Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Middle School Doesn’t Matter & Other Old School Tales

Teaching 7th graders is tenuous. Even the best student, on her best day, is far from a model student by high school standards. Homework tends to mean scurry around in the hall before school work, lessons learned yesterday are often forgotten, and studying for a test consists of shoving the notes in the textbook. Parents and students both know the grades earned these years won’t show on the ever-feared “permanent” record. These transitional years are viewed as a time to get ready for high school, but without any real consequences for mistakes or failures.

As a result, middle school academics are seen as something to get through instead of crucial to success later in life. With more stringent standards in place, however, this is changing. Algebra 1 seems to be the bottleneck where the failures start in high school. Without this course, not only can students not progress in the math sequence of Geometry, Algebra 2, and whatever other math courses they may need, they are locked out of many science courses as well.

Much time and effort is given to shoring up high school math programs to help struggling students meet with adequate achievement to move on. I think if instead we educated parents and students early on about the importance of math skills, perhaps this bottleneck could be avoided altogether.

Retention has its negative connotations and consequences, socially and emotionally. It is often viewed by parents and students as negative. I do not see giving a struggling child another year to grasp the skills they need in order to be successful at all punitive. I see it as an opportunity to learn and move on with ease.

At other points in our lives, we meet with similar struggles. If we are unsuccessful on our first attempt to learn to drive, we practice, and try again. For our extra efforts, we are rewarded with safer driving skills, and that magical driver’s license. If we cannot shoot the hoops as fast or consistent as others trying out for the team, we are not given an automatic pass onto the varsity team. We are told, try again next year. Practice those skills, get them up to par, and then you can play.

Why then, is it acceptable to send on a 4th grader who still does not know his multiplication facts with automaticity, or a first grader who cannot count to 10? Why is it expected that a 6th grader who still cannot simply a basic fraction like 10/20 to ½, should progress to 7th grade?
Perhaps traditional retention as has been practiced in the past is not the answer. I will be the first to concede that.

Instead, why can’t we develop a non-graded educational program where students work on skills according to where they are, whether it is math or written language? We allow them to move to the next level only when they are ready to move on. This system would allow students to work at their level, mastering those essential skills before we throw them to the wolves at the next grade level, unprepared, intimidated and destined for failure.

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