Middle school changes urged

The Baltimore Sun

Middle schoolers need longer school days, specially trained teachers and more challenging academics if schools officials hope to reverse a decades-long trend of sagging achievement rates, according to a report presented yesterday to the State Board of Education.

The report included 16 recommendations from a panel of teachers, administrators and psychologists. State schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick convened the committee two years ago to look for ways to improve education in grades six through eight.

The panel's co-chairman, Gerald Scarborough, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction for Harford County public schools, said middle school students need stronger math, foreign language and reading and writing skills.

"We have higher expectations," Scarborough said after the board's meeting. "With No Child Left Behind, our middle school and high school assessments, the stakes are higher now."

Students need not only more instruction in these areas, they need longer school days - possibly through before- and after-school programs - to get more time and practice with the material, the committee's leaders said. The committee also said students should complete algebra by the end of eighth grade and be enrolled in a foreign language course by sixth grade.

The committee's report, "The Critical Middle: A Reason for Hope," details 16 recommendations and dozens of strategies, including:

* Integrate math, science and technology instruction that is focused on problem-solving and "real-world application."

* Expose all students to fine-arts classes, such as dance, music, theater and visual arts.

*Provide "accelerated and enriched instructional pathways" for gifted and talented students.

*Train teachers to deal with middle school students' particular developmental and cognitive needs.

Scarborough said communities, including employers, are demanding better-prepared high school graduates, and preparation at the middle-school level is crucial.

"I think school systems are going to take a long look, and a hard look, at these recommendations," he said.

The committee's recommendations are advisory, meaning that school systems won't be required to adopt them.

But Grasmick said state educators would expect to see evidence of the suggestions in the master plans that districts are required to submit annually.

Grasmick said fresh momentum is building to ensure students are prepared to meet increasingly challenging state graduation requirements.

"Some of the ideas may not be new, but we have new tools to deal with them," she said.

A committee that Grasmick convened in the late 1990s, called the Middle Learning Years Task Force, developed similar recommendations, such as making better use of research on adolescent development and learning, teacher training specific to the middle school years and introducing more challenging classes for students.

But in an interview during a break from yesterday's meeting, Grasmick said she believed the recommendations of this most recent committee would have greater traction.

"Never have we had the expectation for rigor that we have now," she said, adding that the group's report offers a level of "specificity" that will help guide school systems in developing programs.

As an example of the state's new tools, Grasmick pointed to a recent announcement of plans to launch this fall the state's first middle-school teacher certification program at Stevenson University, which this month changed its name from Villa Julie College.

She also said that state educators plan to consult with neurological researchers at the Johns Hopkins University who are studying how the brains of adolescents work as part of an emerging field known as "neuro-education."

"It's important to understand not just the content and the structure [of middle school education], but something about the learner," Grasmick said.


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