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June 1, 2006
Vol. 63
No. 9

Misleading in the Middle: A Rebuttal to Cheri Pierson Yecke

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Yecke's misrepresentation of what happens in middle schools can do serious harm. Let's set the record straight.<LINK URL="http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/apr06/vol63/num07/Mayhem-in-the-Middle@-Why-We-Should-Shift-to-K%E2%80%938.aspx">Read Cheri Pierson Yecke's article</LINK>.

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In almost three decades of service to the teaching profession, I have never seen such a distorted presentation of an education idea as the one that Cheri Pierson Yecke offers in her April 2006 Educational Leadership article, "Mayhem in the Middle: Why We Should Shift to K–8." Her arguments are based on false information that does not reflect reality.
"U.S. middle schools," says Yecke, "are where student academic achievement goes to die." She claims that middle schools are "an environment in which little is expected of students, either academically or behaviorally," and she misrepresents the middle school concept as "the notion that middle schools should be havens of socialization and not academies of knowledge."
Clearly, Yecke didn't get the memo—or if she did, she chose not to read it. Let me be clear to every educator, parent, business leader, and policymaker who may have been misinformed by Yecke's statements: In a properly implemented middle school program, there has never been, nor will there ever be, a subordination of academics or a failure to hold students to high standards of behavior.

What Really Happens in Middle Schools

The mission of middle school educators is to create intelligent, compassionate, and contributing citizens. To create those thoughtful citizens, the middle school concept advocates teaching a rich core of knowledge in multiple disciplines, as well as the habits of mind that enable students to make connections among these disciplines and to apply what they learn deftly to life beyond school. When existing conditions don't enable a student to learn, we might adjust the route that student takes or revise the curriculum so that it has more meaning. But no description of the middle school concept even hints at de-emphasizing academics for the sake of self-esteem or lowering academic expectations because students are not in the mood to try.
When properly implemented, the middle school concept creates a mother lode of intellectual pursuits and academic achievement. Students isolate crucial attributes of political systems and science sequences. They solve quadratic equations, and they learn about the incredible usefulness of π. They learn to use dozens of graphic organizers to structure information for long-term recall. They analyze the role of propaganda in political cartoons, medical companies' promotion of favored drugs, and such classics as Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front. They perform complex concertos that would make some high school and college students quiver in the attempt. They learn to infer an author's meaning, conjugate regular and irregular verbs in multiple languages, and compose essays that rival some of the most cogent expressions of older students.
These activities aren't just happening in a few special middle schools. As a middle-level teacher and a teacher trainer these past 27 years, I've visited almost 300 middle schools. I've worked with thousands of teachers beyond that, in the United States and around the world. In every school that implements the middle school concept, academics are an unwavering focus.
Young adolescents in strong middle school programs also discover lifelong hobbies and personal interests that give academics and daily work meaning, and they learn to collaborate with others who think and dress differently from them. They repair playgrounds, build parks, tutor struggling classmates, and create and maintain school Web sites. They learn to attack personal and academic problems inductively and deductively, appreciating both convergent and divergent thinking as they solve problems in multiple ways. A good middle school is an explosion of intellectual and personal growth that lays the foundation for an educated citizenry and a thriving economy.
Yecke's claim that discipline in middle schools is lax or intermittent—that students are not held accountable for academics or personal behavior standards—makes me wonder how many middle schools she has visited. Personal and academic accountability is a basic tenet of the middle school concept. Students are brought before administrators when they misbehave. If they don't do a task, they don't get credit, and if they don't meet the high standard of excellence set for an assignment, they don't get a high grade.
We middle-level educators are members of our own communities. Does Yecke think we would allow immoral, undisciplined behavior to permeate our community? We don't. We are with students every step of the way—in their face and by their side as necessary, to guide their growing maturity. In more than 30 years of promoting the middle school concept, we have never deviated from this position.

How the Middle School Concept Really Works

The middle school concept boils down to this belief: 10–14 year-olds learn differently than younger and older students do, and therefore, middle school educators need to restructure curriculum and instruction and diversify our approaches to meet early adolescents' unique needs. In doing so, we don't de-emphasize student learning—we increase it.
Here are just a few examples. Brain development in this period of human growth is dynamic—some connections are pruned within the brain while others are strengthened until they become permanent. Therefore middle school educators revisit material and clarify directions often, providing opportunities for students to experience important content from multiple angles.
Although the majority of the curriculum in middle school is symbolic and abstract, the majority of young adolescents are concrete thinkers who need to touch, feel, and manipulate objects to understand them. Students at this age learn more by doing than by just seeing or hearing. They don't learn material well vicariously, just by hearing a classmate say the correct answer. Therefore, middle school educators teach abstract content through physical activity as much as possible.
Relationships and the emotional atmosphere of the classroom become major players in student achievement at this age, and they cannot be left to chance. Therefore, middle school educators go out of their way to help students handle the onslaught of new pressures, including their new perceptions of gender, their changing roles in their communities, and the bombardment of conflicting messages they receive through everyday media. We make sure students feel that they belong, and we discipline them in ways that lead to positive behavioral changes.
Middle school educators hold students to high academic standards, but that doesn't mean we demand that every student reach every goal on the same day as his or her classmates do. We give students the step-by-step tools to achieve those high standards, and we make sure they get there, whatever it takes, regardless of whether or not we had to adjust the pace of delivery.

Confusing Concept with Grade Configuration

Yecke claims that research backs up her ideas, but she relies on faulty and misleading interpretations of the research. Part of the problem stems from her repeated confusion of the middle school concept with a particular grade configuration. Throughout her article bemoaning the evils of the middle school concept, she never once compares K–8 schools with middle-level schools that were actually using the middle school concept! Instead, she lumps all middle-level schools together, not distinguishing between middle schools in name only and fully implemented middle schools.
For example, Yecke reports that students in a Milwaukee study who attended K–8 schools demonstrated greater leadership skills and were less likely to be bullied than those who attended K–6 schools and then went on to 7–8 schools. But we can't tell from the article whether the 7–8 schools in the study had fully implemented middle school programs. In fact, it's doubtful, because in a well-implemented middle school program, students are taught leadership and anti-bullying skills.
Similarly, when using the findings of research in Milwaukee, Baltimore, and Philadelphia to disparage the middle school approach, Yecke makes no mention of the extent to which teachers in the successful K–8 schools studied actually use that approach. Her discussion provides no evidence that a K–8 configuration that is implemented without developmentally appropriate instruction (that is, the middle school concept) does a better job of preparing students for high school than a 7–8 or 6–8 school does.
As Yecke mentions, the Milwaukee research comparing K–8 configurations with middle-grades configurations proposes that the intimacy of the K–8 environment is a possible factor in the success of K–8 schools. It might surprise Yecke to know that middle school teachers recognize that students do better in smaller groups in which teachers get to know them well. In fact, this close teacher-student relationship is provided in two major components of good middle schools—teacher teams and teacher advisories.
As more evidence against middle schools, Yecke states that many urban school districts are replacing 6–7–8 and 7–8 grade configurations with K–8 configurations. For example, she claims that Cincinnati, Ohio, schools are now exclusively non-middle schools, implying that they don't implement middle school approaches. This claim is incorrect. A district's move to change grade configurations doesn't mean that it is abandoning the middle school concept; this concept can be implemented in any configuration. During the past seven years, I have worked with hundreds of Cincinnati middle-level teachers who use many components of the middle school concept and who report positive outcomes. Many Cincinnati principals and teachers come to my training sessions on the middle school concept to get updated every year.
Yecke holds up Baltimore City Schools as an example of the failure of the middle school concept. I've worked with several middle-level schools in Baltimore City, and the conditions there are tough. Many of the schools I visited were in the throes of reconstitution because of three straight years of low test scores. Everywhere I went, I saw many teachers in poor health and with low morale—literally sick and depressed. Many of the schools had high security fences topped with barbed wire. I had to face a video camera at the front door before a guard would press a buzzer and unlock the doors, and I had to be escorted by a police officer through the building. I was warned about gangs and drug trafficking in the area. In two locations, faculty members held loud conversations while I made my presentations; some even flicked peanuts and wads of paper at one another throughout the seminar.
One principal interrupted my presentation on motivation to inform the faculty that the district office had just told her that everyone on the faculty would be let go in three weeks because students had not made satisfactory improvement on the state exam. Then she asked me to continue my presentation on motivation and left. The room went deadly silent, the oxygen sucked out of it. Some teachers began to tear up; then all of them gathered their belongings and walked out.
In such an atmosphere, it is disingenuous to blame young adolescents' lower standardized test scores on just one factor, the middle school concept. Baltimore schools that I worked with that tried middle school approaches and focused on teacher wellness experienced some positive results; such a shift, however, required systemic and cultural reforms which the administrations rarely implemented. Although small pockets of heroic teachers fought to use effective practices, they were overwhelmed by defeatist attitudes and lack of follow-through.
Many factors influence student performance on standardized tests, no matter what the grade configuration. Contrary to what Yecke proclaims, other countries that don't use the middle school model face the same issues. I've worked with middle-level teachers around the world, and they report the same problems with young adolescent learning that we have in the United States; they also achieve the same good results when they use the middle school concept in meeting those needs.

Ignoring Reality

Here is another example that shows Yecke's lack of understanding about the daily operations of middle schools. She admits that K–8 schools can't usually offer as many opportunities as middle schools can (for example, band, orchestra, sports teams, extracurricular activities, and electives) but recommends that K–8 schools provide these experiences by teaming with other K–8 schools in their geographic region to form one sports team or one band, for example. She suggests using more itinerant teachers and sharing staff with local high schools.
Does Yecke realize how difficult this would be for teachers, students, and families? She clearly doesn't recognize the Herculean, daily, behind-the-scenes efforts that go into one band concert using students in just one school, let alone two or more, with multiple practices before, during, and after school, sensitively coordinated around major academic portions of the day. She doesn't recognize the time that would be spent traveling to and from schools and trying to coordinate multiple schools' and families' schedules, and that this approach would frequently result in pulling students from something important in their education because there was simply no other time convenient for all schools to meet week after week. And when would the basketball team practice and compete if some of those students were also trying to participate in band at other schools?
Finally, does Yecke understand the disadvantages of using itinerant teachers? We try to limit the itinerant nature of staff, to keep teachers in one building if possible, so they are a resource throughout the day. We don't want to dilute their talents and expertise by requiring them to travel back and forth across town every day, carting their teaching supplies, without a real base of operations. Increasing the number of itinerants is an unacceptable solution.

Let's Set the Record Straight

Yecke's ideas regarding middle school practices are regressive. If followed by unsuspecting middle-level leaders looking for effective programs for young adolescents, these ideas may do damage that will take years to undo. Let's get the correct information out to decision makers who set policy and to teachers who work with young adolescents daily.
In a particularly weird moment, the last paragraph of Yecke's article lists what she thinks schools must provide to teach young adolescents successfully: "high academic standards, a coherent curriculum, effective instruction, strong leadership, results-based accountability, and sound discipline." These are all major components of the middle school concept, the very approach that she says doesn't work. She could have been quoting material from the National Middle School Association Web site (www.nmsa.org).
Yecke Is right on one account: K–8 configurations deserve consideration, especially if they solve building and resource issues. Such arrangements can be highly effective. No matter which configuration schools choose, however, student achievement will flounder if the teachers are not trained in teaching young adolescents and if schools do not provide a developmentally appropriate program. The middle school concept can and does flourish in all configurations—when implemented fully by knowledgeable practitioners.

Rick Wormeli, one of the first National Board–certified teachers in America, brings innovation, energy, validity, and high standards to both his presentations and his instructional practice, which includes 38 years of teaching math, science, English, physical education, health, and history and of coaching teachers and principals.

Wormeli's work has been reported in numerous media, including ABC's Good Morning America, MSNBC's Hardball with Chris MatthewsNational Geographic and Good Housekeeping magazines, What Matters Most: Teaching for the 21st Century, and The Washington Post. He is a columnist for AMLE Magazine and a frequent contributor to ASCD's Educational Leadership magazine. His classroom practice is one of the showcases for ASCD's best-selling series, "At Work in the Differentiated Classroom."

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