WASHINGTON – Marked by sweaty-palmed school dances,lunch table insecurities and hormone surges that can turn just about any social situation awkward,middle school is a rite of passage on the path to becoming a bona-fide teenager.
Critics say these schools,which include grades six to eight,focus too much on students' social skills at the expense of academics. The time and energy would be better spent on a more demanding curriculum,they say.
To improve student performance,critics envision returning to an early 20th century model – systems with seamless kindergarten-through-eighth-grade schools and four-year high schools.
“The middle school concept dumbs-down expectations at the middle level,” said Cheri Pierson Yecke,author of the newly published “Mayhem in the Middle,” which chronicles what it calls the failure of the middle school ideology.
“Middle school ideology has an emphasis on social justice or egalitarianism,” Yecke said at a symposium sponsored by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute,which publishes education research. “We believe a better way to fight poverty is to give students,especially in poor neighborhoods,a good education so that they will be able to break the cycle of poverty.”
To show that American students fall behind during their middle-school years,Yecke compares them with students from abroad. In 1995,U.S. fourth graders scored at the international average on a math exam. But four years later,the scores of eighth graders were 22 points below the international average,according to the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study,published by the U.S. Department of Education.
Science scores from the same study showed a similar drop. In 1995,U.S. fourth graders were 28 points above the international average,plummeting by 1999 to 9 points below the international average for eighth graders.
“No other country focuses on a middle school movement,” Yecke said. “It has driven policy and expectations in the wrong way,and we need to steer that ship around.”
But what exactly is the middle school movement? Middle schools began in the mid-1960s as baby boomers were overfilling existing elementary schools,said James A. Beane,a professor of education at the National-Louis University in Milwaukee and an expert on the middle school movement.
The movement focused on the belief that adolescent education should not be limited to academic rigor,Beane said. Instead,students should also learn social skills in an environment that prized diversity and meaningful relationships.
Beane said that critics of the middle school model misattribute the success of the K-8 model to other factors,such as income levels and class size. He said the best indicator of a school's academic success is its poverty index. “The school is not an island,” he said.
Beane argued that the middle school movement has been successful,but most schools haven't fully used the techniques. “It's fair to criticize the incomplete implementation of the middle school movement,but it's not fair to criticize its ideals or goals,” he said.
Beane cited a Florida study,published in the September 2005 Middle School Journal,that found that students who attended middle schools do slightly better in ninth grade reading than those who completed a K-8 program.
The National PTA,meanwhile,is staying out of the debate. “It's a local issue,” said national PTA spokesman James A. Martinez. ”We leave it up to local PTAs to decide what's best for their communities.”
One example that critics of the middle school system point to is KIPP DC. It's a school that places extremely high demands on students,including nine-hour school days,Saturday school and mandatory summer school.
Susan A. Schaeffler,the executive director of KIPP DC,said there are no excuses for students who come from troubled homes,and they should not be given extra leeway by concerned teachers.
“That's the complete wrong approach,” Schaeffler said. “In fact,for that kid,I want to make the expectation higher,push him a little harder.”
Schaeffler said that developing a school culture that embraces learning is essential. One method her school uses is “KIPPnotizing” students,in which teachers wear college sweatshirts,bombard students with questions about which colleges they want to go to and name their homerooms after prestigious schools.