Saturday, August 14, 2010

Learning Curve: STUCK IN THE MIDDLE 

By Maureen Downey | Get Schooled Blog/Opinion in the Atlanta Journal Constitution

August 2, 2010 -- I am going back to middle school today.

My twins began sixth grade this morning, going to the same middle school that my older two children attended.

My children’s k-12 education opened with a fantastic elementary school and concluded with a strong high school experience.

Middle school was another story, in part because their school went through a series of principals in six years, each bringing a short-lived flurry of changes that destabilized the school and the teachers.

The school boasted some wonderful teachers, but the overall experience was a disappointment and the atmosphere off-putting.

Parents often felt they were entering a prison under lockdown when they visited the school during the day, half expecting to be checked for contraband themselves.

I know that many people argue that middle school is of small importance because the students themselves are so addled by hormones that they can’t concentrate.

As a result, middle schools have long been seen as holding pens until the young teens and their hormones simmer down.

Whenever I voice any misgivings about middle schools, advocates send me scolding messages that the problem is not with the fundamental model, but with how poorly districts have put it into practice, not fully funding it or not faithfully adhering to the principles.

There’s been a concerted national effort to improve middle schools, but the results remain unimpressive, suggesting to me that the format itself is flawed.

Anything that is this hard to repair may not be worth fixing, sort of like my beloved canary yellow Mustang that ended up costing me more to fix than it was worth.

Looking at a second camshaft in less than a year, my mechanic counseled me it was time to move to a new model.

I hated to see old “Yeller” go to the scrap heap, but my new car was more reliable, safer and far less costly to maintain.

I suggest that we ought to consider new models for educating adolescents, including k-8 schools that offer the nurturing environment of elementary school to children for these critical adolescent years.

The average middle school in Georgia houses nearly 900 students. While educators complain that parents step back in middle school, the research suggests they are also pushed back a bit.

Parental involvement is strongly influenced by a school’s treatment and view of the parents and by whether teachers believe parents can make a contribution.

The problem is that teachers dealing with 150 students a day in a big, impersonal middle school can’t really connect with them. When their children don’t bond with teachers or the school, neither do the parents.

One of the selling points of middle schools is the team concept in which a group of teachers have the same collection of students every day, and the classrooms are often located in the same wing of the building.

As one middle school manual explains: “This middle school team approach allows teachers to more closely ‘follow the child,’ i.e., develop stronger ties with individual students and therefore better able to monitor their progress and offer quick feedback and assistance ... which in turn allows students and teachers to establish the stronger connections.”

But I never saw this team approach in action. Yes, my children were on a color-coded team, but beyond scheduling, the team didn’t seen to serve any other function in their daily lives or interactions.

I remember my first meeting with my child’s “team.” It was clear that the teachers had never had a single conversation with each other about my daughter. This didn’t surprise me. My daughter was a good student who would not have created a need for too many huddles.

But the teachers couldn’t even answer my basic questions about her schedule or her classes: How does the school assign students to elective classes? No one had any idea. How do band and chorus work? Again, no clue.

Later, a friend who teaches middle school counseled me that her colleagues concentrate their efforts on the kids who are drowning, and that a student who does well, shows up and turns in her homework is probably going to be considered a gift. She will be left to her own devices.

I understand the focus on students who are struggling, given what is at stake in middle schools today.

In its report “The Forgotten Middle,” ACT researchers concluded: “Our research shows that, under current conditions, the level of academic achievement that students attain by eighth grade has a larger impact on their college and career readiness by the time they graduate from high school than anything that happens academically in high school.”

But I also think that it is disheartening to drop off your children at a building that resembles a Russian prison and hope that somebody notices them.


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