Middle school fixes proposed

Tougher courses, prepared teachers top panel's suggestions

Pupils need challenges

Reading instruction recommended to halt declining test scores

April 28, 1999|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

Maryland middle school pupils need tougher academic challenges, better-prepared teachers and smaller schools if their test scores are to improve, a task force recommended to the state school board yesterday.

"The curriculum in too many middle schools is too often repetitive, unfocused and unchallenging," said Douglas MacIver, task force co-chairman and associate director at the Johns Hopkins University's Center for the Social Organization of Schools. "It is impossible to achieve at high levels when students are in classes with low-level expectations."

The preliminary recommendations of the middle school task force follow several years in which eighth-grade test scores have been falling. "This declining performance trend at the eighth-grade level is unacceptable," said state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick, who appointed the task force in June. "We have to act to reverse it."

The task force is not expected to issue its final report until early July, but yesterday it laid out preliminary recommendations to begin gathering feedback from state school board members and national middle school experts.

Many of the recommendations are aimed at reversing a long-standing criticism that began when junior high schools were transformed into middle schools in the 1970s -- that academics were pushed aside in favor of tending to adolescents' needs. A task force in Howard County 2 1/2 years ago developed similar proposals for the county's middle schools.

The state task force said all students should be challenged as much as possible. Struggling students "need intense, no-excuses extra-help programs," and middle schools should offer high school- or college-level courses to students ready for more challenging work, MacIver said.

"Too many middle school students spend the day filling out work sheets, listening to endless lectures and watching their teachers work at the chalkboard," Mac- Iver said.

Middle schools should not group pupils strictly by ability because it "can obstruct students' access to courses that serve as gateways to more rigorous academic preparation," the task force said.

MacIver added: "Some middle schools actually manufacture low achievement by students."

To halt sliding reading test scores, the task force recommended that all pupils receive specific instruction in reading.

The task force's preliminary recommendations were generally praised by state school board members as well as two outside experts brought in by Grasmick -- University of Delaware educational studies Professor Richard Venezky, and Nancy Doda, a professor at National-Louis University in Evanston, Ill.

"I think this is an excellent beginning," Venezky told the board. "The job now is taking this to the difficult detail level."

It's not clear how quickly the task force's recommendations might be implemented across the state. Grasmick said she is "impatient" to get started and will ask the task force to include a time line for each recommendation when it brings its final report to the board this summer.

"I think you really have to triage these recommendations," Grasmick said. "For some, I hope we could have them ready for the opening of schools next fall."

Among the specific changes proposed by the task force was improved training of all middle school teachers in the subject areas they teach and in dealing with early adolescent pupils. Under the task force's guidelines, all middle school teachers would be required to have 36 semester credits in their content areas and 27 semester credits in early adolescent-specific education.

Maryland does not have a specific certification category for middle school teachers. Some middle school teachers are certified for kindergarten through eighth grade, while others are certified for sixth grade through high school.

"Neither of these is sufficient, as elementary-certified teachers lack content expertise and secondary-certified teachers lack age-appropriate experience," said Alice Haskins, co-chairwoman of the task force and Howard County's K-12 coordinator who specializes in middle schools.

The task force recommends creating a middle school certification. Current and prospective teachers would have five years to meet the requirements, and all middle school teachers would hold this middle-level certification, the task force said.

On a schoolwide level, the task force said middle schools should find ways to create smaller environments for pupils -- even when enrollment often exceeds 1,200 pupils. It suggested breaking middle schools into smaller units and looping -- having pupils stay with the same teachers for two or more years.

"We need to allow the relationship between teachers and students to last for two or three years, rather than just 180 days," MacIver said.

Class schedules also should be made more flexible, the task force said, with more time set aside for more important or difficult subjects.

Pub Date: 4/28/99

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