Tuesday, January 16, 2007

“Doing better”in grammar school or middle school?

For the better part of a decade, urban districts (Philadelphia, Baltimore, New York – and my own Lancaster, Pa.) have been pondering, planning and, in some cases, implementing a shift back to the grammar school (K-8) model and away from the middle school that has become the educational home of choice for 6th, 7th and 8th graders since the early 80s. Into this policy playground comes a new study by respected Johns Hopkins middle school researchers Douglas and Martha MacIver that claims “No benefit to eliminating middle school,” according to the headline in my morning paper.

I haven’t yet gotten my hands on the MacIver study; my comment here should not be read as a critique of their research. The study seems to be well-conceived to determine whether students experience learning growth – as measured by test scores -- over the three years of a middle school stay. The data support the view that children in middle schools score as well as students in K-8 schools, at least when other variables like teaching quality, curriculum, etc. remain constant.

I don’t doubt the MacIvers research findings but I do question what it means to “do better.” And I do want to question the assumption that we should put students of a certain age either into a middle school or a grammar school. Why not both/and? Before explaining what I mean, a bit of school history:

The middle school was, as those over 40 know, the successor to the junior high school. In 1989, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching published Turning Points: Preparing American Youth for the 21st Century, a report that took the developmental profile of young adolescents seriously and designed a school around them. The middle school, already in place in some districts (more because of demographic demand than developmental focus), found its philosophical underpinnings: to strengthen academic demands and to create a caring environmental in which those academic demands could be prosecuted.

And the middle school made sense, at least more sense than its predecessor, the junior high school. In the junior high school, a universe of growing hormone levels, independence needs, and shaky identities came together in a blend that was toxic for many. Shifting the age range and locating learners in teams where a finite number of teachers and students could establish on-going relationships made lots of sense. It still does.

But we forgot something. In the grammar school, big kids could be big kids to little kids. They were in a position to be someone’s role model and to live up to that task. They could reach down and help a smaller child tie a shoe or hang a sign or find the right room. And this aspect of doing better is not as easily addressed in a middle school. Sources as various as philosopher Nel Noddings and recent research on recidivist adolescent offenders tells us that one learns to care by take the role of the carer as well as by being cared for. Middle school children need to experience caring for another regularly, even systematically. I am not talking about the emotions that go with the act of caring for; I mean the habitual mode of attending to and providing for the needs of another. Now, one can care for one’s books and one’s pets and one’s other possessions, of course. But not even pets will respond as the “cared for” (to use Noddings’ phrasing) in the same way that a younger child will. Adolescents need younger children in their lives to play the role of the “cared for” to their “carer.” The grammar school can provide that. Whether or not test scores go up, a grammar school arrangement offers opportunities that middle school structures cannot.

But what of the problems? Don’t young adolescents need something more challenging and more independent than the self-contained classroom? Might big kids not bully little kids? Might little kids not annoy big kids to distraction? Sure. And that’s why we should be thinking both/and, not either/or, when it comes to middle school and grammar school. Why can’t 6th, 7th and 8th graders live in their own section or wing of a grammar school, remaining segregated for many functions but emerging to act as reading buddies, tutors, mentors, guides for younger children and ushers for adult visitors in planned ways? And while we’re at it, why can’t we blur grade and curricular lines to allow those children to move at their own academic pace within the “middle school” that is within the “grammar school”?

The MacIver study is a careful and well-designed study that provides interesting data about a real policy question. Should children of a certain age be in this kind of school structure or that one? Are grammar schools “better” for kids than middle schools? Well, it depends on how you define “better,” what it means to “do better” educationally. If “doing better” is a matter of test scores, as the MacIvers apparently maintain, then teaching quality and curriculum are the critical variables and school structure may be aperipheral concern. But if “doing better” is also a moral matter, if we are concerned with what adolescents do as well as what they know, then we would do well to consider placing middle schools within a grammar school structure. There younger adolescents can learn first-hand what it means to be “older and wiser.” They can practice their wisdom and their caring on the young children in their midst. Then we will all do better.

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