Back To Basics Battle

, Lindalyn Kakadelis, Leave a comment

On July 14th, the U.S. Department of Education released the latest edition of the “Nation’s Report Card,” otherwise known as the 2004-2005 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Everyone, including Secretary Spelling, hailed growth trends for younger students, and rightly so: 9-year-olds posted their best reading and math scores in the report’s 30-year history. American teenagers, on the other hand, did not fare so well: reading and math scores for 17-year-olds stayed low.

If American students excel in elementary school, but falter in high school and beyond, what’s going on? Increasingly, experts are pointing fingers at middle schools as the architects of our academic descent. According to Checker Finn, President of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, middle schools “are usually places where academic rigor and achievement take a back seat to ‘personal development,’ social consciousness, and the inculcation of egalitarian principles.” Rather than academic basics, much of middle school focuses on analyzing the travails of early adolescence. As Finn says: “Middle schoolism is about curing the middle school
student of his or her supposed dysfunction – which doesn’t leave much time for learning.”

A recent Los Angeles Times editorial opined on the NAEP scores, labeling early adolescents the “neglected middle classes,” and suggesting that educators often ignore middle schools as targets for reform. While declining to propose just one solution to our “middle school miasma,” the editorial praises the nonprofit Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) – a program with demonstrated success in teaching at-risk 5th-8th graders in charter schools around the country. In fact, KIPP: Gaston College Preparatory School (GCP) in rural Gaston, North Carolina, is our state’s 6th
highest-performing middle school. GCP’s success is made all the more remarkable by the fact that the school serves a majority of poor, minority students (70% of the student body qualify for the federally subsidized meal program, and 12% have diagnosed learning disabilities).

Where do educators in our state stand with regard to pushing middle schools back toward the basics? Unfortunately, the report Last Best Chance 2004: Educating Young Adolescents in the 21st Century, published by our North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, promotes more of the developmental mumbo-jumbo that distracts students from learning the basics and learning them well. The middle school task force admonishes educators to be cautious about “sacrificing our students on the altar of accountability,” and suggests that our focus ought to be on the “lifelong development of the child” – not just on academic success. Yes, but
academic knowledge has its place. (Surely, others noticed that State Superintendent Michael Ward spelled the report’s preface, or foreword, as “forward?”)

So, what do middle schoolers need? Fortunately, the data is trickling in, and in some cases, show that early adolescents do well in schools serving grades K-8. In Milwaukee, as a result of the 2000 Neighborhood Schools Initiative, the concept of the K-8 school is gaining in popularity. A recent report released by the Milwaukee Public School system reveals that K-8 schools there produced higher attendance, lower suspension rates, and higher academic results than traditional middle schools (grades 6-8). Milwaukee parents are increasingly opting for K-8 schools: enrollment in traditional middle schools is expected to decline from about 13,200
students last fall to about 11,050 this fall.

What does this tell us? First, students suffer when we stray from the academic basics. “Personal development” is no substitute for solid instruction in reading, science, and math. Second, offering parents and students choices and flexibility works. We need to be willing to experiment and shift our educational paradigm when schools fail. Not surprisingly, Milwaukee – site of the nation’s oldest school choice program – is again leading the way.

Lindalyn Kakadelis serves as the Director of the North Carolina Education Alliance. To learn more about middle school trends as well as the latest education news, visit the Alliance online at