Report on middle schools comes as a healthy shock


September 28, 1997|By Norris West

I WAS SURPRISED by the first part of a report on middle schools released last October. The document was a sharp sword that ripped Howard County's middle schools to shreds.

Looking over the report almost a year later, I still find it difficult to believe the committee of citizens was talking about this middle school system and not one in an underfunded, undermanned and under-attack urban district.

I had three children in a county middle school at the time, and few of the committee's criticisms seemed to apply.

People since have told me that my impressions were wrong, because the school my children were attending was an exception to most of the criticisms contained in the exhaustive evaluation. True, it is headed by last year's Maryland middle school teacher of the year. Critics said problems in other places don't exist there.

Still, I am not convinced that problems in the county's most troubled middle schools are as dire as the report suggested. Also, it is nonsense to say, as the report did, that building self-esteem and academic achievement are conflicting goals.

The committee contends that problems trickled down from a misguided philosophy. The philosophy said the school system "is committed to providing learning experiences which nurture intellectual, social, emotional and physical growth."

The committee replied, "We believe students in the middle school should experience academic success and strive for excellence."

Although "intellectual" growth seems to have been stressed by the school system previously, the committee said the philosophy failed to place enough emphasis on academic achievement.

Stung by opportunity

The report did serve an important purpose. It erupted like a shot out of the dark and it wounded administrators all the way up to Superintendent Michael E. Hickey, who was visibly stung. Officials took the criticisms seriously and used them as an opportunity to reflect and revise. The report became a catalyst for a swirl of activity and bold initiatives.

"In my tenure in county schools, this is one of the first times I've seen such a momentum to change in middle schools," Alice Haskins, the county's instructional coordinator for middle schools.

Honor rolls are back. So are academic competitions. Perhaps the boldest change, though, is the implementation of the four-period day at many middle schools, a monumental scheduling change that until this year had been in place only at the high school level.

Murray Hill and Clarksville middle schools operate on the "A-B" model, a sensible college-style schedule that is similar to those in many high schools. Under the schedules, teachers in many subjects see their students half as often but each class session is twice as long. Students may attend science class every other day, but they spend as long as 90 minutes there instead of half that time. The chief benefit of these schedules is more continuity or less interruption.

Naturally, such a dramatic change caused confusion at the outset. It takes time to get used to the A-B schedule, but the arrangement can give students more time in class, less in the halls.

New schedules, however, will not answer all the criticisms. And they don't necessarily confront the chief criticism: Middle schools were failing to prepare students for high school.

Merriman's complaint

The case of Robert H. Merriman went to the center of this issue. Mr. Merriman is the father who sued the county to retain his son in eighth grade. He argued that the boy was not ready for high school.

Mr. Merriman prevailed. Officials allowed his son to repeat eighth grade.

The middle school report noted that only 13 middle school students were held back in sixth, seventh and eighth grades in the 1994-95 school year.

The committee argued, convincingly, that more of them should have been retained. The same year, 191 ninth-grade students were retained.

Middle schools should reconsider whether students who barely meet standards should be promoted. More of them might benefit from repeating a grade sooner rather than later.

Other issues remain. One is grouping, or tracking. The county has opted for "flexible grouping" to allow late-surging students to move from a slower track to a faster one. Schools should resist fixed tracking. Under such a model, would Dr. Benjamin Carson have moved from being the worst student in fifth grade to being a world-renowned neurosurgeon?

One of the biggest issues is discipline. A tough, new system-wide approach was put in place this year and should make a difference over the long haul. Middle schools should be the biggest beneficiary of the plan.

The issue that has generated most concern is arts education, which must have a place.

The committee's report spurred much fruitful discussion. But as middle schools make changes, officials must be careful not to throw out the things that work well.

Norris West is The Sun's editorial writer in Howard County.

Pub Date: 9/28/97

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