kitchen table math, the sequel: Lord of the Flies

Monday, March 14, 2011

Lord of the Flies

from Peter Meyer's Education Next article on middle schools:
Parents and educators have begun abandoning the middle school for K–8 configurations, and new research suggests that grade configuration does matter: when this age group is gathered by the hundreds and educated separately, both behavior and learning suffer.

The Middle School Mess

by Peter Meyer
Education Next Winter 2011


momof4 said...

My four kids all attended the same school between ES and HS, but it was a 7-8 JHS for my older two and a 6-7-8 MS for my younger two - over the strong objections of the parents in the attendance area. Apparently, the county required that a parent survey be done prior to the change but was not required to pay any attention to the results.

For my older kids, the JHS school had a strong academic focus and my kids and their friends LOVED the fact that the artsy/crafty, touchy/feely stuff had pretty much disappeared. Lots of girls who always had As in ES because they did lots of nice artwork were suddenly getting Bs and lots of boys who rarely got As in ES because they didn't care about pretty (or dioramas) were getting As because the correct answer was the main focus.

Three years later, when my third child entered the MS as a 6th-grader, the whole focus of the school had changed. The academic focus was GONE (even though many of the same teachers remained), replaced by teams, group-work and NEST (nurture,encourage, support and trust, I think). NEST was 20 minutes of daily torture; touchy/feely navel-gazing under the direction of the drama teacher. Lots of kids felt that their privacy was being invaded. The artsy/crafty projects were even more burdensome, since they had to be done in groups; often outside of school hours. It's SO easy and SO much fun to schedule 4 kids spread across 10+ miles of suburbs (irony alert)- and they all had significant extracurriculars, naturally. They also had to be driven by parents,of course. The only bright spot was that my youngest had a PE teacher for NEST and he didn't NEST - just expected the kids to be quiet enough to keep him out of trouble.

My experience was that the MS is awful; it focused on all of the worst aspects of adolescence and exaggerated them instead of minimizing them by focussing on academics. Also, the school obviously didn't understand adolescent (males, at least) very well because they didn't understand why the (male) winner of the Wonder Woman Award (best Women' History Month project) quietly dropped it into the trash can at the bottom of the stage steps - because guys should love the idea of being given a Wonder Woman award in front of 1500 peers. His parents were called in for a full-team conference. My kids could't wait to get out of that school.

Disgruntled said...

Ha! Our district created about 6-8 new K-8 schools 5 years ago. Same sort of arguments, although they emphasized the "people know you" in the school aspect a lot too.

Five years later? Most of those schools are performing at exactly the same low levels as the schools they replaced. One relative success, several abject failures. One of each of those is being closed down this summer.

Those two sets of students will be heading off to the district's next brainstorm -- 6-12 schools. Again, of the three new 6-12s they've already opened, one is failing horribly (and they phased it in over several years, starting with 6-8 and adding the upper grade each year), one seems to be doing well, and a third is still fine, but not up to the standards of the two schools it replaced.

Sigh. There are no magic configurations. There are no magic projects or groupings. Good schools require extremely dedicated principals developing and maintaining a culture that emphasizes academics and provides enough of the arts/sports to keep kids hooked in on other levels.

All the foundation money seems to be going to finding a silver bullet (or a handful of them), rather than funding what works. So far, in our district, most every reform has been either disastrous or at best, maintained the status quo.

Anonymous said...

The ed world acts like a cat chasing its tail; hopping from one idea to another, always looking for the silver bullet/magic remedy etc. Doing the basics and doing them effectively and EFFICIENTLY isn't sexy enough, I guess.

K9Sasha said...

During one of my (awful) ed school classes I had an aha moment. They believe that change is good. It doesn't matter what they're changing from or what they're changing to; because it is new and different it must be better.

Hainish said...

K9Sasha, right after reading your comment, I found this op-ed letter in the NYT and I couldn't help but notice the parallel. Student-directed learning, social interactions, students asking their own's all the trend now.

Hainish said...

Sorry, the op-ed is here:

SteveH said...

The opinion piece is so bad that I don't know where to begin. Actually, we have charter schools like that in our area. They are called "Big Picture Learning" schools. So, in effect, the author is advocating charter schools in general.

The Big Picture Learning schools are schools where "... students would take responsibility for their own education. They would spend considerable time doing real work in the community under the tutelage of volunteer mentors and they would not be evaluated solely on the basis of standardized tests. Instead, students would be assessed on their performance, on exhibitions and demonstrations of achievement, on motivation, and on the habits of mind, hand, heart, and behavior that they display – reflecting the real world evaluations and assessments that all of us face in our everyday lives."

I guess I do agree with her. I just want charter schools in our area that follow the Core Knowledge philosophy. Somehow, I don't think she or the nytimes would approve of that. Apparently, choice is great if you get to decide what the choice means for everyone else.

gasstationwithoutpumps said...

My son did 7th and 8th at a private 6-12 school. That actually was a good fit: the 7th and 8th grade history teachers were very good, he could take geometry and algebra 2 from a decent high-school teacher, and the Spanish instruction was at a higher level than the local high school.

But I agree that the configuration of the school is not nearly as important as the attitude and school culture. Is subject acceleration encouraged or discouraged? Are quirky kids celebrated or ostracized? Are the resources in place for the kids who need them (at both ends of the spectrum)?