ask their own questions and solve problems involving multiple parts. These are things, he said, that middle school students are newly able and eager to do because of the brain development they experience at their age.
The review also is evaluating whether there are enough after-school programs (there are, despite the original recommendation, still a few interscholastic sports), enough elective courses and enough guidance counselors.
To the last question, Sumner says no. His school has one part-time and two full-time counselors for 720 students. "I think every school should have a counselor for every grade level," he said.
Eight auditors from MGT conducted interviews and visited each of the county's 36 middle schools over seven days. As part of the review, focus groups were assembled at 12 middle schools -- including groups for students.
When asked what makes up the ideal middle school, kids said they need classes where they get to be active, teachers who make them think and principals who know them personally.
Tarazi thinks that the students' opinions were right on and that little is more important than ensuring those characteristics of a good school.
"Middle school kids are like sponges," he said. "They absorb everything -- good and bad."