Education's Middle Child Grades 5 to 8

By Gail Russell Chaddock, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, June 23, 1998 | Go to article overview

Education's Middle Child Grades 5 to 8


Gail Russell Chaddock, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


Walk through any middle school in the United States, and what you'll notice are the big feet - just a hint of the physical, social, and emotional changes that make Grades 5 to 8 so challenging to many teachers.

"We have sixth-graders who are 6 feet tall and wear a size 15 shoe. They wake up every morning and their bodies are different. It can be a very emotional time," says Sue Pope, a sixth-grade mathematics teacher at Ellicott Mills Middle School in Howard County, Md.

Her reading colleague, Kathy Benditt, furnishes her classroom with soft chairs she bought at a yard sale. "Sixth-graders are not designed to sit in hard chairs, and reading is a recreational activity," she says. For most of this century, educators have argued that such students need their own schools. Early reformers created junior high schools (Grades 7 to 9) to help students bridge the chasm between the warmth of a neighborhood elementary school and the anonymity of a large high school. In the 1960s, the middle-school movement (variously, Grades 5 to 8) targeted the developmental needs of "volatile" young learners. Now, the pendulum may be shifting back to a focus on traditional academics, and disgruntled parents are pushing it. Public-school officials in Cincinnati, which launched the first middle schools, are in the process of scrapping them. "We found that we just couldn't implement the middle-school model as it was designed," says Jack Lewis, director of research and evaluation for Cincinnati public schools. For example, a signature reform of the middle-school movement was the creation of interdisciplinary teams of teachers to follow students through their middle-school years and help create a sense of belonging. But there was so much staff and student mobility that Cincinnati schools never developed stable teams or consistency for most students. In addition, officials say that achievement improved as they began to reintegrate middle schools into a K-8 system. Truancy and serious discipline problems also dropped. "One of the problems with middle schools is having so many kids of a vulnerable age in the same building, without role models they can look up to, as in high school, or younger students for whom they can be role models, as in elementary school," says Kathleen Ware, assistant superintendent of Cincinnati public schools. "We've had many calls from other districts all over the country interested in doing the same thing," she adds. Poor discipline, low achievement In Cincinnati, as in other cities, unhappy parents were a catalyst for change. Alarmed by poor discipline and student achievement in the middle-school years, many were pulling their children out of Cincinnati public schools after elementary school. In response to similar concerns, Baltimore is beginning to phase out its middle schools. The Third International Math and Science Study (TIMSS) shows American students competing above the international average in the fourth grade, but falling behind in the middle-school years. In addition, some 39 percent of eighth-graders are unprepared for high school work, according to results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). "We don't seem to make the same kind of progress between the fourth and eighth grades that some other countries do, especially in math," says US Secretary of Education Richard Riley. Critics blame the middle-school philosophy and structure. "Middle schools are the wasteland of our primary and secondary landscape," write Marc Tucker and Judy Codding in their recent book, "Standards for Our Schools." "Caught between the warmth of a good elementary school and the academic seriousness of a good high school, middle-school students often get the least of both and the best of neither," they add. They urge going back to a K-8 system. A recent report by the Atlanta-based Southern Regional Education Board said that "the middle grades - Grades 5 through 8 - are the "weak link in American education," but held out hope for reform.

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