Tuesday, June 07, 2005

The Middle Grades: What's Old Is New Again!

Good Washington Post article (bugmenot: god[at]hell.com password: perro) focusing on kids in the sixth grade and the current trend of eliminating middle schools in favor of the more traditional elementary/high configuration. Here is one key passage:

What to do with emerging adolescents has been the subject of a decades-old debate that shows no sign of abating. Early 20th-century American schools placed sixth grade squarely in elementary school, which ended in eighth grade. That started to change after the end of World War I when more schools began ending elementary schools with sixth grade.

In the latter part of the century, millions of sixth-graders were moved to middle schools, which most often had grades 6 through 8. Some changed their academic and social programs and became successful; others, especially in urban areas, became crowded and did nothing to adapt to student needs. The schools developed reputations as a weak link, with out-of-field teachers generally teaching a larger percentage of students in the middle grades (grades 5 through 9) than in high school, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

The pendulum seems to be swinging again. Now, in about a dozen American cities -- including Baltimore and New York -- administrators are trying to eliminate middle schools and reverting to K-8 schools, said Prof. Paul George, an expert on middle schools at the University of Florida. (In the District, Superintendent Clifford B. Janey has said he likes the K-8 model and will start to review the organization of grades next year.) George, however, said he is skeptical of the trend.

"There are so many unknowns, and I'm afraid in these dozen school districts, where admittedly good middle school programs are not commonly found, that they are going to do K-8 the same way they do 6-8, and that is with ignorance," he said.

Here in the small town where I teach, our district opened a new elementary school not so long ago. Even though the other primary schools were all grades K-6, the new school was to be K-8. And sure enough, when school opened, that was what it was.

It didn't last.

Both parents and teachers intensely disliked the new configuration. Teachers were unhappy with the fact that they had to prepare lessons in 5 discrete subject areas each day. Parents were unhappy with the fact that students did not have "elective" classes, as they have at the junior high school where I work. Parents wanted their kids to change teachers for each subject, as in junior/senior high schools.

And of course, a great many teachers, parents, and students just didn't like being in the same classroom, with the same kids and the same teacher, all day, every day.

After two years, the unhappiness became so acute that the superintendent recommended (and the board ratified) that the experimental K-8 format be scrapped and the school's program changed to a K-6 scheme.

Because nearly all of our 7th and 8th grade classes have 35 students each and every period, I could not imagine being locked in the same room with 35 hormone-charged 8th graders all day. For many teachers, classroom management would be a challenge, to say the least.

Even though they are often on the cusp of adolescence, sixth-grade students are, for the most part, still children. For them, the nurturing environment that is often fostered in a single teacher/single classroom (sometimes known as a self-contained) can be enormously beneficial.

But I'm not so sure that this trip back to the future is the wisest choice for students in grades seven and eight. I think that they need to be transitioned into the environment that is found at the senior high school. For that reason, I believe that we need our middle and junior high schools.
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