Middle school slide

August 20, 2006

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. is so upset by what he sees as the "continued failure" of Baltimore schools that he now wants the state school board, which he controls, not to reappoint three members of the city's Board of School Commissioners, who are jointly appointed by the governor and Mayor Martin O'Malley, his Democratic opponent. Mr. O'Malley has rightly suggested that politics are at the heart of Mr. Ehrlich's overreaction to the city school board's decision to reduce the minimum passing grade in certain subjects from 70 to 60.

Whatever the reason for Mr. Ehrlich's heightened interest in Baltimore schools, his educational focus should be much broader. The State Department of Education reported last week that the number of schools failing to make "adequate yearly progress," as required by the federal No Child Left Behind law, is now 241, compared with 196 last year. About 167 schools have missed the mark for two or more years and face more intense state oversight, including 77 middle schools around the state, further confirming that fifth through eighth grades are the most serious weak links in the K-12 chain.

State education officials say the problems are rooted mostly in poor teaching and training. Maryland recently reported that 80 percent of its teachers are "highly qualified," as required by NCLB, but there are significant gaps in subjects such as math, science and reading, where many middle school students are falling behind. Today's middle school students have to master more challenging material at the same time that they are dealing with increasing social and peer pressure. A new or revamped certification process may be needed to ensure that middle school teachers are not only qualified to teach their subjects but that they are also trained to deal with the behavioral and other needs of budding adolescents.

Based on state assessments, school officials have known for at least a year that middle schools posed problems. But it was just a month ago that state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick asked that a task force offer answers, and she now promises "big changes" in middle schools. In addition to teacher training, the task force will likely examine what curriculum or structural changes - such as K-8 or smaller charter schools - would lead to improvements. If Mr. Ehrlich is so vexed over school performance, he should do everything possible to help Ms. Grasmick get quick but comprehensive answers to this statewide problem.

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