A Shrewdness of Apes

An Okie teacher banished to the Midwest. "Education is not the filling a bucket but the lighting of a fire."-- William Butler Yeats

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Are Middle Schools bad for kids? Part deux

I am very grateful to the folks at the Carnival of Education for putting my two cents out there about middle schools. A commenter to that previous post asked me a couple of questions, and the answer got so long, I thought, "Hey! There's a new post here." Ooooh! Multi-tasking!

The commenter asked how moving to K-8 schools or some other physical remedy could help. This person also stated that the middle schools had been "sold" at their inception as a way to facilitate multidisciplinary learning. So here's my response:

Well, I'm not too sure it actually matters WHERE those 6-8 grade years are accomplished-- my beef is with the attitude toward the kids by the administration and most parents and some teachers, wherever the kids physically are.

I've taught in a K-8 school, and there's one in my district as an alternative school. From my experience, it doesn't matter where they do these years, it matters how intellectual pursuits are emphasized. Unfortunately at the HS we are seeing that kids from the K-8 school evince the least successful transition to the high school as 9th graders, although admittedly the sample is small as a statistical reference. The middle school kids do a bit better, but a huge number manage to garner at least one semester F in their freshman year-- which I consider to be unacceptable.

When I taught in middle school, I was a part of a team of core teachers plus a reading teacher. We kept track of the kids-- we knew when they were disciplined, we kept them in a small area as they moved from class to class except for electives. I taught two of the core subjects as a combined unified studies class, but frankly, that is NOT what I've seen middle school to be about.

Here's my indictment:

I charge that the middle school philosophy is militantly, prima facie anti-intellectual and indeed is designed to create laboratories for dubious social and emotional engineering experiments in place of schools. The last consideration in these places is whether the students are being educated and whether they are learning. And in the through-the-looking-glass viewpoint of the highfalutin' theorists generating this alleged philosophy, there seems to be a whole slew of years in the midst of a youngster's life where it is ridiculous to expect a child to learn, because he or she is trying too hard to develop a positive self-concept and swim through the quicksand of puberty. In the name of being "child-centered," too many middle schools denigrate the potential of adolescents everywhere. The middle school philosophy begins with the premise that adolescents are too overburdened to be able to learn, and therefore expecting kids to engage in intellectually challenging activities is tantamount to expecting a dachshund to sing a Verdi aria.

My God, before middle schools rescued kids from the vicious expectation to think, how did any of them survive? You would hope that after two decades of this experiment, the least we would get out of this would be kids who were less damaged and vulnerable. We should see some results from all this emphasis on affective development since we're ignoring intellectual growth, right? Oh, but wait-- the lines to the crisis counselor are out the door, and the 504s for emotional issues are spreading like wildfire. And three years' worth of possible learning have gone up in smoke.

It's the reincarnation of that primal-scream-therapy, navel-gazing, finding-your-bliss, what-color-is-your-aura delusion of the counterculture all tarted up as an Ed.D. (Sorry, couldn't resist the pun.)

The people engaged in the work of education have to provide a safety net for kids transitioning through adolescence. They have to provide emotional support and skills to devlop self-reliance and show each kid that you value them as individuals. But schools cannot make emotional development their sole raison d'etre. Where middle schools absolutely betray the task entrusted to them as schools is when it comes down to academic rigor and accountability on the part of the kids in terms of whether they have learned the material in the name of protecting them. You cannot learn or become skillful without practice and struggle. You can't give someone an education-- an education is what meaning you make of the world for yourself. And the ultimate irony in all this is the fact that NCLB-- absolutely poor policy and ridiculous as it is-- at least may expose the truth.

Well, that just goes to show that we can find the silver lining to ANYTHING.

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At 8/27/05, 2:02 PM, Blogger Fred said...

I absolutely agree with you that middle schools have failed at academic rigor and accountability. How is it possible that I get ninth graders that can't spell? How is it that some of them that cannot read? How do they get to the next grade if that's happening?

High schools aren't perfect, but it does bother me when I see such academically deficient kids that somehow have made it so far.


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