Monday, December 26, 2005

The Disappearing Middle School

Earlier, we reported that it seems as though many public school systems are giving serious consideration to phasing-out their middle schools and returning to a traditional two-school configuration. Louisiana's state superintendent of education is the latest policy-maker to consider this fundamental change:
Some middle schools in the state appear to be their own worst enemies and possibly should be phased out, says Superintendent of Education Cecil Picard.

Picard said national studies and results in New Orleans show that having schools with students from kindergarten through eighth grade, instead of middle schools for grades six, seven and eight, produces a better atmosphere for learning and eases tension among the older students.

"I'm not saying getting rid of middle schools is for everybody," Picard said. "But there's enough evidence, particularly in urban areas, that it works."

He said he would not push school systems to do it, but will ask urban school districts about trying it.

Studies found academic performance improved among students in their early teens after Minneapolis, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Milwaukee and Memphis, Tenn., shifted many middle schools to K-8 schools. The idea worked so well that by 2008, Philadelphia will drop the number of middle schools from 42 to eight.

Picard said he was doubtful of the studies, but he found that when former Orleans Parish Superintendent of Schools Tony Amato created "renaissance schools" with K-8 classes, it worked.

"After years of New Orleans' eighth-graders being among the worst in the state accountability testing, for the first time, New Orleans students started going up," Picard said.

Middle schools are "the Bermuda triangle of education," he said, because "something dramatic happens after elementary school. Students' social and academic behaviors start to fail."

Louisiana school systems have made great strides in improving elementary schools. The focus of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education is redesigning high schools to better prepare students for college or the workforce.

"We need to focus on the wonder years," Picard said. Many students who have done well in elementary school "lose their way, academically and socially, when they hit middle school. By the end of the eighth grade, many never recover and drop out of school or continue to sink in high school."

A new certification program for middle school teachers is designed to help them better handle that situation.

"It's a very trying time," Picard said. "Hormones are flying all over the place. There is a lot of peer pressure. They feed on each other."
I would be curious to know if under these "new traditional" configurations students in the upper elementary grades of 6, 7, and 8 change classrooms/teachers for different core subjects (as is the case in most middle/junior high schools) or spend the entire school day with one teacher, as is the case on some campuses here in California's "Imperial" Valley.
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