It's time to phase out the middle school model

December 28, 2005|By GREGORY KANE

Students in those uncertain years between the ages of 11 and 13 fare better at reading when they're in schools where the classes are kindergarten through eighth grade (K-8) instead of middle schools that include grades six through eight, according to test scores recently presented by the head of the city school system.

Baltimore schools Chief Executive Officer Bonnie S. Copeland released the scores last week while defending Studio Course, a reading and writing curriculum.

Studio Course relies on teen magazines as teaching tools and lets kids write about whatever they want. City school officials say they adopted it to turn around sinking test scores, but critics say it won't work because it doesn't emphasize grammar.

"In 2005," Copeland wrote, "only 35 percent of our middle school students scored proficient or advanced on the Maryland School Assessments." Reading scores for those grades declined slightly in 2004 and 2005, Copeland added.

By comparison, Copeland said, about 60 percent of middle school-age pupils in K-8 schools are proficient or advanced in reading.

Copeland noted the test scores to defend the system's move to adopt Studio Course, but the scores could also be used to make a case that middle schools should be scrapped in favor of K-8 schools.

Faced with declining enrollments, the city school system is moving to close some middle schools and shift the pupils to K-8 schools. There are 23 middle schools in the city and 30 K-8 schools.

And you'd think that the discipline problems in middle schools - where all the pupils suffer from rushing hormones - would spark support for getting rid of these troubled institutions, right?

Not according to Marietta English, president of the Baltimore Teachers Union.

"I don't know that middle schools are not the right way," English said. "They may need to be reformed and made smaller."

Yes, let's reform middle schools. Let's reform them right out of existence. (School officials said community forums have been planned in which parents will be asked whether they prefer middle schools or some other model.)

I've heard few good things about Baltimore middle schools from teachers. But only two of them have bothered to go on the record. Charles Dugger teaches English at Benjamin Franklin Middle School - for now. He's taught English at several Baltimore schools for over 30 years.

Dugger has problems with the Studio Course. He says the curriculum does not require teachers to grade students on grammar. (School officials have adamantly and vehemently denied this.) But Dugger has an even bigger problem with middle schools.

I interviewed Dugger nine years ago, when he had just been transferred to the Charles Baer School for the Handicapped. Before that, he taught at Garrison Middle School.

"I was told I didn't like the `middle school concept,'" Dugger said. "That's the reason they gave for transferring me out. Exactly what is the `middle school concept'?"

It's the one that's not working, judging from the results. Dugger then elaborated on his problems with middle schools.

"Middle school, in my opinion, poorly prepares children," Dugger said. And then there's the problem with discipline, reputed to be more of a problem in middle schools.

"The biggest thing I've been teaching the last few years is conduct and respect," Dugger said of his experience at Garrison Middle.

Three years later, I interviewed Regina Smith, then a second-grade teacher at Cross Country Elementary School. Like Dugger, she had had over 20 years teaching in Baltimore schools. And like Dugger, she was educated in what was then a Baltimore junior high school, not a middle school. And she could tell the difference.

"It was one of the system's stupidest moves," Smith said of the decision to switch from junior high schools to middle schools. "That's why we're having so much trouble now."

Smith has since retired. She and Dugger might be the only two teachers who ever had a problem with middle schools. Or they just might be the only two who've ever gone on the record about it. But I've never heard a Baltimore teacher use the words "orderly" or "well-disciplined" in the same sentence with "middle school." And I don't envy the job of any teacher who works in a Baltimore middle school.

I don't know exactly what those teachers face, but I have some idea. I've spoken to classes in Baltimore middle schools. The pupils always seemed kind of antsy and inattentive, until I found a way to engage their interest. (And this is why the Studio Course isn't a 100 percent bad idea.)

When I switch the subject to rap music, the level of interest soars through the roof. In one class recently, pupils talked the entire period about the "beef" between rappers 50 Cent and Ja Rule. Several of the boys said they got their information about the "beef" from The Source magazine.

There I stood, glad they were reading something, but dismayed it was The Source. The purpose of Studio Course is to use magazines - which we should hope are more age-appropriate than The Source - to encourage middle-schoolers to read.

But if there were only K-8 schools in Baltimore, would Studio Course even be necessary?

greg.kane@baltsun.com

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