Middle School: The Bridge That Fails

Assemblywoman Clark brings education policy makers together with the goal of reforming middle grade education
February 29, 2012
During the 2012 Association of Black and Puerto Rican Legislators Conference weekend, Assemblywoman Clark invited a panel of reputable education policymakers to discuss whether or not the “reforms” implemented in New York City and the other “big five” school districts are effectively closing the achievement gap. During the Associations’ 37th Annual legislative Conference weekend in 2008, in advance of the New York City Department of Educations’ plans to end social promotion in all grade levels, and to revise the high school selection process, Assemblywoman Clark began to discuss academic readiness of middle grade students entering high school.

Mayor Bloomberg and Governor Cuomo in their 2012 state of the city and state addresses’ respectively, addressed the need for still more education reforms, especially regarding teacher evaluations. According to Assemblywoman Clark, “the 2012 panel discussion during the 41st annual conference weekend is a follow-up from the one we began in 2008. Both discussions allowed parents to offer their opinions and raise questions to state and city education officials and truly be participatory in crafting reforms that are reflective of the needs of our community schools.”

The discussion encouraged panelist and attendees to recommend effective interventions to raise performance of middle grade students. The discussion featured several panelist principally involved in education reform, including: Dr. John King, Commissioner of the New York State Education Department, Dennis M. Walcott, Chancellor of the New York City Department of Education, Ernest Logan, President of the Council of the Supervisors & Administrations, Michael Mulgrew, President of the United Federation of Teachers, David C. Banks, President of the Eagle Academy Foundation, and Davia M. Franklyn Coordinator, of the 21st Century After School Program of Bankstreet College. The discussion was moderated by Milton Cofield, Vice Chancellor of New York State Board of Regents. “The entire panel alluded to the fact that there have been countless panel discussions relative to closing the middle grade achievement gap, still middle grade students continue to lag behind in achievement. Given that all credible research suggest that middle grades are where most drop out indicators occur it is incumbent upon policy makers to begin to formulate solutions tailored specifically for middle grade students and not just have rhetorical conversation,” said Clark.

Middle grade education presents unique challenges. According to Assemblywoman Clark “these students are going through a myriad of changes as they enter adolescence and prepare to transition to a new school structure.” Middle schools that seek to educate students entering adolescence have to find ways to meet not only their academic needs, but their social and emotional needs as well. The stakes for middle school success are high. Research demonstrates that middle grade achievement is strongly associated with graduation from high school. In New York City for example, performance in middle school also determines the type of high school a student can attend. Many of the better-performing high school programs screen applicants based on their middle grade academic performance, standardized test scores, and a review of attendance records.

The greatest problem, according to Assemblywoman Clark is that “there are a limited number of very good school choices, and then a much greater number of mediocre choices, and then a number of schools that no one would choose actively.” The Assemblywoman continued, “Disproportionately, the high-need kids – special education kids, kids who speak limited English or no English at all and kids in poverty – are concentrated in the lowest-performing schools. That’s a huge equity issue that I have sought to combat my entire career. I believe that with appropriate security precautions we can consider expanding elementary schools from kindergarten to eight grade so that parents are not having to send their children hours away in search of a quality middle school.”

The middle school as a failing bridge is not a problem unique to New York, however the shear size and population of City’s public school system amplifies the achievement gap. The New York City public schools have 1.1 million students and 587 middle schools according to Chancellor Walcott. For example, the 220,000 students in the middle grades represent more students than comprise the entire public school systems of Philadelphia or Houston. New York City also has a relative high degree of poverty. According to Assemblywoman Clark “The New York City public schools serve thousands of low-income children, and poverty creates other needs – health needs emotional, social, psychological needs.” The approach to teaching has not necessarily addressed the needs of the whole child. In fact, as Assemblywoman Clark points out “most middle grade educators are not appropriately trained to deal with the myriad of challenges facing seventh and eight graders, because they are trained to teach students from kindergarten to eight grade.”

During the policy discussion there was a range of opinions, which suggest there is not a clear consensus on the best way to educate middle grade students and to improve achievement for low-income students. However, what is clear is that reforms to the management or organization of schools are necessary to yield the greatest possible achievement outcomes. According to Assemblywoman Clark “making sure the trains run on time may not be possible, however emerging evidence suggests that some mundane reforms could produce substantial achievement gains at a relatively low cost.” The Assemblywoman continued, “I hope that this discussion begins to encourage education officials that are in midst of presenting education reforms to the public to move beyond rhetoric and truly begin tacking the challenges facing our middle schools.”