JOE AND HIS jailhouse lawyer, Paul, never know when to shut up.
These two middle-school boys, who will some day talk themselves into a prison term for a parking ticket, can alibi and negotiate until you wish you were deaf.
And that's exactly what they were doing as they attempted to prepare me for a worst-case scenario, report card-wise.
"A 'C' means average. It means you are like everyone else," said Paul, talking fast and following me around the kitchen as I tried to ignore him. "You want Joe to be like everyone else, don't you? Average means normal. You want Joe to be normal, don't you?"
I think Paul was speaking from experience. I think he might have been "normal" in one of his subjects last year. And I think he wouldn't mind some company in "normal," because then he could tell his parents that everyone else gets "C's." Meaning, of course, Joe.
It is amazing how the middle-school mind works. If Joe and Paul put half the effort into their schoolwork that they put toward getting out of it or defending it, they'd be better than "average" students.
But if they were better than average students, they wouldn't fit in. They'd be nerds and kiss-ups, and they would be cut out of the herd that moves through the hallways of their middle school.
So Joe and his buddies walk a fine line between social isolation and parental wrath. Their schoolwork is just good enough to get them by. It is sloppy, incomplete, mediocre, half-baked, but they turn it in on time so they won't fail.
"It's fine the way it is," parents are told. "The teacher never checks it anyway." "You should have seen everybody else's."
"This is a common theme in middle school after middle school," said Doug Mac Iver, associate director at the Johns Hopkins Center for the Social Organization of Schools and director of its middle-school programs.
"It is a problem that cuts across the socioeconomic spectrum and all racial lines. The social norms in middle school scorn effort and reward achievement only when it appears to be done without effort."
Don't blow the curve. Don't show up your buddies. Don't go along with the teacher -- she is the enemy. Don't give her what she wants, she will only want more. Don't make it tough on everybody else.
There is no peer support for achievement in middle school, and Mac Iver has documented it with student responses to these kinds of survey statements: My classmates make fun of students who ask questions in class. My classmates don't think it is important to pay attention to the teacher in this class. My classmates don't care if I work hard or not in this class. Sometimes I don't do as well in this class as I could so that I will
fit in better with my friends.
There is more than peer pressure at work here. My friend Janice Hubbard, who teaches study skills to kids like Joe and Paul, says kids do too many things to do any of them well. When you are in your seat at 7 a.m. for orchestra practice and rolling home at 8: 30 p.m. from soccer practice, what is your homework going to look like?
And working parents don't have the time or the energy to pull kids back to the kitchen table to polish school work. It is done; that's all that matters at 9: 30 p.m.
Teachers, too, have a part in this. Expectations and accountability have been their domain, but they are weary of battling with kids who have discovered teacher authority can be challenged without consequences. "Nothing will happen if I don't do it," middle-schoolers will tell you, and they are correct.
Mac Iver and his fellow researchers at Hopkins have designed a number of strategies to deal with this middle-school malaise, but two stand out for their astonishing common sense: team play and real-world standards.
First, the lessons of sports can be adapted to the much-maligned cooperative learning model in the classroom.
Every child complains that it is he who is driving the bus while everyone else in his group rides. What if the team's success depended on how well everyone could drive? What if every member had to improve his grade from a starting point? What if, like swimmers or track athletes, everyone had to score a personal best for the team to succeed?
"You need an incentive for everyone to improve," says Mac Iver. "Not a group product with a group grade, but a system where the function of group time is to help everyone prepare for an individual assessment."
The top student endures the most pressure not to do his best. But in this system, his improvement over his already-high average is just as important.
"Middle-school kids are so concerned about their social relationships," says Mac Iver, "that if you give them an opportunity for peer interaction to be a positive behavior, it can really energize them. This way, there is no social risk to giving your best."
Second, teachers need to connect what middle-schoolers are learning to the real world.