Cutting Out the Middle Man

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22middle_xlarge1 Check out Gootman’s story in today’s NY Times—Taking Middle Schoolers Out of the Middle. This has been one of the most welcome trends to watch in the world of K-20 over the last few years. The research is clear. US students perform as well or better than international students until 6th grade, and then they fall off the cliff. Guess what happens then? Middle School. We have to remember that today’s middle schools are really a large-scale experiment from the 60s and 70s. The idea was that these kids were going through such a unique time of change that they needed a special kind of focus. To the advocates, segregating these kids made sense. While the sentiment was good, the data are not. There are little-to-no concrete data that support the premise that middle schools work. Indeed, it is about time we admit that this is an experiment that failed, and failed miserably. Drs. Bill and June Sanders are the researchers behind the SAS Education Value Added Assessment System, which includes deep student-outcome data from more than 500 school districts—many with more than 15 years worth of longitudinal information. Their findings are clear. Any time you transition a child from one school building to the next, you lose on average up to ½ a year’s worth of academic progress. Do the math. Moving most kids twice in two-to-three years means they can lose up to a year’s worth of progress or more! It makes no sense to take these children at their most socially and academically vulnerable stages and make them suffer through these tumultuous transitions. In essence, we rip them from one learning community to the next and leave them with fewer and fewer adult support systems. Whether you’re a fan of brain science, learning communities, student engagement, the three R’s, or social intelligence research you can see why the middle-school strategy doesn’t work. These students have to spend so much time rewiring their brains to accommodate new social systems and support structures over two transitions in two-to-three years that academics become hard-pressed to compete—particularly with powerful pre-teen social dynamics. As the NY Times article points out, and as I’ve heard educators who have implemented this change recount, there is something powerful about a seventh grader who is goofing off seeing their 2nd grade teacher stare them down. Or for a young girl going through her early stages of puberty to be able to quickly reconnect with a safe-feeling teacher from third grade. They are in a comfort zone, which helps learning fight for center stage. And there are good ways to insure that you don’t have abuse problems with older and younger kids. In fact, the worry over older-child/younger-child abuse is mostly a red-herring argument used to justify not changing. The K-8 model makes much more sense to me. However, I’m not wed to that idea alone. Some school districts are offering 6-12 systems, to spark an earlier focus on college readiness. Maybe K-7 would be a compromise that makes sense? I’m not sure. My guess is all of these models will be successful because of fewer overall transitions for kids. However, I personally feel kids are being forced to grow up too quickly these days; so, I’d err on the side of letting them stay bonded K-8 until there are compelling data either way. A serendipitous side effect here is that by ending middle schools we fully eliminate the need for another layer of administration—helping us focus more money on instruction. Will the benefits never cease? In the end, we’re all about helping our kids and community members learn more effectively. If eliminating the middle man helps our children learn more effectively, better prepares them for college and a world driven by learning, then lets make this a priority. I’d hate to see another generation of kids suffer through this well-intentioned experiment’s outcomes yet again. Let’s not get in the middle of their learning!
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