The middle grades too often focus on “social adjustment, individual growth, coping with early adolescence, and looking out for the needs of the ‘whole child,’ ” according to Mayhem in the Middle, a new report from the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation. As an alternative to this practice, which it dubs “middle schoolism,” the report calls for a thorough reform of middle-grade education that would include a new focus on high standards, discipline, and accountability for student achievement.
During the middle school years, American students’ performance drops dramatically in relation to their international peers, and forms the basis of an ever-widening gulf that is difficult to overcome when students reach high school. According to international comparisons such as the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and the 2003 Program of International Student Assessment (PISA), American students typically do well in grades K-4, begin to falter in grades 5-8, and perform dismally in high school.
According to the Fordham report, middle schools are too often viewed as an “environment where little is expected of students either academically or behaviorally, on the assumption that self-discipline and high academic expectations must be placed on hold until the storms of adolescence have passed.” Unfortunately, waiting for “storms” to pass often leaves many students too far behind to “pick up the pace and meet current state academic requirements, much less the challenging expectations of federal laws such as No Child Left Behind.” As a result, far too many students arrive in ninth grade without the skills they need to succeed. “Abundant evidence indicates that the seeds that produce high school failure are sown in grades 5-8,” the report reads.
It does not have to be this way, says Chester E. Finn, Jr., president of the Fordham Foundation. “Though youngsters between the ages of ten and fifteen can be ornery and exasperating, they can also learn lots of math and history, plenty of literature and science, and an abundance of art and music,” he wrote in the report’s foreword.
As examples of schools that are successfully serving their students, the report offers three K-8 models in Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Milwaukee. In Philadelphia, students from K-8 schools were 11 percent more likely to be accepted into the most challenging high schools than their middle school counterparts. Baltimore K-8 school students were more likely to pass the state tests in math and scored significantly higher than their middle school counterparts in reading, language arts, and math. In Milwaukee, students in K-8 schools had higher academic achievement and were less likely to be victimized than students in a separate middle school setting.
The report acknowledges that middle school grade configurations where separate buildings house students in some combination of fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth grade can work, but stresses that expectations must be high and accountability for academic performance must exist for students and teachers.
James A. Beane, a professor of education at the National Louis University in Milwaukee and an expert on middle schools, said that the middle school movement has been successful, but most schools haven’t fully used the techniques. “It’s fair to criticize the incomplete implementation of the middle school movement, but it’s not fair to criticize its ideals or goals,” he said at the press event at which the report was released.
Ultimately, Mayhem in the Middle concludes that the “essential problem with middle schoolism is not grade configuration but educational ideology. However a school is structured, in the era of standards and accountability, it must focus first and foremost on students’ acquisition of essential academic skills and knowledge.”
The report also traces the roots of middle school reform and offers several suggestions for planning and implementing the transition to a K-8 model and then for sustaining success. It is available at http://www.edexcellence.net/doc/2960_MayhemFINAL.pdf.