Schools have changed throughout America's history as the nation has changed from frontier and rural to industrialized and increasingly technologically sophisticated. A major shift in educational practices came during the early 1900's when third grade reading, writing, and arithmetic became inadequate preparation for an increasingly complex society. The educational experiments from this period are known as "progressive reforms," taking their name from the "progressive era" in American education.
Educational Reforms of the 1900's have had great staying-power despite decades of difficulty in getting them to work.
The doctrine of Developmentally Appropriate Practice is drummed into almost all teachers who take early education courses. The intention is to insure caring treatment for young children, yet the ultimate effect of the doctrine is to cause social harm. To withhold demanding content ... leaves advantaged children (who get knowledge at home) with boring pablum, and it condemns disadvantaged children to a permanent educational handicap that grows worse over time. We know that early education can overcome many of these deficits, and we also know that what is called Developmentally Appropriate Practice can not.
"Either the middle school movement overemphasized the affective and developmental, or their message was seriously misunderstood by practitioners in the field," concludes M. Hayes Mizell, the director of the program for student achievement at the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation in New York City.Similar comments come from both a middle school principal as well as a university professor in "Coming of Age" in Teacher Magazine February 1998:
The foundation is a major force in middle-grades reform and is now working with middle schools in Corpus Christi, Texas; Long Beach, Calif.; Louisville, Ky.; and San Diego. All the projects are centered around clear achievement standards for students--which Mizell argues is the missing ingredient in far too many districts.
"I just kept having experience after experience where middle school educators would talk about the uniqueness of the kids or their caring for the kids," he says, "but where you got no impression as to where kids were supposed to come out, in terms of what they know and can do."
"In the early years, the middle school movement was affective, too affective," Spilman says. "There was too much talk about making kids feel good and not enough talk about curriculum and standards. We're changing that."
Johnston of the University of South Florida points out that middle-grades reform has its roots in humanistic psychology. "And it's a valuable thing, too," he adds. "Basically, it says that kids develop at their own pace and that if you screw it up too much you'll have trouble. But this idea was sometimes carried to the extreme, and too many middle schools wrapped themselves in the banner of 'helping children grow,' neglecting the fact that the public holds educators accountable for achievement."Joseph Adelson, Professor of Psychology at the University of Michigan, echoes these comments in Exaggerated Esteem: How the "Self-Esteem" Fad Undermines Educational Achievement.
One contribution to the self-efficacy (as opposed to self-esteem) of students comes from ensuring the self-efficacy of their teachers. Do the teachers have training, resources, and support to do their job? Or are teachers treated as headcount and herded about through intimidation tactics?
Content knowledge, understanding of the learning process and of child development, and pedagogical expertise are essential to a teacher's effectiveness. ...
We cannot be sure how many staff-development programs meet these or any other stringent standards. Part of the problem has to do with how much of current staff development is not intended to affect student learning. As Hayes Mizell, the director of programs for student achievement at the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, put the question at the NSDC's annual conference: "If the intent is to improve the performance of teachers and educators ... [why] would so much staff development be so ill-conceived, so hit-or-miss, so ineffective?"
The single biggest tool in promoting reforms has been advocacy - followed up by massive doses of conferences, inservice training, and university courses. The scenario goes like this: a sense of urgency is created, and a new terminology is coined; a national fellowship develops among the believers; stories of success appear in a journal such as this; and a massive national network of training is created. The advocacy is driven largely by philosophy, with only a smidgen of technique or research supporting the idea. The word then goes out that the technique is supported by research. In retrospect, the supposed research is never very convincing, and the reforms fade away for lack of a real method for implementing them. Some examples of current reforms that are built primarily around advocacy and training are the Middle School Movement, School-Wide Approaches to Title 1 Heterogeneous Grouping, Full Inclusion, and the Thinking Approach to Mathematics.
Unfortunately, the cyclical nature of school reform movements, and the ability of failed reforms to make encore appearances, means teachers are subjected to demoralizing demands that they adopt some "new" method from--what one staff member of the American Federation of Teachers disparagingly calls-- the gods on Mount Olympus.
Consider the controversy over direct instruction (a more general version of the whole language versus phonics debate). According to "Coming of Age" (Teacher Magazine February 1998) middle school teachers should not rely on direct instruction:
The 1993 National Middle School Association survey found that some 90 percent of grade 6-8 schools had not really changed their teaching. For the most part, they still relied on direct instruction—teacher presentation, drill, and practice.The next year, the NMSA published a monograph by Paul George and Kathy Shewey entitled New Evidence for the Middle School. The monograph cited a study by Rutter, (then 15 years old) which found "reasonably high expectations, direct instruction, homework, and other related items combined to enable teachers and students to take learning seriously and, as a result, to become more successful in mastering the learning tasks." The monograph quietly dismissed this contradictory finding on direct instruction by characterizing the true value of the Rutter study as demonstrating the importance of an "ethos of caring." Unfortunately, it may well be that direct instruction, rather than the "ethos of caring" contributed more to student achievement. According to another assessment of Rutter's work:
During the late 'seventies, studies such as those of Ron Edmonds and Michael Rutter and colleagues were published, which found that a common characteristic of effective schools is that they share an ethos or culture that is oriented towards learning, manifest in terms of high expectations of students, the setting of high standards, an emphasis on the basics, a high level of involvement in decision-making and professionalism amongst teachers, cohesiveness and clear policies on matters such as homework and student behaviour, and so on. They also found that effective schools (at least in the American and British contexts) are characterised by strong educational leadership, particularly as exercised by the principal and directed at establishing agreed goals, increasing competence and involvement of staff and clarifying roles and expectations. This knowledge formed the basis of numerous school improvement initiatives, but it soon emerged that attempting to replicate the characteristics of efffective schools in all schools does not necessarily lead to ineffective schools becoming effective schools. In other words, the assumptions of cause and effect were faulty.Solid evidence for the importance of direct instruction is provided by Bennett. Nonetheless, middle school consultants continue to promote less effective educational practices.
For example, consider the case of Middle School reform. Thousands of articles and speeches have advocated the development of child-centered curricula. I recently completed a three-year study to identify exemplary Middle School curricula. There were few examples of exemplary curricula to be found (see note 5). The only exemplary Mathematics curriculum was 20 years old, and the only exemplary Comprehensive Science curriculum was Canadian. There were no exemplary Comprehensive Language Arts or Social Studies curricula. While everyone has been philosophizing about what Middle School curricula should look like, no one has bothered to develop them, despite 40 years of advocacy. The basic tools that are needed aren't there: there is a lot of bull, but no beef.
The Middle School movement is not a singular example. The reality for teachers and principals is that exemplary programs usually do not exist for the goals school people are being asked to achieve.
The authors specifically address the issue of mandating a particular style of teaching:
Student-centered practices such as discussions, small-group work, and hands-on projects are usually assumed to provide more authentic experiences for children. We found, however, that many activities of this sort do not necessarily support  construction of knowledge,  disciplined inquiry, or  learning that has application beyond school. Whether "teacher centered" (e.g., teacher-directed discussion) or "student-centered" (e.g., cooperative learning), instruction should be designed to promote the[se] three main qualities of authentic achievement.Similarly, in "Inequity in Equity: How 'Equity' Can Lead to Inequity for High-Potential Students" (Psychology, Public Policy and Law, June, 1996) the authors observe, "Forcing a teacher to adopt a new educational innovation may be akin to demanding that Cezanne paint like Rembrandt."
The bottom line from "Coming of Age" in Teacher Magazine February 1998 should be taken to heart:
In the final analysis, a middle school's success must be judged on the academic achievement of its students. Placing special ed kids in the regular classroom, eliminating ability grouping, freeing teachers to develop their own philosophies and approaches, and teaming them long-term with groups of students'—these are important only to the extent that they promote learning.
The second paper discusses "effect size," a common measure of effectiveness of educational interventions, and gives examples of effective reform programs for disadvantaged elementary schools.
The common theme of both papers is the need to carefully assess educational research, looking for good experimental design and appropriate use of quantitative data.
Similarly, qualitiative evaluation, especially of experimental design, is key to understanding the validity of claims for improved middle school perfomance. Consider the "Limitations and Assumptions" on page 60 of New Evidence for the Middle School by Paul George and Kathy Shewey:
No attempt was made to control or to analyse data on the basis of socioeconomic status of students, school size, geographic locations, or influence of school leadership. No quantitative manipulation of the data have been attempted, other than conversion to percentages. Selection and interpretations of respondents comments, summaries, and conclusions can be characterized as descriptive and impressionistic.Another characterization might be "anecdotal and unreliable," especially given "'strong leadership' appears in virtually every list of attributes of successful schools" as noted in The Role of Leadership in Sustaining School Reform: Voices From the Field - July 1996
Anecdotal evidence from the same districts used to support middle schools can also used to be refute that support. Kathy Hunt, a middle school consultant used by Beavercreek Schools, built her reputation as a middle school administrator in the Boulder Valley School District. Yet Janusz Okolowicz ran successfully for the school board in that same district. His reason for running? "I retired [from teaching middle school math] in order to run for the board. I think the quality of education is declining, especially in the middle schools. ... If we continue this way, in another 40 years, 20-40 percent of kids will be unemployable" (The Denver Post, October 16, 1995). In fact, the "exemplary middle school" in question appears to have been both over-spending and under-achieving.
Similar discontent surfaced in Howard County, Maryland, a system with a long history of support for middle schools. According to "Muddle in the Middle," Education Week, April 15, 1998:
Parents had complained about middle schools for at least a decade before the superintendent and school board launched the review.Among the problems, according to the middle school consultants' version of the review: too much "frontal teaching" (i.e. direct instruction) in the middle schools.
In California, however, the fight for effective educational practices went to the courtroom when an administrator sought to silence three senior teachers opposed to heterogeneous grouping. The California Teachers Association cited the administrator's actions as an example of prior restraint in violation of teachers' First Amendment rights.
Teachers should not need to take these sorts of risks in order to do the best job they can to educate our children. Teachers need the support of parents, and administrators need to know that the value of teachers in creating successful schools is understood all members of the school community, including parents, taxpayers, and board members. Teachers who have been intimidated into quietly adopting flawed educational philosophies are not the empowered teachers who are likely to enhance the self-image and achievement of students.
An excellent discussion of research on classroom placement (i.e. grouping) is available on the web: How should we group to achieve excellence with equity? In the report, the author makes the following observation:
a recent study by Gamoran, Nystrand, Berends, and LePore (1995) found that "discussion and authentic questions" was "beneficial to high-ability students and detrimental to those in low-ability classes."Thus, the instructional techniques that benefit one group of students is a detriment to another. This finding reinforces the results from cognitive psychology which indicate the need for a core of knowledge upon which higher order thinking skills can be exercised (e.g. using "discussion and authentic questions").
Although the research on grouping largely supports common sense, it has been widely misrepresented and intensely politicized.
Moreover, achievement grouping has high support among teachers and parents. A survey reported in the June 1998 issue of The Phi Delta Kappan 66% of parents supported achievement grouping.
Because of its association with desegregation efforts, heterogeneous grouping has become "politically correct" and is supported by "reform" groups such as the National Middle School Association. Supporters of heterogeneous grouping feel alternatives are "ethically unacceptable," that "in grades one through nine in our society, the objectives are supposed to be the same for every child" and speak of the role of schools in "redistribution of future wealth."
Because many formerly segregated schools are under court order to group heterogeneously, a consultancy business appears to be flourishing which promises to solve the many instructional challenges confronting teachers in heterogeneous classrooms. The various solutions proposed, such as cooperative learning and differentiated instruction, have not, in practice, met the needs of all students.
As noted above, achievement grouping provides the optimum class composition. School districts which have misused achievement grouping have lost use of a time-tested and research proven practice, to the detriment of their communities.