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Mayhem In The Middle

This column was written by Chester E. Finn Jr.

If ever an education fad showed dreadful timing, reaching its intellectual and political pinnacle just as lightning struck the mountaintop, it's "middle schoolism." The key year was 1989, when the middle-school bible, an influential Carnegie-backed report named Turning Points, was published. It hit just as the governors and Pres. George H.W. Bush gathered in Charlottesville to place the United States squarely astride the standards-based reform that is antithetical to the central message of this education religion.

In the ensuing decade and a half, the National Middle School Association (NMSA) and its acolytes, flying the banner of "Turning Points" and arguing that the middle grades are no time for academic learning, argued with great success that these schools should be devoted to social adjustment, coping with hormonal throbs, and looking out for the needs of the "whole child."

That is the essence of middle schoolism as set forth in a stunning new Fordham report by Cheri Pierson Yecke. "Mayhem in the Middle," as it's called, is a thoughtful examination drawing on gobs of evidence that shows the middle grades are where U.S. student achievement begins its fateful plunge, and where a growing number of other nations begin to outpace us.

That the middle grades can be a time of strong academic growth and marked achievement in core skills and knowledge is demonstrated by numerous effective school examples. Though youngsters between the ages of 10 and 15 can be ornery and exasperating, they can also learn much about math and history, literature and science, and art and music. They can develop sound character, admirable values, good habits (with occasional slippage), positive attitudes (also with lapses), and excellent social skills. There's nothing about kids this age that undermines their capacity to learn and there's nothing about grades 5, 6, 7, and 8 that precludes them from being places of powerful teaching and intense learning from a solid core curriculum. All this can happen even in places called "middle schools." Grade configuration is not the key issue.

Yecke focuses instead on the education philosophy, assumptions, goals, and expectations that drive a school spanning the middle grades and those who lead and teach in it. If they worship at the altar of middle schoolism, their theology tells them not to dwell overmuch on academics; other things matter more. If these leaders and teachers subscribe to standards and results-based accountability, however, they will pay greater heed to their students' long-term prospects than to their short-run adjustments, and to the academic gains that play so large a role in these youngsters' futures.

Yecke's goal is to show why middle schoolism should be consigned to history's dustbin -- another education fad that, however well intended, now needs to be retired.

One way to do that is to dedicate middle schools to the goals of high standards, academic achievement, and tough-minded accountability. The other way is to revive the K-8 school, where middle-grade pupils study under the same roof as elementary-grade youngsters. The percentage of such public schools has risen 17 percent since 1994 (versus a 9-percent increase in pure elementary schools), although there are still only about 5,000 K-8 schools (versus 65,000 public elementary schools). It's no panacea, to be sure. K-8 schools bring challenges of their own. But there's some evidence that, overall, they work better.

For years, there's been ample evidence that U.S. middle schools aren't pulling their weight. Generalizing, one can say that U.S. kids do reasonably well in grades K-4; that their performance falters in grades 5-8; and that (with splendid exceptions) it is dismal in high school. The middle grades are where trouble sets in and disappointment is born. One need only examine the 2004 long-term trend results on the National Assessment of Educational Progress for the latest evidence. But this is no new insight. By 1998, the Southern Regional Education Board (SREB) termed these grades "Education's Weak Link," and the phrase "middle-school reform" began to gain currency.

Two years later, Hayes Mizell of the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, as astute a participant/observer as the middle-school movement ever had, declared that "there is disquiet in the middle school community." "Serious questions have arisen," he said, "about students' achievement levels and the capacity of middle schools to challenge students academically. . . . Too many middle level teachers continue to buy into the myth that young adolescents are so distracted that they have no interest in learning, and that there is no point in challenging them. . . . There is, then, a rising tide of doubt about the viability and effectiveness of middle schools."

Half a decade later, that's pretty much Yecke's view, too. Florida governor Jeb Bush has just named Yecke that state's new chancellor for K-12 education. She also authored the fine 2003 book, The War Against Excellence, which exposed both the shortcomings of middle-school education and the country's strange animus toward "giftedness."

She got plenty of grief for that book, and she will likely get plenty for Mayhem in the Middle. Devotees of middle schoolism don't easily surrender their faith. So be it. We seek not to convert the devout but to explain to open-minded policymakers and community leaders, people who care about student achievement and are pragmatic about its attainment, that the middle grades can and must be places of serious learning -- but that such learning is not likely to happen if those who preside over middle school are unyielding believers in this discredited theology. If middle-grade education in the U.S. is to be reformed, the civilians who are ultimately in charge of it will have to take control.

Chester Finn is president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, which recently published "Mayhem in the Middle."

By Chester E. Finn Jr.
Reprinted with permission from National Review Online

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