Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Should We Radically Change the Format of Middle School?

One of my favorite educational columnists, Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post's Answer Sheet, had a post yesterday about transforming the structure and nature of middle school education.   She has a great attention-grabbing title for her article:  How to fix the mess we call middle school.

She starts off with some of the reforms of middle school tried to date, and how they don't seem to be succeeding, at least in raising test scores.  She then states what she thinks are the issues with middle school students (students aged 11-14):
Here’s some of what we know about kids in this age group — and why it is past time to do something radically different: 
* Students in this age group are known to be egocentric, argumentative, and — this is not small thing — utterly preoccupied with social concerns rather than academic goals, driven by the swirling of their hormones. 
* They don’t always have solid judgment, but they find themselves in position to make decisions that can affect them throughout their lives. 
* They enjoy solving real life problems with skills. 
None of this adds up to a great experience with the traditional academic classroom.

She doesn't cite any data for these statements, but just lists them as givens.  Now, I have to say that I haven't really experienced the problems she reports in her first bullet with the middle schoolers that I know through my homeschool classes and activities, as well as those I teach in my Sunday School classes.  However, neither homeschooling nor our spiritual community reflect "mainstream" America, so maybe all those middle schoolers in schools show up that way.

But the second two--that they are old enough to make some serious mistakes when some, at least, haven't mastered impulse control or thinking through the consequences of their choices, and that they are hungry for problem-solving and real life experience--I definitely agree with.

So as she as proposed before, Strauss argues that we ought to do away with the academic focus in middle school, and instead turn that time into a "boot camp for life."  What would this boot camp look like, at least in Strauss's opinion?  It would focus on learning skills in applied settings, rather than traditional academic classes, with a strong focus on physical activity and REAL community service.

Strauss believes this is the perfect time to give students some real responsibility to meet a true community need.  As she correctly states, many school "community service" projects are one-shot deals that involve little challenge or commitment.  Picking up trash in a park is fine, but it doesn't develop any skills.  Instead, Strauss proposes that students serve daily at a homeless shelter for a few months, where they will have to confront how our society deals with issues like poverty, mental illness, substance abuse, and the like.  It would also give young people the potential experience of really making a difference in someone's life--and just think how that might change the path of their career and life choices.

Strauss continues that young adolescents need to be out in the community, helping out or being paired with mentors.  She also advocates giving such students more choice by letting them choose the books they will read and discuss, the music they will play or listen to, the art projects they will do.  Finally, she talks about what all the homeschoolers I know already do:  drawing out the "academic" topics in real life activities.  Regular readers of this blog know, for example, that I use cooking to teach math, history, science, literature, art, world religion, and probably a few other disciplines I'm forgetting right now, as well as developing such skills as time management, following instructions, budgeting and shopping for best prices, concentration, the value of precision, nutrition, hygiene, and many others.  And I don't know about you, but I don't know any middle schoolers who aren't interested in the topic of food.

And this is the joy of homeschooling.  Many of us run our middle schools very much like she is saying, at least in my homeschool group (although we do have academic classes as well).  Many of our classes and activities are organized around, or at least take account of, the students' preferences.  We do a lot of learning in applied contexts and hands-on projects, rather than getting everything from a book or a website.  And we have more time for sustained activity on community projects that we care about.  We have a group of homeschoolers who visit an assisted living facility, not just at Christmas when it is "time to think of others," but every month for years on end.  In my son's case, he has been there almost every month for 11 years--over 130 visits so far.  You think maybe that is why the middle schoolers I know aren't "egocentric," "argumentative," and "utterly preoccupied with social concerns"?

I don't know what it would take to get the schools to change in the direction she advocates.  But based on what I've seen in homeschooling,  I think that is the direction to go.


  1. That sounds of very hard work... I doubt she much cares for the comfort of middle schoolers... Ah, but I wouldn't know. Anyway, I'll just not think about it. Sounds very harsh, though. I somewhat agree!

  2. Yes, maximizing the comfort of students is not usually the main concern of educational theorists.