Friday, September 29, 2006

Why content matters -- even in middle school

Middle schools are, indeed, caught in the middle as far as education goes. It's a tricky time not just for the kids, but also for the educators who work with them. Teenage bodies and brains are changing. Issues of friendship and fitting in grow exponentially in importance. Expectations -- both social and academic -- increase dramatically. It's a tough time for everyone.

Unfortunately, middle school also is a time of decreasing academic performance, as numerous studies have shown. (For a recent look at the so-called "middle-school slump," check out this article from the New York Times, and this one from the Baltimore Sun, which now, sadly, is available only for purchase.)

And if your internet is working at something faster than the speed of slight, have a look at this video from ABC's World News with Charles Gibson, which explores the problems of reading and writing scores that drop precipitously during middle school (link via the Education Wonks).

It all boils down to this: kids in middle school need our best thinking and our best efforts to ensure that they've got a solid foundation for moving on in their educational careers.

What things make a difference in preparing students for high school? The Southern Regional Education Board, a consortium of US schools, districts and states, addressed this question by studying 3,100 students transitioning between 8th and 9th grades. They looked for commonalities between the students who made the transition successfully, and they found three common middle-school experiences linked to success in 9th grade:
  • "Studying 'something called algebra' in the middle grades;
  • Reading a great number of books in grade eight; and
  • Expecting to graduate from college."
(Click here to read the full SREB research brief, Middle Grades to High School: Mending the Weak Link, by Sondra Cooney and Gene Bottoms.)

JIS does really well on two out of the three indicators of 9th grade success. But what about the "reading a great number of books" bullet? In our experience, this hasn't been happening at the school.

How many books is "a great number of books," according to the SREB? The research brief explains that
"SREB's reading goal for middle grade students is at least 25 books per year across the curriculum. Data from High Schools That Work indicate that improved performance in high school English is associated with reading at least 10 books each year."
Now you can argue that 25 books per year is too many, even when spread across all subjects in middle school. But you'd be hard-pressed to argue that three books in three years is sufficient.

So what to do? We'll look at that next.


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