The dead zone of middle school could get worse

March 04, 2001|By Susan Reimer

MY SON RECENTLY asked me what I would do differently if I had him to raise all over again, and a catalog of decisions I would like to make again leapt to mind.

One stood out, however, and I said without pausing: "I'd send you to a private school for middle school."

"I would, too," Joe said, thoughtfully. "I would, too."

Middle school is a kind of dead zone in public education in Maryland. Teachers are frantically trying to prepare students for the state assessment tests given in eighth grade. Meanwhile, the kids are awash in hormone levels set on rinse and spin.

In Anne Arundel County, at least, the results are what you might expect: Less than a third of eighth graders met the minimum state standard for reading on the Maryland School Performance Assessment Test, which is designed to measure their critical thinking skills and their ability to work in groups.

When these same students enter high school, they find themselves woefully unprepared for the work expected of them, and they spend ninth grade scrambling, sometimes unsuccessfully, for a toehold.

That does not seem to be the case with the private school kids who merge with the public school kids for high school. If anything, they complain that ninth grade is repetitious, as they revisit the fundamentals that are abandoned in public middle school in the name of MSPAP.

Now, in a misguided attempt to improve the reading scores of its eighth-grade students, the Anne Arundel County School Board has approved Superintendent Carol Parham's plan for doubling the time spent on reading instruction, but at the expense of a music, art or physical education elective. In other words, the school board has decided to do twice as much of something that hasn't worked.

And, instead of focusing the extra instruction on children who do not read at grade level, they are requiring it of every sixth grader. (The program will expand to seventh and eighth graders in future years.)

As you might imagine, this decision is wildly unpopular with the parents of children who not only read well but also play an instrument or sing.

It will be the bands, orchestras and choruses that will suffer most under this plan, and yet I am willing to wager that most of their members performed very satisfactorily on the MSPAP test.

When we made the public / private decision for middle school, the factor that tipped the scales for us was the renowned band and orchestra program at the public middle school.

Though neither of our children had a musical gift and both abandoned music for sports in high school, they had wanted to be in the orchestra with their friends, and they wanted to take the fancy spring field trip to Atlanta or New York that was the reward for their hard work.

It was an easy decision for us to support. Every student survey done on the topic shows that participating in band, orchestra or chorus is a predictor of academic success and a contra-indicator of risk-taking behaviors. In the troubled world of public education, that is close to a guarantee of safe passage through early adolescence.

Yet the Anne Arundel County School Board would jeopardize the middle-school music programs for some students because schools have failed to teach other students to read.

What sense does this make?

Every student should read more, and most could probably read better. But a one-size-fits-all approach to a serious instructional failure is not going to lift two-thirds of the county's eighth graders out of the MSPAP cellar.

In the meantime, the most powerful selling point for public middle schools could be lost.

This might be one of those decisions the board will wish it could make again.

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