kitchen table math, the sequel: momof4 on middle school versus junior high

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

momof4 on middle school versus junior high

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 focusing 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.


Catherine Johnson said...

I like the part about the required survey no one was required to listen to.

Here in my town, the school finally did a math survey --- and read the strongly negative results as strongly supportive of Trailblazers and the entire K-5 math program.

Then the interim curriculum director publicly maligned parents who disagreed with her claim.

Catherine Johnson said...

Your experience illustrates Richard Elmore's observation about schools seeing family's time as an entitlement.

Jean said...

NEST would have killed me.

Lisa said...

I'll have to rethink my position on how awful I think our MS is. The whole NEST thing is a little creepy.

Molly said...

Looking back at my own junior high experience and comparing it to my kids' middle school experience, I think momof4 has hit the nail on the head. Junior high was about academics, and the adults trusted that the adolescents were cable enough to work through their personal growth issues on their personal time. Middle school seems to be about everything but academics.

In junior high, I had really solid instruction in writing,including extensive grammar instruction. We did science labs that required the exact same sort of write-up that my high school labs later required. We studied actual history and civics (as opposed to the nebulous social studies).

In middle school, my daughters don't write, they produce power point presentations. The few writing assignments are given as group projects - my oldest was recently assigned a group poem to write. While they do science experiments, these seem to be purely for demonstration value as the students are never required to record observations in any standardized form.

My middle school daughters frequently miss class in order to attend assemblies during which some nominally well-known person tells them how important it is to stay in school and get an education. The irony of cancelling class to have an athlete extol the virtue going to class seems lost on middle school administrators.

Bonnie said...

I went to a junior high, in the 70's. It was just as touchy-feely as the middle school described here. It was absolutely the worst years of my life. One of the nadirs was when they decided to spend 4 months of our 8th grade English class on a "Leisure Unit", which meant learning to play bridge and other card games. Ick, ick, ick! To this day, I despise bridge.
Most of the teachers efforts were spent trying to discipline the unruly boys. We had drugs in the school, we had boys attacking the bus drivers, you couldn't go into the bathrooms because you would get mugged, and the vice principal's main job was to paddle boys. I always joked that "Junior high is where they park your brain while your body gets big enough for high school".
My junior high was in Kentucky, a state not known for academic excellence. It really doesn't matter whether you organize kids into a middle school or a junior high. What matters is the culture of the parents, the teachers, and the community. If academics are respected, the school will be academic.

lgm said...

Totally agree that the culture is what matters more than the model.
Teachers need to be accountable for teaching, families need to be accountable for behavior, and schools need the power to expel. Imagine the change in parenting behavior in the gen ed parents if they were held accountable by picking up the tab for homebound instruction due to OSS, 1:1 behavior aides or PINS.

Having had a K-8 model for 6-8 myself, I like it better because it's more efficient for the academics - small group instruction by need can be done rather than large classroom, one size doesn't fit all. A plus is that recess can be given because there is no passing time. I think a blend would work well - grouping by instructional need, stay with the same teacher for the academics, then switch for band, art, tech and so forth. My children don't like the self-contained model because the very best thing about middle school in their opinion is that switching classes means they aren't stuck with the disruptors for the entire day. They like a classroom with just one teacher and calm students, as opposed to one teacher, one sped/inclusion teacher, several 1:1 aides and a few's much calmer and more gets done.

momof4 said...

lgm - Do the k-8 schools offer foreign languages and math acceleration? That was a big difference in the areas I've lived; none of the private k-8 schools (secular, religious etc, even the very expensive ones) offered foreign languages and few offered 8th-grade algebra, let alone geometry. At the public JHS/MS schools, foreign languages were offered (my kids started HS in Spanish 3honors) and all had the algebra. Since they shared a campus with the HS, kids could go to the HS to take geometry. The schools also offered all of the academics, except foreign languages, at honors level - the k-8 private schools did not.

lgm said...

The offering of foreign language and math accel and honors depend on the politics of the area and the staff expertise.

Some of the private K-8s here offer foreign language, none offer honors or accel math. I went to a Dept of Defense operated school on a military base overseas which offered independent study in math and Host Nation class including learning the language. My rural midwestern jr-sr high school changed to the middle school/high school model, but still, at a popoulation of about 500 total, offers math options and has the 'learn as much as you want' attitude of the one room schoolhouse. The local district just started foreign language in the middle school a few years ago and refuses to offer it in the elementary despite parent requests. They refuse to offer honors math despite having a 1900 student high school population similar in diversity to surrounding districts that do offer honors math. I attribute these differences all to culture and poltics, especially the cultural attitude of treating time as a precious commodity not to be wasted.

Redkudu said...

I've had to teach NEST under so many different names I can't remember them all. One year they bought a textbook for it. Once a week we were supposed to go through the textbook lessons on integrity, etc. The textbook was boring, patronizing, and completely unrealistic.

The worst was the year I was expected to buy food - usually breakfast tacos and donuts - for all 20 of my students in order to "bring us closer as a family." I flat-out told the kids I couldn't afford it. I became the MOST hated "share time" teacher that year. In other years I would pull interesting news articles, websites, and changed my approach from navel-gazing to current events in the world outside this school.

My current school is phasing this nonsense out. I'm so relieved.

Anonymous said...

I loved the K-8...yes we had foreign language and acceleration...let's bring back k-8! Middle school is for the my district (K-4, 5-8, 9-12) the 5th grade is easier than 4th grade. While kids struggle, yes, in elementary school and don't get the help they need, they begin to drop out in middle and are literally gone in high school.

Middle school does not work...other than it being a way to take more tax-payer dollars...

K-8 is great!

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Multiplying By 10

Thanks for taking a look!

allison said...

K-8 *CAN* work. But it by no means is a sure thing.

It only works if the principal and other administrators make a determined effort to align goals from each year to the next year for all 9 years, AND they know enough about what's going on in the world to have their curriculum adapt in a timely fashion, to adapt their character development to reality in a timely fashion, etc. The attitude and culture of the school trump everything.

Most parochial schools are K-8s. Many parochial schools don't have standards, don't have defined curriculum, and have no professional development for their teachers. They can still have bullying too. K-8 is not a panacea.

momof4 said...

I've not read anything about this, but I can't help wondering if the Catholic schools have changed over the years since their teachers were all nuns. My DH went to a fairly typical Catholic ES (k-8), with many kids of recent immigrants who spoke other languages at home and whose parents had no HS education but the kids all came out with a solid education.

There were 100 kids and one nun per class and the discipline was absolute (and backed up 100% by the married parents at home). Only the (nun) principal had a college degree; all of the other nuns were HS grads who had a year's training at their mother house. (after they finished their novitiate, I think). From what the community knew (and many families had nuns in them), the training was strictly practical; phonics, grammar, composition, math and the disciplines. The general principle seemed to be to stick with the basics and do them well. Now that the schools have few/no nuns, their teachers presumably come from the same college ed programs as the public school teachers. Has this changed the old model? Does anyone have any information on this?

allison said...

What's happening in Catholic education is too inside-baseball to be read about except in a smattering of journals on Catholic thought, but the answer is that as a general rule, there is no such thing as Catholic education anymore.

There is a problem here that has little to do with education per se. It's about how faithful to the Magisterium parishes and their schools are in the first place.

Catholic parishes in the US are weak and mostly weakening. Demography is the biggest killer, but that in and of itself stems from a lack of proper Catholic teaching for the faithful. Few parishes shepherd the flock to be faithful to the Magisterium. Most offer a kind of faith-lite cafeteria Catholicism. Reading journals on Catholic thought, those faithful consider this falling away to be the cause of the decline in Catholic population, not the result.

So if a parish isn't really very Catholic, the parish school isn't going to be either. Generally speaking, Catholic schools are basically indistinguishable now from public schools in both their faithfulness to the Church and their curricula.

Catholic schools are dying out. Catholic schools are losing ground to charters and homeschooling. This again is a matter of demography, but it's also a matter of what they little they offer to distinguish themselves from public schools: when they offer neither strong faith nor strong academics, why bother paying for them?

allison said...

Now, "nuns" used to refer to cloistered women in consecrated life. There are very few nuns, even when there are women in consecrated life. But yes, women in consecrated life are going away:
says there are more women religious over 90 than under 60.

But the lack of women religious isn't the source of the problem, it's another symptom. And women religious at a school don't dictate much of anything about educational philosophy, because these ladies have gone to the same ed schools as everyone else.

"Catholic" colleges and universities are another symptom of the problem. Largely, they are also not very Catholic. Education schools on these campuses offer the same constructivist and inquiry driven attitudes about education, just as they offer the same gender-class-race lenses through which to view their educational role. Just browse their course catalogs to see.

I've posted here about a prof dev seminar on differentiated instruction. That was sponsored by the University of St. Thomas education school for a group of Catholic elementary schools. ( Nothing here was in anyway atypical.

To the specific practical issues of curriculum, many private schools do not understand standards, assessment, and curricula. They don't know what standards-based education is. They have no institutional method of professional development in their school other than what the local ed school shares with them, so the schools do what they've always done, or what their peers in public ed are doing.

Parochial schools also have another problem, which is that if they are parish schools, they exist until the diocese says they don't anymore, basically. So they aren't quite a free market. They can hang on well passed the point when a free market institution would have had to fold, being subsidized by the parish or the diocese. They've had little reason to innovate, even when the very next thing that happens is they die, because they had no intermediate step.

Bonnie said...

My husband went to Catholic school through 8th grade, back in the 60's. He said his school had such low academic standards that most kids got placed back a year when they hit the public school - and this was in a town with a poor public school system! The parents didn't care - they were more interested in their kids learning strict discipline than in academic standards. This was back in the days when all of the teachers were nuns.
I teach at a Catholic university, and get lots of kids who came through the Catholic school system. They are just as weak academically as the kids who came through the large urban school district that feeds our school. I am not impressed with Catholic schools.

Allison said...

So, to continue from above:

The lack of faithfulness of a Catholic school contributes to the parish losing ground, too, though. As a school brings in more non-Catholics to stay afloat, they have less families coming into their parish who are willing to give money to the parish--the new families don't value that, and the families more likely to tithe have moved on. So the parish finances get weaker, so they bring in more non-Catholics to stay afloat....wash, rinse, repeat.

Now, having better religiously faithful teaching in a school in no way necessitates better academics. It's a question of values: what does the culture value? Are the children being raised to be in the world? but not of the world? Many faithful families in more orthodox parishes don't really want their children going into the world. They have a very poor view of secular universities so they are not striving to have their kids get into those schools.

On the other hand, a culture that has mistaken raising children to be in the world for being of the world will be raising largely secular children in the same secular environments around them, and largely, those aren't pushing academics very hard. So when those schools mimic the greater culture except in that you are a little happy with the peer group, it doesn't lend itself to academic excellence per se.

Changing a Catholic school's culture isn't any easier than changing a public school's culture. So if you want better intellectual and academic pursuits, you might have to turn to newer schools to find it. And no one can start a new parish school, since the demand is so low. Maybe a charter school can get started, the self reinforcing cycle continues.

To be even more inside-baseball, you'd have to read about how far the Jesuits are from the Catholics who consider themselves faithful to the Magisterium...the Jesuits were the academic and intellectual powerhouses in Catholic education. But for complicated reasons, they have embraced constructivism too these days, so you can guess the rest.

Catherine Johnson said...

Ed not infrequently says that he thinks C's Jesuit high school has only a few more good years.

It's not constructivist at all at the teaching level.

However, the Dean in charge of teaching tosses around a lot of ed school terms & the principal told the Mother's Club, last year, I think, that they had opened the year with an interdisciplinary experience or unit or some such because "teaching the subjects in isolation is wrong."

I'm not sure he used the exact words "teaching the subjects in isolation" but the words "is wrong" are an exact quote.

Allison said...

I'm with Ed. Where would a dean come from that doesn't think this way? How could such a person bubble up?

If it's been two generations of teachers now that have not learned about math and two or three generations of teachers that have not learned about reading, we may still have a generation or more of administrators to go before we get ones that believe in teaching the liberal arts and sciences as subjects.