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Middle Ground?

I just stumbled upon this article (“For Teachers, Middle School Is Test of Wills”) published four years ago this month in the New York Times as part of a “Critical Years” series, which examined developments in middle school-specific pedagogy and “survival skills.” A few key passages jumped out to me:

Faced with increasingly well-documented slumps in learning at a critical age, educators in New York and across the nation are struggling to rethink middle school, particularly in cities, where the challenges of adolescent volatility, spiking violence and lagging academic performance are more acute.

As they do so, they are running up against a key problem: a teaching corps marked by high turnover, and often lacking expertise in both subject matter and the topography of the adolescent mind [...]

Part of the challenge of middle school is the breathtaking range of student ability, more pronounced than in elementary schools, where one can only fall so far behind, or high schools, which generally offer tracked classes.

In sum, is middle school the oft-forgotten middle ground? Do high school and early education receive the bulk of the resources (or spark the majority of the discussions) at the expense of the years in between? Anecdotally, several adults that I know point to middle school as the most tumultuous period in their education — while elementary school times were often amusing and high school possessed a clear focus.

Several Catalogue educational non-profits are focusing attention directly on fifth through eighth grade, aware that “if students leave middle school without the skills or desire to succeed in high school, it is too late to get them back.” What is the best way to ensure that these 3-4 years are not forgotten? The above article was published in 2007, so has progress been made since then?

From a more theoretical perspective, the title of the NY Times series is “The Critical Years” — so does middle school indeed represent those years? Or are they “critical” precisely because they are so often omitted from the larger educational debate? And moreover, what do we gain by attaching that moniker to a particular period of educational life? Sometimes, that word can focus attention where attention is due. But perhaps it occasionally can distract from the most profoundly critical need: improving education for all at every grade level.

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