Blame Middle Schools for Poor Showing of U.S. in Math?

Jay Mathews wrote yesterday about EdNext’s new article (and the study on which it was based)  showing that even our highest-performing math students are lagging behind students from other countries. The study caused Jay to wonder “why, after many years of mediocre results, we have not discarded our notoriously free and easy way of educating middle school students.”

A brand new article in EdNext by Peter Meyer, “The Middle School Mess,” explores how middle schools came to be, and how they came to be governed by a philosophy which deemphasizes academic outcomes.

The topics covered in the article are well summarized by a few paragraphs from the piece:

By all accounts, middle schools are a weak link in the chain of public education. Is it the churn of ill-con­ceived attempts at reform that’s causing all the problems? Is it just hormones? Or is it the way in which we configure our grades? For most of the last 30 years, districts have opted to put “tweens” in a separate place, away from little tots and apart from the big kids. Middle schools typi­cally serve grades 5–8 or 6–8. But do our quasi-mad preadolescents belong on an island—think Lord of the Flies—or in a big family, where even raging hormones can be mitigated by elders and self-esteem bolstered by little ones?

Parents and educators have begun abandon­ing the middle school for K–8 configurations, and new research suggests that grade configura­tion does matter: when this age group is gath­ered by the hundreds and educated separately, both behavior and learning suffer.

Peter reviews several studies investigating the difference made by grade configuration on the performance of students in this age group. He writes:

Perhaps the most telling research about the impact of middle-school grade configuration is a recent study of New York City middle schools by Jonah Rockoff and Benja­min Lockwood (see “Stuck in the Middle,” Education Next, Fall 2010). The Columbia Business School researchers studied the impacts of grade configuration on learning and con­cluded that “middle schools are not the best way to educate students” in districts like New York City. In fact, they argue that “students who enter public middle schools in New York City fall behind their peers in K–8 schools.” The effects are large, present for both math and English, and evident for girls as well as boys. And perhaps most troubling, “students with lower initial levels of academic achievement fare espe­cially poorly in middle school.”

Please read “The Middle School Mess,” by Peter Meyer, which will appear in the Winter 2011 issue of Education Next and is now available online.

Education Next also presents a video of a roundtable discussion on middle schools. Author Peter Meyer interviews two middle school teachers and two middle school students from Hudson, NY about middle schools and the alternatives.

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