Middle school challenges students just as much as it does educators. While students wrestle with their emotional and hormonal changes and struggle to establish themselves as individuals and as community members, educators must try to maintain student interest and academic performance in increasingly difficult subject matter.
But it is we the educators who must institute changes to make middle school work.
Earlier this month, a PBS Frontline report pointed to a series of indicators that can predict how likely a middle school student is to drop out of high school. Work by Johns Hopkins researcher Dr. Robert Balfanz looked at Grade 6 students in schools where at least 40 percent of students qualify for free and reduced price meals. Balfanz found that if a student has low attendance, fails English or mathematics, or has unsatisfactory behavior in a core course, the chance that he or she will drop out of high school is 75 percent.
We have known for a while that middle school academic performance is a serious issue. For example, in 1995, U.S. students in Grade 4 outperformed the average by 28 points in math on the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) assessment. In 1999, those same students, now in Grade 8, fell nine points behind the average. Reading scores for U.S. 13-year-olds have remained essentially flat for several years on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.
A 2005 Fordham Institute report, Mayhem in the Middle, described middle schools as places “where academic achievement goes to die.”Fordham Institute president Chester E. Finn, Jr., said, “Trying to fix high schools while ignoring middle schools is like bandaging a wound before treating the underlying infection.”
The Fordham report concluded that a major cause of the slump in middle school academic performance is that too much emphasis was being placed on social adjustment and not enough on academics. As a result of a spate of such reports, in 2005, the Maryland State Department of Education revamped its regulations to require middle school social studies, mathematics, science, and English language arts teachers to have special certification.
In Baltimore County Public Schools, the most recent Maryland State Assessment scores brought attention to our need to make middle school academic performance an even greater priority in the coming year. While our middle school students made gains on the 2012 tests, scores in mathematics improved only slightly and scores in reading slid back a bit, as they did throughout the state.
While our plans for middle school improvement are still underdevelopment, I know that we will be looking at:
- Strengthening our college-bound culture. The earlier and the more that students understand the connection between their classroom learning and their opportunities for the future, the more likely they are to succeed.
- Increasing the relevance and rigor of middle school instruction.
- Establishing high standards for academic performance and behavior for all students.
- Increasing parent involvement.
- Enhancing professional development for teachers.
We know that the middle matters, and we are committed to middle school success.