What Do You Think?
Fixing Middle School
THE PROBLEM: Middle school students in Iowa are struggling academically.
By DANA BOONE and MEGAN HAWKINS, Des Moines Register, February 13, 2005
Too many students at Des Moines' Meredith Middle School were distracted, skipping classes and scoring low on standardized tests.
Tired of working with students who didn't take school seriously, teachers resorted to an age-old remedy:
Youngsters who earn decent grades, have good attendance records and do well on district tests would advance to the next grade. Those with poor grades, bad attendance and low district test scores would take classes over.
Such policies may seem like common sense. But they are rare in Des Moines and most other middle schools, and they require parents' agreement.
"We're not just going to have you skate through (middle school), then you get to . . . high school and it's a shocker," Meredith math teacher Sherry Ward said . "You do everything you can to get kids where they need to be."
For years, teachers, administrators and others have wrung their hands over the poor academic performances of many middle school students. They have fretted about students' spotty attendance and have worried about parents' lack of involvement in their youngsters' schools.
A few steps are being taken to fix what ails middle schools. At some schools, students are grouped to take language arts, math, social studies and science from the same four teachers. The team of teachers meets to talk about the students' progress and plan lessons with similar themes. While little research is available on teaming, some local educators say the practice has boosted students' academic skills.
At Ankeny's Northview Middle School, class periods have been lengthened to 84 minutes this school year, from 42 minutes last year. Instead of eight classes a day, students take four classes that meet on alternating days. The change lets teachers cover material more deeply, and the longer class periods give students more opportunities to ask questions.
In Minneapolis in 1997, the start time for middle schools was moved later in the morning after researchers said adolescents needed more sleep. Starting classes at 9:40 a.m. resulted in improved attendance and grades.
But while evidence mounts that 11- to 14-year-olds learn best when they start school later in the morning and when they are engaged in hands-on activities, only a smattering of middle schools have substantially changed the way adolescents are taught. Instead of participating in engaging lessons, students often fill out worksheets and teachers give lectures.
"I got bored in class one day and just started counting the birds that went by," said Nick McVey, a Waukee Middle School eighth-grader.
Academic data underscore the need for change in middle schools: In Des Moines in 2003-04, one in four eighth-graders failed one or more core academic classes - reading, math, science and social studies. In Iowa City, slightly more than one in five eighth-graders failed one or more of their core classes.
Middle school students struggle in suburban districts, as well.
Students who fail in middle school likely will struggle in high school, educators and others say. Yet in many school districts in Iowa and across the nation the emphasis remains on improving elementary reading and math skills and on making high schools more rigorous. Until recently, little attention has been paid to students in the middle grades.
"For some reason, (middle school) is the weak link," said Des Moines Hiatt Middle School teacher Deb Collins .
In January, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush announced that he wants sixth- through eighth-graders to earn credits in English, math, science and social studies before advancing to high school. Failing students would stay in middle school until they earned the credits.
In Des Moines, middle schools, which have been studied repeatedly, are once again under the microscope. Officials have proposed adding summer school, reading coaches and tutoring programs in the middle grades. They also want to review lesson plans and course offerings and study grade configurations and the times that schools begin and end.
"It's obvious to a lot of staff and principals that things are changing," said Linda Lane, deputy superintendent. "Are we all the way there? No."
Middle school is the "last best chance" to give adolescents the classroom lessons and guidance they need to succeed in high school, said Jack Berckemeyer , assistant executive director of the National Middle School Association in Westerville, Ohio.
"If we don't do that in the middle school, they're not going to be ready for high school," he said. "They're not going to be ready for things life has in store for them."
Tonya Maher , PTA president at Des Moines' Merrill Middle School, has youngsters in sixth and seventh grades. "Kids get passed through" the school system, she said. Some students who are passed from one grade to another never master the subject.
Data show that many middle school students struggle academically:
• In Des Moines, 614, or 26 percent, of the district's 2,380 eighth-graders failed one or more core academic classes in 2003-04, district data showed. Twenty-nine eighth-graders failed all of their core courses that school year.
• In Southeast Polk, 64, or 16 percent, of the district's 392 eighth-graders failed at least one core course last year. Nine students failed all of their core courses, officials said. Overall, 6 percent of 3,407 eighth-graders from seven suburban school districts failed at least one course that year, a Des Moines Sunday Register analysis shows.
• In Iowa City, 187, or 22 percent, of the district's 849 eighth-graders failed a core academic class in 2003-04. Four students failed all their core classes.
In addition, 35 percent of Des Moines eighth-graders in 2003-04 were proficient in science and 36 percent were proficient in math, district test results show. Fifty-six percent of eighth-graders were proficient readers, according to district reading tests designed to show the progress students make during the school year.
In seven suburban districts, a much higher percentage of students were at or above grade level on standardized tests, data showed.
Improving students' academic performance has challenged middle schools as districts have struggled with budget cuts, layoffs and an increased emphasis on testing.
Berckemeyer, of the National Middle School Association, said middle school test scores nationally tend to be lower than scores posted by elementary and high school students.
"I don't think it's because they're not learning," he said.
The problem could be overloaded curriculums and student attitudes toward standardized tests, he said.
"Do most adolescents have buy-in to these tests?" he said. "Probably not."
Judith Cunningham , an executive director of Des Moines schools, said officials are studying course offerings and national standards to ensure students are being taught what they need to know. Frequent testing to identify problems could help educators improve scores in middle schools, she said.
"We've got to take responsibility," Cunningham said.
Middle schools must demand more of parents and students, which Meredith's new policy does, said Nancy Attey , president of the school's PTA.
"It's definitely innovative," she said. "I think it has a stronger student connection than anything I've seen anywhere else in the city."
Meredith parents and students were asked to sign compacts. Parents agree to attend conferences and arrange a place for children to study, among other things. Students agree to attend school, complete homework and get help from teachers.
Meredith parent Lea Ann Walker and her 12-year-old daughter, Rachel , signed the compacts. Walker said she has noticed that teacher teams are more organized and that teachers are more apt to inform parents about students' progress.
"I think it's wonderful and can only encourage parents to become more involved in their children's education," she said.
Middle school can be an awkward period in adolescents' lives. Students' bodies are maturing, and hormonal changes can cause mood swings and inattentiveness.
The youngsters are intensely focused on each other and finding a niche within their peer groups. The changes can impede learning.
"They're like manic depressives sometimes. I mean they're high and low," said Connie Cook, principal at Meredith Middle School and Hoover High School. "The extremes of their emotions are something you really have to deal with in middle school."
But for students to learn, they must be in class:
• In Urbandale, 88, or 34 percent, of 256 eighth-graders missed 15 or more days of school in 2003-04, district data show.
• In Des Moines, 601, or 25 percent, of 2,380 eighth-graders missed 15 or more days of class.
• In Johnston, 81, or 20 percent, of 397 eighth-graders missed three or more weeks of school.
Ten percent of eighth-graders in West Des Moines, Waukee and Southeast Polk missed three or more weeks of school.
Improving attendance is a priority, Des Moines' Cunningham said. "We know that in order for us to teach, we've got to have the kids at school."
Jim Reese , an Iowa Department of Education consultant, said boring curriculum and weak teaching methods can play a role in attendance problems. "How many are you turning away because it's not engaging?" he said.
Students said they like learning through hands-on activities, such as a project in Indianola where students transformed the classroom into a cave to study early humans.
Lessons "have to be hands-on or else we'll drift off," said John Schaeffer, an Ankeny eighth-grader.
Cunningham said lectures are widely used by teachers, but educators have recognized that students learn best through a variety of methods, such as ones that use hands-on activities, computers and small groups.
"The curriculum and the instruction has to be super-engaging because it has to override the fact that the primary concerns of the kids who walk into that classroom are who I'm sitting next to, am I going to be embarrassed, am I dressed right," said Linda Miller, an education department consultant.
Des Moines parent Melissa Nelson said the middle school years can be tough on families. She said her oldest son struggled in middle school, and she worries about her youngest, who will attend Callanan Middle School in August.
"I'm a nervous wreck about Joey going," Nelson said. Her worries include sixth-graders mixing with older students whose "hormones are just going nuts" and teachers expecting sixth-graders to "act like grown-ups."
Helping acclimate students from elementary to middle school could help them understand why it's important to do well, said Hiatt Middle School Principal Toni Dann.
Hiatt sixth-grader David Lovan said he was nervous about attending middle school.
"You try to transition when you get out of fifth grade into sixth grade," he said. "But it gets kind of challenging sometimes."
At Indianola Middle School, teachers sent an e-mail questionnaire on the transition to parents of incoming sixth-graders. The high school, which is across the street, also has a teacher group working to improve the transition between eighth and ninth grades.
Cunningham said Des Moines will create uniform transition programs at all middle schools.
That pleases David Davis, an eighth-grader at Hiatt.
"You don't really have to worry that much," he said.
Educators hope improving instruction, giving students extra help and getting parents involved will be enough to fix what ails middle schools.
"This is the last chance to prepare them to be successful in high school," said Kathy Turnball , an eighth-grade teacher in Indianola, "to give them the idea that the habits that they develop here are the ones they're going to take to the high school."
On the Web
Information about middle school students can be found at the following Web sites:
• The National Middle School Association:
• The National Association of School Psychologists:
• It's my life:
• Kids Can Learn:
• Partnership for a Drug-Free America:
• Blank Children's Hospital, tips for teens and parents: