Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Middle School Blues?

Maggie Gallagher notes that New York (along with Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Baltimore, Philadelphia and many other urban school districts) is shutting down failing public middle schools and moving back to the old K-8 model. She thinks it is a terrific idea with all kinds of social and educational benefits. I tend to agree but, as a product of a K-8 system, I reserve the right to a certain amount of skepticism. It sounds good in theory but, like all systemic fixes, it requires a certain amount of fortitude on the part of administrators to keep it in line with the theory.

At my Catholic K-8 school in a small town in Ohio, there was plenty of the adolescent angst Gallagher describes. It came from all the usual suspects--disturbed families, lax discipline, flaky teachers, innate naughtiness, hormones. Still, on the whole, I suppose we were better off than some of our public school friends in the mega middle schools.

My kids’ school has a unique system that came about more as a function of necessity than of thought, I suspect. But I am hopeful about it. The school is a Christian K-8 school but, starting in 3rd through 5th grade the kids go to a different (but nearby) campus. Many of the parents complain about having to drive between the two, but I think it may be worth the extra gas. The effect (I hope) is to keep the so-called "middle school" or "Jr. High" students among the very young students (K-2) rather than among the more impressionable 3-5 students. It seems to work. The Jr. High kids look after rather than torment their very young peers and the kids on the other campus do not have the pressure of trying to act like the older kids. They are off to themselves and still get to act like kids.

Of course, this is all very theoretical at this point. My daughter will be a 3rd grader next year. Then I will see if the theory holds up.

Discussions - 8 Comments

What happens in middle schools? These explanations are pretty good, but oh, my! I went to a public middle school orientation meeting with my daughter in the spring. Ours go from 6th - 9th grades. They said, "If a big kid tells you to move back on the bus, just do it. Remember, if you tell on him, he’ll still be there tomorrow." Then they said, "If someone is picking on you in the hall, here are the five ways to tell on him. But don’t forget, he’ll be there, watching for you after school, and we can’t protect you, then." Great message as to how to respond to bullying. Then they had a "fashion show" to show the right and wrong way to dress for school. What the heck? If my daughter tried to dress that way, the wrong way, for school I’d have to buy her a burqa. I’d sew her right in the thing. Who lets a thirteen year-old out of the house looking like Paris Hilton on a tear?

So, she’s in a Christian school, too. There the whole mess of kids, K-12, are together and they all wear uniforms. My daughter might look better in a burqa, but since avoiding physical attraction is the point...well...these uniforms work very well.

Great Post - I will file it under the 112,958 reason why I homeschool my child.

You’re right saying it’s very theoretical. Nobody has really been able to prove yet that one grade-span configuration is better than the other, but people are sure trying. The only problem with K-8 buildings in public schools is most don’t have the ability to offer them -- K-5 and K-6 are already too crowded. There’s also the socioeconomic issues of K-8 neighborhood schools which normally cater to one income level student. It’s probably safe to say the K-8 Catholic school will be better for kids just because the students come from a more affluent background. A K-8 building in East Cleveland, could be another story altogether.

Andrew, you may be surprised to find that we share a lot of common ground here. I am skeptical, always, of systemic fixes and complicated discussions about which way to organize or re-organize schools. What is required for a good education in a school (I’m not really speaking to home schooling here, but neither do I object to it)? A good teacher, a good book, and an eager student. Failing the last, the first two will usually do if the administration is supportive of the teacher’s efforts to make the student eager and the parents are not foolish enough to try and undermine them. Sadly, we rarely find the perfect combination of these elements in most of our schools today. Education bureaucrats interfere, legislatures interfere, and parents (who have no real right to choose their schools) are then thrown into the mix. It is not surprising that parental contributions are rarely helpful given the fact that they are thrown together there--like it or not--with no common theme or element tying them together. It is like the famous line about the pudding with no theme. Schools today seem to be nothing more than a hodge-podge of bad ideas, flavored by a few good teachers, a few good books and the occasional remarkable student. I disagree that Catholic or Christian schools do better because they recruit students from a higher socio-economic background (you’d be surprised at how poor some of my daughter’s peers actually are--but that’s beside the point). They do better because of a unity of purpose between parents, teachers, and administrators and a lack of interference from outside influences. In other words, they do better because the school is their own. Some--even among these schools--will always do better than others. But I suspect that has less to do with the pocketbooks of the parents than it has to do with the qualities of their minds.

Conservatives: fight at your state and district level for reform of the laws, judicial rulings, and informal policies that DONT LET PUBLIC SCHOOLS KICK PERPETUAL TROUBLE MAKERS OUT, and which in a host of other ways, undermine real authority. No other reforms can really work without this. The needs of the many outwiegh those of the few.

There are quite a few public school systems that parents and students are very actively involved in that are also very successful. Perhaps it’s a coincidence that all these schools are financially solvent and in low-crime, suburban/rural areas. Of course, there are a few parents that are low income but they are surrounded by parents that do care about their children and education. This may also be the case in your childrens’ school. I am not trying to debate this issue with you but I think there definitely is a problem here with making failing schools succeed. The solution is possibly encouraging parents to have a stake in their schools, but how to achieve that, I don’t know. Shedding the bureaucratic nightmare of public schools would help. These schools worked at some point, so I think it’s possible to make them work again.

the first sentence should read: There are quite a few public school systems that parents and students are very actively involved in student education that are also very successful.

Get parents to have a stake in their children’s schools? Make them pay for that education. Parents once had to pay for even "public" education, when it was matter of community schools. That was back when the public system is supposed to have worked. People pay attention when they have to pay for something, so to improve education, make the consumers pay, directly.

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