Sunday, April 13, 2008

abolish middle schools

Abolish middle schools.

1. Now, if not sooner.
2. For the children.

That's the feeling I get when reading Is Literacy Enough?, a carefully crafted, researched response to the Early Literacy Push of recent years. Its authors, Catherine E. Snow, Michelle V. Porche, Patton O. Tabors, and Stephanie Ross Harris, deserve a wide audience among teachers, administrators, and policymakers.

The answer to their question, if you haven't guessed it, is "No." Literacy is, for the most part, essential to school success, but, as any veteran high school teacher will tell you, and as the authors conclude, too many strong readers are derailed in the middle and secondary years, lacking home support, motivation, and thoughtful interventions by caring adults.

The authors concede that policy can't address every aspect. However, tempering their pessimism, they show how it can produce an environment that, if not always creating success, can cut the losses, through specific changes. Smaller class sizes or schools. Well thought-out advisory programs like Navigation 101. Engaging, student-directed learning. These are all within reach.

As for the provocative title, it comes from the authors' finding that the middle level is where the wheels start falling off. Or, in the authors' more academic prose:
The mismatches between adolescents' developmental needs and traditional school environments include the following:
  • Middle schools typically emphasize competition and social comparison during a period of adolescents' heightened focus on self.
  • Fewer decision making opportunities exist for adolescents during a period of increasing desire for autonomy.
  • Fewer opportunities exist for adolescents to develop close personal relationships with teachers during a period when adolescents may need extra support from adults.
One answer might be to delay the transition; the authors' own research shows that low-income 6th graders show less engagement and worse study habits than those who wait until 7th grade to move to Junior High. Another might be to set up K-8 schools that incorporate features of the middle school model for the older students, avoiding the problem of an "isolated student body of immature adolescents all experiencing puberty, novel responsibilities, and novel risks during a relatively disorganized period of human development."

The one thing you will absolutely not find in Is Literacy Enough? is a call for increased standards, or testing, or teacher leadership, or any other politically savvy trend. Rather, the authors advocate more thoughtful and targeted and responsible use of the resources we already have--with caring relationships at the center.


Dr Pezz said...

We have middle schools, and I don't see this changing in the foreseeable future; however, interventions seem to be the recent trend.

Right now the middle schools have a period when students must work on homework or silently read. My high school is considering options that would create a short period of this type as well except it would only be mandatory for freshmen for the first four weeks and then only if a student has a failing grade in any class.

My department is advocating smaller class sizes. We feel 32 in a writing course is too many.

Lastly, aspects of Navigation 101 are being piloted in a process leading up to the Culminating Project.

We'll see how all of it works.

Jim Anderson said...

dr pezz, my school is just about a year ahead of you. We reduced our 9th-grade classes to 25-or-fewer two years ago, and began the Nav 101 process this year. The first has borne fruit; the second appears to be working, but haltingly, as we learn the new process.

Our school hasn't brought back "study hall," though.

This book would be good ammunition for your advocacy, methinks.