Here in Washington, we talk a lot about the need for change - changing our priorities or the way we do business. For children, however, change can be frightening, and the middle school years are a time of dramatic change for them. Young adolescents are grappling with confusing and often difficult changes in their emotions, their bodies, their schools, their schedules, and the social and academic expectations placed upon them. Middle school administrators, teachers, and support staff face unique challenges, and to succeed, these professionals need help and support from parents and community leaders as well as the government.
Unfortunately, government has not always lived up to its end of the bargain. When President Bush signed No Child Left Behind, burdening the middle grades with new high expectations for accountability and assessment, the Bush Administration and Congress promised to provide the funding schools and teachers would need to make the program successful. That promise was not kept.
We do need change in Washington - change in the way we think about our middle schools and in what we can do to help meet the high expectations we have set - and change in the high expectations we want young adolescents to set for themselves.
My interest in middle school education began as attorney general of the state of Rhode Island. I was elected to that position after having served as Rhode Island's United States attorney. As U.S. attorney, I prosecuted bank robbers, polluters, corrupt public officials, those accused of fraud, drug dealers, and other traditional adult criminals. But when I was elected state attorney general, something changed - I was prosecuting children. In fact, nearly 2,000 juvenile cases came across my desk each year involving everything from drug offenses and gang-related activity to so-called status offenses, like truancy and running away from home, that are not crimes for adults.
As I tried to understand what was behind these cases, what had gone wrong in these young peoples' lives, a common tipping point seemed to be failure in middle school. It was middle school where these kids started to get seriously off track. At the same time, these young adolescents also appeared still open to positive influences. At that age, students are still children, and dedicated teachers can instill in them the importance of education. High school seemed too late; the "bad habits" like truancy had already taken hold.
We also found that one of the best predictors of middle school failure was truancy, often catastrophic truancy - 60, 90, or 100 days of unexcused absence from school. Studies show that youth who are chronically truant are more likely to use drugs, become delinquent, and drop out of school - data that bears out what we were seeing in Rhode Island (Henry & Huizinga, 2007).
So, in an effort to build the proverbial fence at the top of the hill instead of waiting for the wrecks at the bottom, my office tried to intervene. We started with truancy enforcement. We discovered that local police officers mistakenly thought they could not pick up kids for truancy. Working with the police department and the local faith community, we established a program for officers to take truant young people back to their schools.
This approach worked in theory, as the schools and the police department came together to implement the project. But at the grassroots level, teachers objected. Faced with overcrowded classrooms, reluctant to deal with students brought back to school by a police escort, unwilling to take time away from the children who did show up to class trying to learn, teachers sent a clear signal back to police officers (Find a police officer who does not have a teacher somewhere in the family!) that these kids were a disrupture presence in the schools. The fence we were trying to build, it seemed, was still too far down the hill.
We realized that dealing with the entire city of Providence was probably too ambitious. …