Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Chaotic Middle Schools: Style Over Substance in Shotgun Reform

A story in today's New York Times underscores the harsh realities of middle school life. While not especially provocative from a policy standpoint, Trying to Find Solutions in Chaotic Middle Schools treats the middle years with deference. More a bumbling portrait sketch of manufactured "middle" adolescence, the article reveals subdued afflictions troubling early teens like looking forward to high school, dating older boys, and sexual innuendo run rampant.

For me the meat of the article is in this statement: "In New York City, almost every kind of experiment is under way." It's easy to indict this shotgun approach--too many experiments with not enough attention to research and results. Elissa Gootman, the article's author, gives the grade reconfiguration strategy the most play. At first blush grade reconfiguration seems like a good idea. Middle schools and junior highs have been experimenting with reconfiguration strategies for years, but there is something compelling about keeping students in grades 6-8 in the same schools they've attended since kindergarten. Maybe that's why so many of these grade reconfiguration topics appear perennially in our newspapers.

As appealing as grade reconfiguration approaches may sound, there is enough evidence that suggests that the grades that make up a middle school matter much less than the personnel and the leadership steering the middle school. Thomas O. Erb, editor of the Middle School Journal for the National Middle School Association suggests that effective leadership is critical to improving the lives of students in physical and emotional transition. In a recent article, "Middle School Models are Working in Many Grade Configurations to Boost Student Performance" Erb extols the virtues of leadership to aid any configuration of the middle grades.

"Effective school leadership understands that real change is not something that comes easily, not something that results from the imposition of bureaucratic or mechanistic practices, and not something that will happen without careful scrutiny of the current state of mediocrity." Further, Erb suggests that clear and consistent expectations along with "common decision-making vision that [lead] to creative, inviting, supportive and safe school environments."

Erb recommends some of the reforms large city school districts are implementing--smallness and fewer transitions--but he says without specific attention to effective middle school models these reforms amount to smoke clouds that obfuscate deeper problems.

Gootman portrays the middle school affective domain well (for the educators out there think Bloom's taxonomy): what so many of us find fascinating about middle grades. Some research on successes and failures of grade reconfiguration along with a broader criticism of patchwork reforms would have helped Gootman's angle.

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