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
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
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
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."
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
see the National Forum to Accelerate Middle-Grades Reform: