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Helping Tweens Get 'The Big Mo'


Q. Seems as though middle school is when a lot of kids kind of "check out" of school. They're going through huge biological and emotional changes, and if their families are in conflict or they have personal problems, it can really minimize the importance of school in their minds. Then there's the peer pressure effect: if you know you're never going to be in the golden, polished top 10%, and your friends ridicule you for continuing to do your best, why keep trying? What can be done to light a fire under kids at all levels of academic pursuit, so that we don't lose them at this middle stage so much any more?


Educators are calling for smaller staff-to-student ratios so that middle-school teachers can develop better relationships with each student. They are convinced that the right way to beef up the academic quality in middle schools is to beef up the relationships between staff and students.


That way, each youngster will feel like he or she is known and understood, and each educator will have a better chance of figuring out how to motivate each student to their personal best. It's an early-warning system to prevent the tornadic effects of dropping out of school altogether, which usually doesn't happen in middle school, but in the years directly after it.


The middle-school mantra is "rigor, relevance and responsiveness," and not only to inspire the college-bound, easy-to-teach honor student, but also for the crucial task of keeping disadvantaged children in sixth through ninth grades motivated to keep trying and keeping investing themselves in school.


The biggest detriments: the pressure from peers and hormones to "act out" or "zone out."


Robert Balfanz, a research scientist at the Center for the Social Organization of Schools, based at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, said that disadvantaged kids who run into academic and behavior problems in middle school DON'T just "grow out of it." They lack the social structure and support at home to allow them to make those sorts of big changes. That's why there needs to be an aggressive approach to getting kids who stray back on track.


He's a big believer in data-driven change in middle schools. In his studies on dropouts in large urban districts, Balfanz tracks classroom indicators for individual students, and claims addressing problems in those areas early can prevent later troubles. Attendance rates, behavior, and grades, he concludes, are far more accurate predictors of who will graduate or drop out than test scores, race, or socioeconomic status.


About 40 percent of eventual dropouts could be identified in the 6th grade, he estimated.


Another example of data-driven change: poor performance of eighth graders on nationally standardized tests are used as evidence that they are not prepared to meet high academic standards of high school. On the 2007 National Assessment of Educational Progress, for example, only about three in 10 could demonstrate proficiency in reading and mathematics.


The numbers prompt cries for better intervention strategies in middle school to prevent the inevitable high-school failure that the low scores predict. "Why are schools not systematically monitoring early signs of academic withdrawal?" said Sandra L. Christenson, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities in Minneapolis. "If you are systematically monitoring alterable variables, then you can target students for intervention to change their future."


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Homework: Here's a neat model for tracking student engagement in middle school; sponsors say it has not spread because of its relatively high cost, $1,300 per middle-school student. Still, that's far cheaper than the societal costs of one high school dropout:


Also see the National Forum to Accelerate Middle-Grades Reform:


By Susan Darst Williams Ages & Stages 143 2008


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