ELLICOTT CITY, MD. — Walk through any middle school in the United States, and what you'll notice are the big feet - just a hint of the physical, social, and emotional changes that make Grades 5 to 8 so challenging to many teachers.
"We have sixth-graders who are 6 feet tall and wear a size 15 shoe. They wake up every morning and their bodies are different. It can be a very emotional time," says Sue Pope, a sixth-grade mathematics teacher at Ellicott Mills Middle School in Howard County, Md.
Her reading colleague, Kathy Benditt, furnishes her classroom with soft chairs she bought at a yard sale. "Sixth-graders are not designed to sit in hard chairs, and reading is a recreational activity," she says.
For most of this century, educators have argued that such students need their own schools. Early reformers created junior high schools (Grades 7 to 9) to help students bridge the chasm between the warmth of a neighborhood elementary school and the anonymity of a large high school.
In the 1960s, the middle-school movement (variously, Grades 5 to 8) targeted the developmental needs of "volatile" young learners. Now, the pendulum may be shifting back to a focus on traditional academics, and disgruntled parents are pushing it.
Public-school officials in Cincinnati, which launched the first middle schools, are in the process of scrapping them. "We found that we just couldn't implement the middle-school model as it was designed," says Jack Lewis, director of research and evaluation for Cincinnati public schools.
For example, a signature reform of the middle-school movement was the creation of interdisciplinary teams of teachers to follow students through their middle-school years and help create a sense of belonging. But there was so much staff and student mobility that Cincinnati schools never developed stable teams or consistency for most students.
In addition, officials say that achievement improved as they began to reintegrate middle schools into a K-8 system. Truancy and serious discipline problems also dropped. "One of the problems with middle schools is having so many kids of a vulnerable age in the same building, without role models they can look up to, as in high school, or younger students for whom they can be role models, as in elementary school," says Kathleen Ware, assistant superintendent of Cincinnati public schools.
"We've had many calls from other districts all over the country interested in doing the same thing," she adds.
Poor discipline, low achievement
In Cincinnati, as in other cities, unhappy parents were a catalyst for change. Alarmed by poor discipline and student achievement in the middle-school years, many were pulling their children out of Cincinnati public schools after elementary school. In response to similar concerns, Baltimore is beginning to phase out its middle schools.
The Third International Math and Science Study (TIMSS) shows American students competing above the international average in the fourth grade, but falling behind in the middle-school years. In addition, some 39 percent of eighth-graders are unprepared for high school work, according to results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).
"We don't seem to make the same kind of progress between the fourth and eighth grades that some other countries do, especially in math," says US Secretary of Education Richard Riley.
Critics blame the middle-school philosophy and structure. "Middle schools are the wasteland of our primary and secondary landscape," write Marc Tucker and Judy Codding in their recent book, "Standards for Our Schools."
"Caught between the warmth of a good elementary school and the academic seriousness of a good high school, middle-school students often get the least of both and the best of neither," they add. They urge going back to a K-8 system.
A recent report by the Atlanta-based Southern Regional Education Board said that "the middle grades - Grades 5 through 8 - are the "weak link in American education," but held out hope for reform.
"Middle schools have lost a lot of credibility. There's been too much emphasis on the developmental needs and not enough on academic needs," says Hayes Mizell, who works with the New York-based Edna McConnell Clark Foundation on middle-school reform. "There are many schools at this level where even the people in the schools are unclear about what we should be doing. If you take your child when he or she enters the sixth grade and walk into the principal's office and say, 'Tell me what I should reasonably expect that my child should be able to do by the end of the eighth grade,' you'll find that most can't tell you," he adds.
A harsh evaluation
In Maryland, Howard County teachers and administrators were stunned when a parent group blasted its middle schools for "sacrificing academic standards in an effort to help students develop self-esteem."
"The initial  report left us all shell-shocked - it was the harshest evaluation we had ever had," says Patti Caplan, a spokeswoman for the Howard County schools.
Howard County looked like a textbook case of the good middle-school. It had set up flexible schedules, discovery-oriented instruction, teams of teachers and students that would stay together for at least a year, and a dense advising network to help students with personal problems. In addition, its middle schools ranked at the top in state exams, and two experts commended the county for "groundbreaking work."
But parents who conducted their own 18-month study of the system were more impressed with discipline problems and the need for remediation they saw in a student population that is becoming more diverse. They also worried that the "discovery learning" sessions they observed did not provide enough in the way of basic skills.
"What we found were basic problems in skill acquisition," says Deborah Schultz, a parent member of the Middle School Review Committee. "They didn't want to push the kids too hard or they'll lose self-esteem."
"There were no geography or spelling bees, no posting of any kind of recognition for high-achieving students. We asked a teacher why her school had not enrolled to compete in a national geography competition, and she told us, 'We're not allowed to do that,' " adds Shari Fanaroff, who also served on the committee.
Since the report, Howard County administrators say they have shifted the emphasis squarely back on academic achievement. "Middle-school principals really took that report to heart, says Vincent Catania, principal of Murray Hill Middle School.
The district is just completing explicit guidelines for what each child should know throughout the middle-school years. It also stated clearly that academic recognition was "appropriate," and academic competition "encouraged." Students were given daily planners with velcro ties and plenty of zipper pockets to organize academic work.
"For several years, the emphasis was self-esteem. Since the report, the focus is on successful academics, which brings self-esteem. Honor rolls are back," says Ms. Pope. "If you give them hollow compliments or work that is not challenging, they know it and think they're not good enough," she adds.
But some administrators regret the cuts on the social side that have resulted. "We agree that there should be a greater emphasis on academics, but if it is just that, then we start getting guns and knives in school," says Alice Haskins, administrative coordinator for the Howard County public schools. "We need to help kids feel comfortable with issues critical in their lives. They are learning to solve problems, to sort out relationships. We got rid of our advising groups, and now I'm seeing more fights in school."
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