Middle school turnaround

July 19, 2005

AFTER DISMAL results among middle school students on annual state tests, Baltimore school officials have announced a promising reform effort. While the plan is still being refined, it targets sensible areas of need. Success, however, will depend on a concerted, coordinated effort and more resources from the state and city.

On this year's annual state tests, fewer than 50 percent of Baltimore's sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders were considered proficient in English, and fewer than 20 percent were proficient in math. Though city school students performed particularly poorly, the middle school achievement sag is a national problem. Long-term results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress released last week show that across the country, the performance of middle school students was mixed. While 13-year-olds achieved higher-than-ever math scores, reading scores were the same as they were in 1980.

None of Baltimore's 23 middle schools made "adequate yearly progress" on the standardized tests, as required by the federal No Child Left Behind law. That's why city school officials have unveiled a plan to shake up many of those schools and improve their performance.

The plan anticipates removing 11 of the 23 principals, devoting more time to reading and math with new curriculum materials, and having teachers train more on early adolescent development. The plan also calls for middle school students to spend an hour a day studying art or some other elective course.

To help make the plan come to life, school officials are aggressively recruiting middle school teachers in order to avoid having more than 200 middle school teacher vacancies, as happened during the last school year. They are also considering converting some traditional middle schools to schools that cover kindergarten through eighth grade, which can be less disruptive and disorienting to students.

Many of these proposed changes have merit, but parents and community members need to be more closely consulted before decisions are made for each neighborhood school. Even at an estimated cost of $6 million, the plan won't cover all the schools that need fixing. The state and the city should add more resources to ensure that every middle school student has a chance to attend a school that has all the ingredients for success.

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