Momentum in the middle schools Howard County: In odd way, report showed how academics complement self-esteem.

October 01, 1997

MIDDLE SCHOOLS in Howard County during the past year took the right approach to an evaluation that sharply criticized weaknesses in this important link between elementary and high school. Far from adopting a defensive crouch, as some had feared, administrators absorbed the criticisms and implemented changes.

Some of the fixes reflected common sense. Others were delightfully daring. All are designed to sharpen the focus on academics for sixth, seventh and eight-graders.

It was almost a year ago that a committee of parents and two educational consultants completed a two-part report on middle schools.

One conclusion of their findings: Schools placed too much attention on self-esteem, not enough on academic achievement.

Their suggestion that those two concepts must be at odds was false. Self-esteem does contribute to academic achievement and viceversa.

In fact, the report revealed how the system had become strait-jacketed by a fear that it might diminish one child's self-esteem by boosting another's. Thus, honor rolls had fallen into disfavor. Spelling bees and math bees had become frowned upon. Discipline was sorely lacking.

School officials wisely took the criticisms to heart. They dropped a middle school philosophy that the parents committee complained placed too little emphasis on academics. They encouraged more competition. And they looked to shift more responsibility for students to perform state-required community service from teachers to the students themselves.

Perhaps the boldest move, embraced by some middle schools this school year, was to increase class periods to 90 minutes, the standard in most high schools.

This college-style scheduling doubles the time that teachers have to work with students and cuts down on interruptions.

Schools have expanded classroom time by trimming minutes from lunch periods and imposed new academic standards for seventh- and eighth-graders. Overall, the system-wide and school-based response to the report of a year ago has been impressive. The changes should enable students to improve their academic performance -- and to feel good about it.

Pub Date: 10/01/97

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