Middle schools due for change

State task force to recommend focus on achievement

April 11, 1999|By Mary Maushard | Mary Maushard,SUN STAFF

Maryland's middle schools are marked -- for change and achievement.

Prompted by flat middle school test scores and growing complaints that they are academic wastelands, a state task force will make preliminary recommendations later this month to shift the focus of the state's middle schools to more academics.

Middle schools once aimed to help pupils feel good about themselves in early adolescence, but many educators now believe that isn't enough. "We've made these schools friendlier; now we need to make them high-performing," said Douglas MacIver, who has been studying middle schools and their pupils since 1980.

MacIver, a developmental psychologist and associate director and research scientist at the Center for the Social Organization of Schools at the Johns Hopkins University, is referring to the model that emerged when junior highs were replaced by middle schools a couple of decades ago.

That design played to the needs of students experiencing tremendous physical growth and social and emotional upheaval. Critics say that emphasis has sometimes shortchanged pupils.

"We indulged that philosophy, and I think we've done a disservice," said Nancy S. Grasmick, state superintendent of schools. "When they get in the real world, that's not the way it's going to be."

Improving achievement

Grasmick said the emphasis in middle grades, as at other levels of schooling, should be "achievement, achievement, achievement."

So the state task force, made up of teachers, administrators and researchers from around Maryland, is expected to suggest toughening academic standards. Among the reforms:

Some form of student ability grouping, which many middle schools do not currently use. Grasmick also wants renewed focus on gifted and talented pupils, who need "rigorous challenges."

Specific time requirements for core subjects.

Concentration on reading, which has returned to some middle school curricula, and math, so more pupils are prepared for higher-level courses in high school.

More preparation and continued training for teachers. Middle school certification, or at least middle school-specific courses, may be required of teachers. Maryland teachers are certified either for elementary -- kindergarten through eighth grade -- or secondary -- sixth through 12th grades. This means middle school teachers can hold either certification.

As Maryland high schools prepare for new state tests that will be required for graduation beginning with the Class of 2005, the need to raise achievement in middle schools takes on added urgency. Educators in the Archdiocese of Baltimore also completed a review of their middle schools two years ago, and other private and parochial schools are studying their sixth through eighth grades.

One private middle school head presents academics as a relief for youngsters. "Sometimes I tell these middle school girls who are so preoccupied with friendships academics is a place where you can sort of rest. You can get your mind off yourselves," said Rena Diana, head of grades five to eight at St. Paul's School for Girls in Brooklandville.

But others say that nonacademic concerns can't be ignored. "There's something very unique about these kids," said Jack Wilson, principal of Loch Raven Academy, a magnet middle school in Baltimore County. "If you don't recognize that, they are going to sabotage you."

A middle school innovation being tried in Howard County is block scheduling, which came to the county's high schools in the past few years. Instead of seven or eight classes a day, students at Elkridge Landing Middle School in Elkridge have four 80-minute periods, plus lunch and a 35-minute advisory period.

Under this schedule, pupils take academic classes -- science, social studies, English, math, reading and foreign language -- every other day. The longer classes allow more time for in-depth discussions or for teachers to try new approaches, such as group projects. And by reducing the number of times pupils change classes, it adds several minutes to instructional time and lowers the chances for hallway disturbances.

Such scheduling gets mixed marks from pupils: "The good thing is you get more work done," said Elkridge Landing seventh-grader Richard Gray. "The bad thing is you can't socialize. I'm one of those people who socializes a lot."

Twelve-year-old Yvonne Waldo, also at Elkridge Landing, agrees that with fewer but longer classes, "you don't get to see your friends as much."

Parents weigh in

Though ambivalence -- especially toward school -- is a hallmark of adolescence, that doesn't extend to adolescents' parents.

Howard County parents spent 18 months studying their middle schools before issuing a 180-page, largely critical report in October 1996 that differed greatly from the assessment of two consultants hired by the school system, who had given the middle schools a passing grade.

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