Caught in the middle

February 13, 2007

While a task force tries to come up with recommendations to fix Maryland's middle schools, some schools are forging ahead with reforms - and getting results. Those results should be examined carefully, but they reinforce the larger lesson that there is no easy - or single - solution.

School districts across the country are trying to figure out the right fix for middle schools, where test scores tend to sag. The combination of more specialized and challenging subjects as well as emotional and behavioral changes can be a hard adjustment for middle school pupils and their teachers. That's why many educators think pupils in the middle grades should be part of either a K-8 or an extended high school model, grades six or seven to 12.

Reducing the number of potentially disruptive transitions for pupils has considerable appeal. Some proponents argue for keeping pre-adolescents in the presumably comfortable elementary-middle environment; others support letting high schools reach down and take responsibility for preparing students earlier than ninth grade and, particularly in urban areas, instilling the expectation that students are on a sure trajectory toward higher education.

Restructuring should not be an end but a means to improve middle schools, and different communities will decide what works. While Baltimore school officials, for example, are more excited by the prospects for pupils in K-8 schools, who have generally done better on statewide tests than their traditional middle school counterparts, some traditional middle schools in the area are creating their own paths to reform.

Brooklyn Park Middle School in Anne Arundel County, which has a sizable proportion of low-income students, has encouraged more collaboration to improve teaching as well as more pupil and parent involvement. Children have been given more opportunities to lead class discussions, and they are routinely included in parent-teacher conferences, with improved performance as a result. Last spring, 49 percent of eighth-graders passed the state math test, compared with only 24 percent in 2003.

The success at Brooklyn Park reinforces some expert findings that factors such as quality teaching, strong leadership, high expectations, academic and social supports for pupils and challenging curricula are as important to middle school performance as grade structure. State and local education officials should keep that in mind as they strive to cure ailing middle schools.

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