The New York Times has an interesting article up kicking off a series about education in middle school. I agree that there can be very real difficulties in trying to reach these students. I have two kids in middle school and I’ve noticed a dramatic difference in both of them since entering middle school.
My daughter was always a decent student in elementary, but in middle school her grades literally plummeted. We’re talking Ds and Fs here. Social life and worrying about her appearance took priority over academics. I can see the truth in the article’s observation that these kids don’t—probably can’t—think past tomorrow. My girl can’t see past her next phone call. I know that most of her problems are self imposed, but not all of them. Recently, the girl was threatened by a much bigger boy and then slapped hard across the face by him! She actually temporarily lost hearing in one ear it was so hard. What did the teacher do? He referred them both to the office.
My son complains that his math class is so rowdy that he can’t concentrate on the schoolwork, and that the teacher is spending more time lion taming than teaching. My son is very easy going and makes friends everywhere he goes, but to our surprise he has yet to make any friends this his first year of middle school.
Throughout elementary school we as parents felt we had a good grasp of what was going on in the school concerning our kids. But then the jump to middle school left us very much in the dark. Teachers leave it up to the kids to communicate back to the parents, but they, of course, don’t. My wife and I found that we have to make extra effort to get into contact with all the teachers our kids have and try to maintain a link with them. Otherwise, we have no idea what the heck is going on. It’s been a culture shock for the kids and for us.
It seems that middle school tries to treat kids as more mature and better able to handle themselves than elementary school, and so gives them more responsibility and freedom. From what I’ve seen, that is a huge mistake. If anything, the kids need tighter controls at least during the first year or two. I would like to know more about single-sex classrooms as that concept seems promising. I know my daughter is way too distracted by boys and the time wasting antics that involves. I also like the idea of middle school students sticking with just a few teachers, possibly making it easier for parents to establish and maintain an overview of what the kids are up to.
From the article:
Sit in with a seventh-grade science class at Seth Low, a cavernous Brooklyn middle school, as paper balls fly and pens are flicked from desk to desk.
A girl is caught with a note and quickly tears it up, blushing, as her classmates chant, “Read it!” The teacher, Laura Lowrie, tries to demonstrate simple machines by pulling from a box a hammer, a pencil sharpener and then, to her instant remorse, a nutcracker — the sight of which sends a cluster of boys into a fit of giggles and anatomical jokes.
“It’s the roughest, toughest, hardest thing to teach,” Ms. Lowrie said of middle school. “I’ll go home and feel disappointed with what’s going on and I’ll try a different tactic the next day.” As for the nutcracker, she sighed, “I should have used a stapler.”
The most recent results of math and reading tests given to students in all 50 states showed that between 1999 and 2004, elementary school students made solid gains in reading and math, while middle school students made smaller gains in math and stagnated in reading.
In New York State, grade-by-grade testing conducted for the first time last year showed that in rich and poor districts alike, reading scores plunge from the fifth to sixth grade, when most students move to middle school, and continue to decline through eighth grade. The pattern is increasingly seen as a critical impediment to tackling early high school dropout rates as well as the achievement gap separating black and white students.
“If you don’t get them hooked into school here, by the time they leave they’re gone.” said Barry M. Fein, the principal of Seth Low.
Mr. Fein spent a recent evening counseling a student who had used a blunt kitchen knife to slash her face and arms: Her wavering self-esteem, it seemed, had ebbed to a low after two friends went out to lunch at McDonald’s without her.
“You handle stuff like that and you go, ‘O.K., now you want me to raise test scores?’ ” he said. “They don’t really think past tomorrow.”