Fixing the Middle Mess

In a recent entry from her Answer Sheet blog on the Washington Post website, Valerie Strauss contemplates How to fix the mess we call middle school. As anyone who’s taught students in that age group knows, the mess ain’t pretty.

In my school experience, I’ve attended a “middle” school that included grades 5 through 8 and taught in a “junior” high with 9th graders. In our district, three of the 24 middle schools start with 6th grade instead of 7. It seems as if the concept has largely be shaped by a combination of experimentation, sketchy research, and speculation, and the mess is not limited to the US.

Cutting through the international jumble of approaches to organizing schools for the “middle” years, Strauss offers some pretty simple suggestions for fixing the problem.

The answer: blowing up middle school as we know it and turning at least some of it into a “boot camp for life.”

Enough with “academic rigor.” Stop testing kids ad nauseam.

We need to create middle-school education environments that would allow kids to learn skills in unconventional ways and that would give them far more time to engage in physical activity outside the classroom. It is a perfect time to help kids learn the value of manual labor while they learn to use their brain.

As Strauss concludes,

The sustained experimentation with middle school-age students has continued because schools have failed to meet the emotional and academic needs of adolescents.

Changing the grade configuration isn’t going to do it. More tests and a mountain-range of data won’t do it either. We need real reform.

Exactly! Although layering on more test prep is so much easier and cheaper than actually addressing the problem.

This Index Just Won’t Die

When the Post company sold Newsweek for a buck last year, I was hoping it was the last we’d see of their annual cover story proclaiming the “best” high schools in the US based, a statistical exercise based on Jay Mathews’ “challenge” index. And that I could drop this as a topic to rant about.

Unfortunately, that was wishful thinking as I found the 2011 edition of this incredibly simplistic and misleading list stuck in the middle of my Sunday paper. For those who don’t get the Post, here’s the web version.

Other than the fact that the Post has rebranded the package since inheriting it from Newsweek, now calling it The High School Challenge, nothing here is new.

As always, the index is based on a simple ratio of the number of AP (and other college-level programs) tests taken to the number of graduating seniors and Mathews’ still believes this is a mechanism to improve high schools, by guilting them into challenging their students (which means pushing more kids into AP classes).

Doesn’t matter if the students are prepared or if such courses are appropriate for their needs. And how they score on the tests certainly doesn’t matter, only that they were taken.

Beyond the shaky conceptual and mathematical foundation for the index, is how the listing is interpreted. Although Mathews’ says he doesn’t intend this to be a measure of school quality, that is exactly how readers interpret it.

The simple numbers will be splashed uncritically across local papers and school web sites, ignoring the many other factors that go into a making a good high school experience.

And, in order to boost their numbers next year, even more schools will narrow the educational options of their students to only those prescribed by the AP people at the College Board.

However, one thing is different this year: Mathews finally has someone in the Post organization who is willing to challenge the validity of his index.

It would just be nice if Strauss’ pushback was given even half the exposure of Mathews’ high profile sloppy love letter to the AP program.

If You’re Not With Us…

On the Post web site, education writer Valerie Strauss has a list of Things I’m Sick of Hearing when it comes to critics of the people calling themselves school “reformers”.

You know, folks like me who think there’s a better way to educate kids than testing them to death.

Who recognize that most charter schools are not all that innovative, often using the same teaching structure, curriculum, and materials as public schools, while filtering out students they don’t want.

Who understand that schools cannot operate in isolation from their students’ home lives and the socio-economic communities around them.

And want to have a serious discussion about what it means to be well-educated and the purpose of school.

Which means anyone who challenges their vision of reform must…

a) love the status quo (and hate “innovation”),

b) be big supporters of teacher unions (and thus lousy/lazy teachers),

c) not want the best for kids.

Yeah, I’m sick of that crap attitude as well.

Education Nation: Not Even Close

Valerie Strauss, the Washington Post’s other education writer*, takes a look at Education Nation and says it’s not the “fair, serious look at public education today” NBC claimed it would be.

It wasn’t even close.

The events, panels and discussions were sharply tilted toward Obama’s school reform agenda — focused in part on closing failing schools, expanding charter schools and using standardized test scores to evaluate teachers. It gave short shrift to the enormous backlash against the plan from educators and parents around the country who say that Obama’s education priorities won’t improve schools but will narrow curriculum and drive good teachers out of the profession.

NBC seemed to take for granted that Obama’s education policies are sound and will be effective. Seasoned journalists failed to ask hard questions and fell all over their subjects to be sympathetic. It was a forum for people to repeatedly misstate the positions of their opponents.

Exactly! Outside of the Teacher Town Hall from last Sunday, it’s nearly impossible to find any voices at Education Nation advocating for anything other than that which solidifies the status quo. Re-creating schools straight out of Leave it to Beaver.

The rest of her assessment of what passes for reform these days is also excellent.

In fact, Strauss only misses on two minor points.

First, there’s really nothing new here. Obama’s education policies are pretty much a carbon copy of those imposed by the previous administration.

Second, she comes to this incorrect conclusion.

There will come a time when this current wave of “reform” proves as unsuccessful as past fads — and journalists may look back on their fawning coverage and be very, very sorry that they gave their objectivity on this subject.

This wave of reform will certainly fail but don’t look for journalists, least of all the ones at NBC, to be sorry about any part of their crappy coverage of the topic.

By that time they will be creating a whole new narrative, likely also divorced from objectivity.

*and Jay Mathews’ heir apparent?