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Even our best kids lag in math--middle schools to blame

By Jay Mathews

I am usually among the skeptics when international comparisons make U.S. schoolchildren look as if they spend their class time playing video games. I am not entirely sold on the conclusions of a new study just published in the journal Education Next.

But there is enough believable bad stuff there to wonder why, after many years of mediocre results, we have not discarded our notoriously free and easy way of educating middle school students.

The study by Eric A. Hanushek and Paul E. Peterson of Stanford's Hoover Institution, and University of Munich economist Ludger Woessmann, reveals that only 6 percent of U.S. eighth and ninth graders score at an accomplished level in math on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). As a test, PISA has its problems, but the authors link its results closely to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the most reliable America test of student achievement, and provide what looks to be a fair comparison.

We rank behind 30 other countries. Leading the international pack in the 2006 version of PISA was Taiwan with 28 percent of students reaching the accomplished level in math. Hong Kong, South Korea and Finland had at least 20 percent.

The authors anticipated some complaints from us skeptics, such as, the U.S. being unfairly handicapped by its many recent immigrants and low-income minorities. The authors said, okay, let's look just at white U.S. students. The accomplished portion rose to only 8 percent. When they looked at just U.S. students with at least one parent with a college degree, the number went up only to 10.3 percent.

The authors blame our overall failure to raise standards for teaching and learning, particularly in math and science. I blame our middle schools. Elementary schools are also a problem, but the way we run middle schools has to be a prime culprit, since we are talking about results for eighth and ninth graders.

For more than two decades our middle schools have followed a warm and welcoming system of dividing students into teams, with each team having a math teacher, a science teacher, an English teacher and a social studies teacher whom they saw each day for roughly equal periods.

The educators who conceived this approach felt it introduced surly and fragile early adolescents to all the major high school subjects, without the pressures of SAT tests or Advanced Placement courses or college admission competition. Nobody cared what kind of grades they got in middle school. The colleges would never see them. As the new study shows, this system has not produced much progress, at least in math.

Middle school students have had to take state tests under the No Child Left Behind law, but those results rarely had any effect on their grades or their chances of being promoted. Many middle schools introduced Algebra I, a high school course, to eighth grade, but the NAEP data suggest that it has not been well taught.

Brookings Institution scholar Tom Loveless, an expert on both PISA and math education, told me "middle schools once offered special, accelerated classes to high achieving math students. Today, the push has been to make those classes available to all students--or not to offer them at all."

This study includes an intriguing analysis thrashing those who say NCLB hurts advanced kids because of its emphasis on basic proficiency. If that were true, they say, "we should see a decline in the percentage of students performing at NAEP's advanced level subsequent to passage of the 2002 federal law. In mathematics, however, the opposite has happened.The percentage performing at the advanced level was only 3.7 percent in 1996 and 4.7 percent in the year 2000."

The authors conclude that the standards have to go higher and the teaching has to get better. That makes sense to me, but ignores a social bias in this country. Careers in math and science lack the prestige they enjoy in Asia and parts of Europe. I am not sure how we fix that. The authors insist our solution to date is the wrong one.

"Admittedly, the United States could simply ignore the needs of its own young people and continue to import highly skilled scientists and engineers who were prepared by better-performing schools abroad," they say. "But even such a heartless, irresponsible strategy relies on both the nature of immigration policies and the absence of better opportunities abroad, two things on which we might not want the future to depend."

So what did your middle schooler learn this year? In most cases, not much. That may, finally, have to change.

Read Jay's blog every day, and follow all of The Post's Education coverage on Twitter, Facebook and our Education Web page.

By Jay Mathews  | November 10, 2010; 12:00 AM ET
Categories:  Jay on the Web  | Tags:  U.S. eighth graders look bad in math in new study, behind 30 other countries, middle schools may be at fault, only 6 percent of American students show math accomplishment  
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Posted by: shankartripathi85 | November 10, 2010 4:07 AM | Report abuse

I can't see any logical support here for this assertion that the "culprit" in our low math scores is our:

"warm and welcoming system of dividing students into teams, with each team having a math teacher, a science teacher, an English teacher and a social studies teacher whom they saw each day for roughly equal periods."

Although it isn't actually argued, the flavor here is that perhaps the "warm and welcoming" is inconsistent with higher skill and cognitive development in math.

I am an actual "STEM" teacher - though I hesitate to say so, because the STEM movement is dominated by corporate outsourcers who seem to have a hidden agenda: they are remorselessly opposed, in every specific practice, to expanding the education pipeline to medical careers at all levels!

I just sat on my state DESE Math and Science Advisory Council for three years. Arguably, this state has the highest achievement in the nation in science and math. Massachusetts has more or less held its rank before, during, and after NCLB, RTTT, and a decade of FUD attack on public edication by the privatizers at our own Pioneer Institute, which spawned the New Schools Venture Fund.

I submitted a detailed analysis of the draft math Common Core for middle and high school, standard by standard, in terms of preparation for the quantitative sciences. We couldn't discuss it, though, because the Gates representatives had the floor for their computer-driven proposals to create frameworks linking math and science frameworks by system analysis. They thought they should be able to create webs of the existing frameworks, to find connections between them and discard extraneous "orphan" standards. One of the things they disposed of was the use of pan balances in kindergarten and first grade.

All this time, the people who actually TEACH so successfully in Massachusetts are villified for not adhering sufficiently to the latest standards based for-profit product line, which nonetheless takes credit for any success we may find.

So you report what experts think, and what you think, is the "culprit". I suppose you don't think to include math and science teachers in the discussion, because the math scores are low, and we must all be the "culprits".

Posted by: mport84 | November 10, 2010 6:12 AM | Report abuse

I happen to agree with both the above comment and with Jay -- the "middle school model" of attending to the social/emotional needs of students is anti-intellectual at its core. However, Jay did a horrible job of connecting the dots between the middle school model and low achievement.

Posted by: EduCrazy | November 10, 2010 6:26 AM | Report abuse

Maybe I'm missing something, but this:
"we should see a decline in the percentage of students performing at NAEP's advanced level subsequent to passage of the 2002 federal law. In mathematics, however, the opposite has happened.The percentage performing at the advanced level was only 3.7 percent in 1996 and 4.7 percent in the year 2000."

doesn't seem to make sense. A law passed in 2002 didn't have a negative effect because scored in 2000 had improved from 1996?

Also, I would hesitate to blame middle school's slow paced math when the entire 6 years of elementary school are spent essentially just teaching arithmetic. Surely it doesn't take 6 years to learn to add, subtract, multiply, and divide?

Posted by: PerpetualDissent | November 10, 2010 7:22 AM | Report abuse

I agree with Jay, however, the problem with middle schools isn't the middle school model--teams of core-subject teachers--but other aspects of the middle school experience: teachers with elementary ed certifications, a day broken up into 9 short periods, arts-and-crafts projects taking the place of actual learning, and teaching methods such as reading and writing workshop.

Most of these issues fall under the aegis of curriculum. It's what _doesn't_ get taught that is the problem. There is no solid middle school academic curriculum, and most of the methods that have been successful in the past (such as an in-depth class in English grammar, including sentence diagramming) have been abandoned in favor of the novel and faddish.

Please see knowledgebasedscience.blogspot.com

Posted by: hainish | November 10, 2010 8:24 AM | Report abuse

I have yet to determine the premise of "middle school." Since inception and enactment I have seen a degradation of the school system yet we continue hammering that nail with a wet noodle.

Back in the day (now that phrase will determine the "REAL" interested reader) schools split with elementary (1-6), junior high (7-8), and high school (9-12). What was wrong with that division? What is "right" about that division?

"Upper classmen" in elementary schools were the monitors, school patrol, and the "older brother/sister" of every kid in the school. They were models for every new class and a step in leadership for all those in the 5th and 6th grade. That doesn't exist these days, AND the younger children do not have a model.

Junior high as a weaning process. Most classes were in a single room with a few classes in different areas. For the first time kids had lockers and other responsibilities. Additionally, they also had models. . .the high school kids. There was the "tween" time and it was a time for learning how to behave as an "older classmate."

High schools have not changed much but then when implemented in the lower grades the models were set, behaviors adjusted with age and processes, and it was a journey filled with step by step rewards in school.

Middle school serves no purpose. I have yet to see much gained, and I would be willing to drop a few dollars that our school problems today could be linked to the time of middle school implementation.

Just MHO.

Posted by: jbeeler | November 10, 2010 8:51 AM | Report abuse

What does the role of the calculator play in this analysis? Read it quickly, but didn't see it mentioned in the article in Eudcation Next (followed Jay's provided link).

Follow the link below and see pages 38-39 regarding the calculator discussion and policy within TIMSS.

http://timss.bc.edu/timss2011/downloads/TIMSS2011_Frameworks-Chapter1.pdf

Is is possible that, in general, the schoolchildren in the US are becomming overly dependent on calculators rather than building a sound understanding of mathematic principles? How would we fare without use of calculators?

Posted by: shadwell1 | November 10, 2010 9:40 AM | Report abuse

This is not based on the 2009 PISA results. Those scores won't be released until December. If you look at the article the authors say these are the scores from 2006, which they say are members of the class of 2009.

Posted by: samlubell | November 10, 2010 9:47 AM | Report abuse

for samlubell--good catch. I will fix.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | November 10, 2010 10:03 AM | Report abuse

For Perpetual Dissent---My fault for not making the point clearer. The top of the column says the percentage of US students scoring at the accomplished level was up to 6 percent by 2006, higher than the level before NCLB was enacted, thus suggesting that NCLB's focus on reaching basic proficiency did not significantly affect advanced students.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | November 10, 2010 10:15 AM | Report abuse

Ah, all right. Thanks for the clarification, Jay :) That's what I get for reading before breakfast

Posted by: PerpetualDissent | November 10, 2010 11:24 AM | Report abuse

From what I can see, schools suffer from the same symptons as other fields - there's much more focus on the sexy stuff such as 'advanced technology' than on basics that can be taught and practiced with just pencil and paper. My daughter and I attended a presentation for the STEM program which enticed potential applicants by telling parents and students about all the technological toys at their disposal. Robotics, check. But coursework above calculus or number theory? Nah.

Middle school isn't much different from elementary school. Teachers are still somewhat intimidated by mathematics; thus, the same topics are taught over and over again without much depth. There are still what I used to call 'holding' years (I remember 8th grade being such a year). These are the years where you learn absolutely nothing new in math classes. Nothing. As an above poster pointed out, schools take 6 years to teach addition, subtraction, multiplication and division when many children can be proficient in all four areas by the end of 2nd or 3rd grade.

Right now, I'm having my child take the Algebra I class through a web course. She tells me the web course is much harder than what's taught in her middle school but she actually enjoys the web class.

Finally, parents can be the problem if they don't let their children struggle. I don't really like to help her with homework. If she doesn't get a concept, she calls a fellow student. If she can't finish a problem, I tell her to work as far as she can go and hand it in. She may get a lower score but the teacher will know what she's missing and be able to help my child learn.

Posted by: slackermom | November 10, 2010 11:54 AM | Report abuse

I can't speak to the way I was taught math, since I am part of the "new math" generation. (I recently told a college professor that I did indeed need a calculator to figure 1% of a number, since I was from the "new math" generation, and he immediately said, "Oh, of course you do. You never learned any math.") But I remember when my classmates and I entered 4th or 5th grade and were very proud that we didn't have math and spelling workbooks that year. We felt very grown-up to do all our work on notebook paper. We felt even more grown-up when we reached junior high and found our social studies textbook wasn't a story of a class traveling from country to country to learn about them. I am now a substitute teacher and have found that even in high school students are given worksheets--a sheet of paper with various boxes to put characteristics of the topic before they start to write--and if you tell them to write five things about the story in a current event magazine, they ask, "What do we write on?" I also found myself helping a 4th-grade math teacher who was expanding numbers trying to get the students to understand the concept tens, hundreds, and so on, and the idea that if they had not tens but had hundreds, they needed to put a zero to hold the place. And that school teaches pre-algebra in the sixth grade and wonders why its students aren't scoring higher.

Posted by: sideswiththekids | November 10, 2010 12:29 PM | Report abuse

great comments by slackermom and sideswiththekids. You described the problems much better than I did.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | November 10, 2010 12:33 PM | Report abuse

"Careers in math and science lack the prestige they enjoy in Asia and parts of Europe. "

What? This is idiotic. Jay, sometimes you say the goofiest things.

I'm not arguing that middle schools are fine, but PISA is a garbage test.

The problem, as Loveless points out, is that we pretend all kids are capable of learning algebra in 8th grade. Then we make them repeat it when they fail. Over a third of my students are taking algebra for the THIRD time. All the rest but two are taking it the second time.

Teaching kids the same thing twice does not improve their skills.

The problem isn't low standards. The problem is we stopped tracking.

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | November 10, 2010 1:12 PM | Report abuse

Our Math education system is broken. The biggest tell-tale sign is that over 70% of our colleges have found it necessary to offer remedial classes in math. One of the major reasons is that kids are not mastering the critical foundations of algebra. These skills include the whole numbers, fractions and decimals, and some geometry and measurement. Without a command of these topics it's almost like expecting a kid to be a good reader without even memorizing the alphabet. No wonder performance in middle grades is so pathetic.
Algebra is the gateway subject that allows students to take more advanced math, science, and technical classes. Just two examples of classes that require algebra skills are chemistry and physics.
By the way, new jobs that require these advanced skills are are outnumbering others by a ratio of 3 to 1.
Research conducted by the National Math Advisory Panel shows that a student who has completed Algebra II doubles his or her chances of graduating from college. Remarkable!
If we want America to be competitive in a global economy, we had best do something about math proficiency.

Richard W. Fisher www.mathessentials.net

Posted by: americasmathteacher | November 10, 2010 1:37 PM | Report abuse

Our Math education system is broken. The biggest tell-tale sign is that over 70% of our colleges have found it necessary to offer remedial classes in math. One of the major reasons is that kids are not mastering the critical foundations of algebra. These skills include the whole numbers, fractions and decimals, and some geometry and measurement. Without a command of these topics it's almost like expecting a kid to be a good reader without even memorizing the alphabet. No wonder performance in middle grades is so pathetic.
Algebra is the gateway subject that allows students to take more advanced math, science, and technical classes. Just two examples of classes that require algebra skills are chemistry and physics.
By the way, new jobs that require these advanced skills are are outnumbering others by a ratio of 3 to 1.
Research conducted by the National Math Advisory Panel shows that a student who has completed Algebra II doubles his or her chances of graduating from college. Remarkable!
If we want America to be competitive in a global economy, we had best do something about math proficiency.

Richard W. Fisher www.mathessentials.net

Posted by: americasmathteacher | November 10, 2010 1:38 PM | Report abuse

For Cal---If careers in math and science are valued as much in the United States as in Asia and parts of Europe, then why have foreign students filled our graduate departments in physics and chemistry in such great numbers, and why do Asian-Anerican kids apply to our STEM high schools in such larger proportions than non-Asian students do?

Posted by: jaymathews | November 10, 2010 5:47 PM | Report abuse

Wow. This column is highly insulting to middle school teachers. So my students aren't learning much because I suck as a teacher and just don't care if they're not learning?? Here in California, our 7th graders take pre-algebra and most of the 8th graders take algebra. Our teachers have to be certified to teach math - the elementary credential isn't good enough by itself. About 45% of our students scored proficient or advanced on the state math test last year, which still wasn't good enough for NCLB, but is much better than the 12% just 5 years ago.

As far as who is to blame for scores not being high enough, our teachers work their tails off. There's not much more that they can do! The problem is that many of the students just don't try. Low test scores only affect them if they're trying to get into honors classes. They can even get D's and F's in all of their classes and still pass to the next grade. If their families don't push them, why should they bother trying?

Lack of family support would be the other reason students score poorly. So many parents excuse their students poor performance with, "Oh, I was never any good at math either. It must run in the family." Why is it ok to brag about your family's inability to do basic math?? No one would ever say, "Oh, it's ok, no one in my family knows how to read." The kids reflect their parents' attitudes. If the parents don't care about math education, the students won't either.

Posted by: landerk1 | November 10, 2010 6:54 PM | Report abuse

I'm not following the argument that makes middle school the culprit, at least locally. In MoCo, teachers are barely accountable for math mastery until middle school. And the middle school teachers work like mad to fill the gaps of the many kids who have been accelerated by one, two, or three years since that means they've skipped one or more grade levels in math. This disconnect is due in part to the difference between the 8th-grade Math MD State Assessment (MSA) vs. 5th-grade; it is requires a level of sophistication that is barely anticipated in elementary school.

If you can get data on how MoCo is faring in its the goal of 80% of students succeeding in Algebra by 8th grade (meaning C or better), and whether that will continue to be the goal, that would be interseting fodder for analysis.

Posted by: ecmom | November 11, 2010 11:42 AM | Report abuse

I would never accuse middle school teachers of not working hard or not caring. I do wonder what proportion of math & science teachers nationwide have 1-8 elementary certificates with out real coursework in math & science. Middle school teachers need more curriculum specific training than elementary teachers.

Posted by: sopranovcm | November 11, 2010 12:02 PM | Report abuse

Many school districts aimed new curriculum reforms at elementary and high schools and didn't do much middle school reform.

Also, many middle schools do teach Algebra to 7th and 8th graders. I guess that doesn't happen everywhere.

I would like to see more foreign languages being offered at the sixth grade level or at earlier grade levels. It is foolish to wait until 7th grade for foreign language.

Posted by: celestun100 | November 11, 2010 1:19 PM | Report abuse

As very active school volunteers for a decade, we saw teachers and parents and advocates and yes students, suffer from a lack of materials which actually "teach" middle school math. Having trained in the corporate world for over two decades and watched children develop music skills, we also know the value or loss with poor materials. Essentially, "the sheet music" for math stinks and most all of the parties available to help are stymied for a variety of reasons.

We found and launched math texts with an engineer from Africa which have the teaching method embedded in the materials and it is built to the standards. More importantly it is engineered to work simply, and build the foundations needed in middle school. West Africa btw leads this nation in college grads here and in high school completion rates of their youngsters.

Schools are resistant to change, process driven to a fault and teachers are without "teaching tools", parents are unable to assist and the failures begins early and stays.
I have shown schools they are clearly "crashing" in grade 5 with the introduction of basic fractions and it goes on nationwide. They try to dig out for two more years, and then fall off the cliff with the advent of simple Algebra.
So to make matters worse, the politico's say raise standards and require more advanced math. Do 4 years with the Diploma Project and the math bridge is only far steeper and longer.
It is a shame, and we are doing what we can with our firm and
as I read the many posts to this topic, it reminds me of why we came out of retirement to help.
This can be fixed; but not with the processes at work now.
Jim Pfeiffer at Math Teaching Series

Posted by: Triangles | November 11, 2010 1:48 PM | Report abuse

Excellent fodder for thinking about our math and science problems, Jay. There's little disagreement about middle school years being those in which math and science performance slips. There's much regarding why.

Some protest that MS teachers are working their tails off. Probably quite true. But, how can an abstract subject such as math be delivered to students so that they become engaged and aren't just doing the work to get a grade.

The stuff of math doesn't "stick" well in young people's minds. So, the teachers are left reviewing, reviewing, and reviewing again. Progress becomes very slow, even glacial.

You suggest more challenging curriculum and better teaching. Unfortunately, the adjective "better" gets teachers angry. They're already performing at their highest level. We must have different teaching. The typical math classroom has few means for improving the basic nature of learning math.

I suggest that we consider the original purpose of the mathematics that these young people should be learning and the uses to which they're likely to put it in the future. Instead of teaching abstractions and word problems, begin to attack real problems. These can come from two important domains: real life (already being done in some schools) and science. Yes, science. After all, it's just the investigation of the world all around us.

By bringing science investigations into the math class, motivation can soar. Of course, this step requires that the science being taught is real science and not a dull recital of words, formulas, and procedures.

We have only two real paths to improving middle school math. One is to drill, baby, drill (as is done in many Asian countries). I feel that that's a hollow approach.

The other is to bring math back to its roots and to make the entire math learning process much more engaging. Most math teachers learned just fine the old-fashioned way and may not see the way forward to a different approach. Math is a tool. Learning to use a tool well can be very satisfying. But, you have to USE it, not just practice on thin air.

You won't learn to ride a bicycle by reading about bicycle construction or the physical theories of bicycles. Once past the primary grades where memorization is critical (multiplication tables, how to borrow, etc.), math should become a living wonderful tool used in many, many ways to enhance the life experience. And, yes, it should be challenging.

Posted by: harry4 | November 11, 2010 2:15 PM | Report abuse

"Nobody cared what kind of grades they got in middle school."
Jay, if this sentence refers to middle school math teachers, students and their parents, it is outrageous, insulting and defamatory to teachers especially. Get off your ridiculous high horse of refering only to ivory tower "researchers" for your information and spend a full week with teachers in their classrooms.
For diversity of student body and dedication of staff I recommend Poe, Glasgow and Lanier Middle Schools in Fairfax County where you will be welcomed to observe. The math teachers will have plenty to say that even School Board members know nothing about. After that we can hope your columns will be better informed with a dose of reality.

Posted by: 1bnthrdntht | November 11, 2010 2:41 PM | Report abuse

I'm surprised I didn't see any mention of the constantly changing state standards. At the elementary level we've had changing standards for the past 10 years. Plus we have never had a core curriculum that meets the majority of the state standards at the correct grade level. So teachers are supplementing the majority of the curriculum with what they can find. Or worse, districts are manipulating scientifically developed curriculums so content is covered at the right time of year or in the right grade level. THis manipulation destroys the intended child development design of the curriculum

Also, covering every strand in math in the lowest grades seems counter productive to students building strong number sense skills. We are covering way to many concepts in K-3. Allow students to spend lots of time on concepts like place value, combining and decomposing numbers, estimating, money, and time. Instead we have them working on geometry and graphing, ect. Yes they can learn these skills but they are abstract and not as relevant to the student's daily life. The biggest complaint at every school I've worked at from the intermediate and middle school teachers is that students lack basic number sense. Encourage going deeper not broader when raising standards.

Every teacher I know is struggling to meet massive amounts of standards, with mismatched curriculum, and constantly changing targets. Until the state or nation picks the standards and sticks with them, develops an effective matching core curriculum that goes deep instead of broad, and provides effective teacher training we will continue to produce students with shallow mathematical understandings created by patchwork curriculum and instruction created by desperate teachers being asked to jump through moving hoops with no support.

Posted by: mucmuc | November 11, 2010 2:50 PM | Report abuse

I'm surprised I didn't see any mention of the constantly changing state standards. At the elementary level we've had changing standards for the past 10 years. Plus we have never had a core curriculum that meets the majority of the state standards at the correct grade level. So teachers are supplementing the majority of the curriculum with what they can find. Or worse, districts are manipulating scientifically developed curriculums so content is covered at the right time of year or in the right grade level. THis manipulation destroys the intended child development design of the curriculum.

I spend way more time trying to develop effective curriculum to meet the ever changing standards than time spent analyzing student work to determine where their break downs are occurring. That is not right. My time should be spent diagnosing misconceptions and developing interventions. Not learning the newest standards and finding resources to meet them.

Also, covering every strand in math in the lowest grades seems counter productive to students building strong number sense skills. We are covering way to many concepts in K-3. Allow students to spend lots of time on concepts like place value, combining and decomposing numbers, estimating, money, and time. Instead we have them working on geometry and graphing, ect. Yes they can learn these skills but they are abstract and not as relevant to the student's daily life. The biggest complaint at every school I've worked at from the intermediate and middle school teachers is that students lack basic number sense. Encourage going deeper not broader when raising standards.

Every teacher I know is struggling to meet massive amounts of standards, with mismatched curriculum, and constantly changing targets. Until the state or nation picks the standards and sticks with them, develops an effective matching core curriculum that goes deep instead of broad, and provides effective teacher training we will continue to produce students with shallow mathematical understandings created by patchwork curriculum and instruction created by desperate teachers being asked to jump through moving hoops with no support.

Posted by: mucmuc | November 11, 2010 2:53 PM | Report abuse

I'm surprised I didn't see any mention of the constantly changing state standards. At the elementary level we've had changing standards for the past 10 years. Plus we have never had a core curriculum that meets the majority of the state standards at the correct grade level. So teachers are supplementing the majority of the curriculum with what they can find. Or worse, districts are manipulating scientifically developed curriculums so content is covered at the right time of year or in the right grade level. THis manipulation destroys the intended child development design of the curriculum.

I spend way more time trying to develop effective curriculum to meet the ever changing standards than time spent analyzing student work to determine where their break downs are occurring. That is not right. My time should be spent diagnosing misconceptions and developing interventions. Not learning the newest standards and finding resources to meet them.

Also, covering every strand in math in the lowest grades seems counter productive to students building strong number sense skills. We are covering way to many concepts in K-3. Allow students to spend lots of time on concepts like place value, combining and decomposing numbers, estimating, money, and time. Instead we have them working on geometry and graphing, ect. Yes they can learn these skills but they are abstract and not as relevant to the student's daily life. The biggest complaint at every school I've worked at from the intermediate and middle school teachers is that students lack basic number sense. Encourage going deeper not broader when raising standards.

Every teacher I know is struggling to meet massive amounts of standards, with mismatched curriculum, and constantly changing targets. Until the state or nation picks the standards and sticks with them, develops an effective matching core curriculum that goes deep instead of broad, and provides effective teacher training we will continue to produce students with shallow mathematical understandings created by patchwork curriculum and instruction created by desperate teachers being asked to jump through moving hoops with no support.

Posted by: mucmuc | November 11, 2010 2:54 PM | Report abuse

I'm surprised I didn't see any mention of the constantly changing state standards. At the elementary level we've had changing standards for the past 10 years. Plus we have never had a core curriculum that meets the majority of the state standards at the correct grade level. So teachers are supplementing the majority of the curriculum with what they can find. Or worse, districts are manipulating scientifically developed curriculums so content is covered at the right time of year or in the right grade level. THis manipulation destroys the intended child development design of the curriculum.

I spend way more time trying to develop effective curriculum to meet the ever changing standards than time spent analyzing student work to determine where their break downs are occurring. That is not right. My time should be spent diagnosing misconceptions and developing interventions. Not learning the newest standards and finding resources to meet them.

Also, covering every strand in math in the lowest grades seems counter productive to students building strong number sense skills. We are covering way to many concepts in K-3. Allow students to spend lots of time on concepts like place value, combining and decomposing numbers, estimating, money, and time. Instead we have them working on geometry and graphing, ect. Yes they can learn these skills but they are abstract and not as relevant to the student's daily life. The biggest complaint at every school I've worked at from the intermediate and middle school teachers is that students lack basic number sense. Encourage going deeper not broader when raising standards.

Every teacher I know is struggling to meet massive amounts of standards, with mismatched curriculum, and constantly changing targets. Until the state or nation picks the standards and sticks with them, develops an effective matching core curriculum that goes deep instead of broad, and provides effective teacher training we will continue to produce students with shallow mathematical understandings created by patchwork curriculum and instruction created by desperate teachers being asked to jump through moving hoops with no support.

Posted by: mucmuc | November 11, 2010 2:57 PM | Report abuse

Kudos to 1bnthrdntht for your comment: "Get off your ridiculous high horse of refering only to ivory tower "researchers" for your information and spend a full week with teachers in their classrooms. ... The math teachers will have plenty to say that even School Board members know nothing about. After that we can hope your columns will be better informed with a dose of reality."

Many middle school math teachers need to spend their time teaching students what they were not taught in K-6. Not blaming the K-6 teachers; there is a trend towards using Everyday Math and other equally poor programs that fail to prepare students for middle school math. You've been told time and again about these poor approaches and yet you insist these theories are bogus, that there's not enough evidence for you. Take a visit to Prince William County and sit in the school rooms and talk to the parents to find out where the real teaching occurs.

I too am surprised that Peterson and Hanushek didn't bother to mention that tiny little problem; ie, K-6 math. Their article is considered about "talented" students. That there could be a greater pool of "talented" students with proper math instruction at the lower levels is something that isn't discussed. Far easier to dismiss it by saying there are kids with low cognitive skills, give a sigh, and say "Nothing you can do about that."

Posted by: BGarelick | November 11, 2010 3:48 PM | Report abuse

My experience as a high school teacher is that students do not have number sense. When I talk to my friends who have children in elementary classes what they say they are doing with math at the elementary level makes no sense. They are giving them calculators before they know how to do the process on paper or understand what it means. I have had 16 year olds ask to use a calculator to do 13-7. Students are not learning multiplication tables. Well of course they can't do the distributive property or factoring in Alegebra if they don't know their times tables. I tutored failing freshman and one student became sucessful just after I made him learn his times tables. How about sticking to the basics at the elementary levels and leave the calculators for the more complex math later. I have not met one student that has a problem learning how to use a calculator. I have met many who do not have number sense.

Posted by: cherokee6 | November 11, 2010 3:53 PM | Report abuse

To paraphrase the old real estate cliche: the 3 most important things in terms of getting kids to the "advanced" level in math is "curriculum, curriculum, curriculum."

Having seen Asian math (Singapore's "Primary Mathematics", European math (the Hungarian "Mathematics Enhancement Programme" or MEP), and the current fad in U.S. math ("Every Day Mathematics") there is no comparison between the rigor of the Asian & European math programs and the U.S. ones.

Posted by: CrimsonWife | November 11, 2010 4:45 PM | Report abuse

Thank you cherokee6. I neglected to emphasize that K-6 math must be mastered. It's pretty much all memorizing and so must be reviewed and reviewed until it sticks. But, as cherokee6 indicated, middle math won't go anywhere without those basics.

That approach could be another of the keys to success in teaching middle school math.

As a scientist rather than a math teacher, I'm not familiar with the Singapore and Hungary curricula. Perhaps, the word, "rigor," is being used broadly. I'd seek depth rather than rigorous mathematics in my math curricula just as I do in my science curricula. I'd like to give students a sense of what science is all about in science classes. In math classes, I think students should learn what math can do, how it can open up new vistas of experience.

I'll quote John Herschel, the son of the great astronomer and discoverer of the plant Uranus, William Herschel, explaining what it is to be a scientist. "Where the uninformed and unenquiring eye perceives neither novelty nor beauty, he walks in the midst of wonders."

Posted by: harry4 | November 11, 2010 5:02 PM | Report abuse

"why have foreign students filled our graduate departments in physics and chemistry in such great numbers, and why do Asian-Anerican kids apply to our STEM high schools in such larger proportions than non-Asian students do?"

Foreign students--they're subsidized.

Asian Americans--are you saying that Asian Americans aren't American? Because you said that "this country" doesn't value STEM careers. Are Asian Americans not part of "this country"?

Or were you saying"this country" doesn't value STEM but actually meaning "whites" don't value it?

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | November 11, 2010 6:26 PM | Report abuse

Elementary school is a vital building block to middle and high school education. Most schools waste valuable time coddling students instead of raising standards and teaching to them. Self esteem has been the fly in the ointment with teachers catering to the students every need. Teaching and learning can be hard at times, so be it. The best self esteem is making it on your own. Motivation is the key. Our kids can learn if we lead them. Politicians step aside and let teachers teach. As noted above we all need to cooperate not blame one another. Let's get to work.

Posted by: jiminpa | November 11, 2010 10:43 PM | Report abuse

As a 25 year teaching veteran teaching everything from 7th grade math to AP Chemistry, I have witnessed first hand some of the pitfalls of the American education system. I believe that if we want middle school students to do better in math, they need to spend more time on math. When the school day is fragmented into 7 to 9 class periods, with half or more of the day being spent on nonacademic activities followed by after school sports activities what can one expect? With declining budgets, Americans must decide on their priorities.

Enough about elementary verses middle school certification. It doesn’t take someone with knowledge of advanced mathematics to teach middle school math. An elementary licensed teacher with the extra courses to earn a math endorsement or otherwise have a strong math background will do just fine. Additionally the science, social studies and art teacher should also have a decent math background with the ability to integrate math into their subject areas. Math is not an isolated subject any more than reading.

And tracking? Who does tracking benefit? Anyone who has taught that bottom half let alone the bottom 25% will tell you it is a nightmare! You get a room full of kids with behavior problems that think everyone behaves like themselves. Pullout the top 10% for math, but leave the rest mixed. Research supports heterogeneous grouping. I have yet to see a system for ability grouping that really works anyhow. “Nice” kids are misplaced as gifted while naughty kids are misplaced as dull.

When are we going to give up age placement? Students lacking skills for a given grade level are socially promoted regardless of their proficiencies. We don’t want to bruise their egos by holding them back. How long will you stay on your job if you can’t keep up with expectations?

Public education benefits everyone, but it is time to rethink our priorities.

Posted by: education4all | November 11, 2010 10:54 PM | Report abuse

I find it interesting to think with the excessive testing that happens throughout the school year that these kids are going to put as much effort into this assessment as they would a test that actually has seem outcome on the student's actual quality of life, such as getting into college, skipping remedial courses, or getting paid.

My point in this statement is that many students are apathetic towards tests.

Study Finds NAEP Scores Rise When Students Are Paid

http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/inside-school-research/2010/07/a_new_study_has_hit.html

What this means?

You decide.

Posted by: brock_dubbels | November 11, 2010 11:57 PM | Report abuse

C'mon Jay! The only test that matters is the state standardized test that determine whether or not a school makes AYP. To raise those scores we teach to the lowest common denominator. We don't teach to challenge, or inspire, only to accommodate.
There are many problems here, none of them teacher created.
Lawyers run the ABA, doctors govern the AMA. When educators run the education system academic achievement will improve.

Posted by: KeithNewman1 | November 12, 2010 1:42 AM | Report abuse

The underlying assumption here that no one seems to question is that high math scores on an international test like the PISA translate into success for a country later. There have been international tests comparing students since the early 1960s and there is no evidence that scoring poorly on an international math test translates into a country falling behind economically or that the poor scores lead to decreasing living standards or innovation. In fact just the opposite is true, the countries that scored the highest on such tests were actually much worse off later. The US came second to last on the FIMS test in 1964 yet still led on most quality of life indicators in the ensuing decades. (See Baker, "Are international tests worth anything?" Phi Delta Kappan, October 1, 2007)
I'm not saying that we should not be striving to improve math teaching or that we should not be taking a hard look at middle schools. But as Yong Zhao points out, if we put all our resources into succeeding on tests we are missing so much of what has distinguished education in the US and helped make the country a leader in innovation. (see Yong Zhao's blog at http://yong-zhao.com/)
We can drill and push our students so that they all receive high test scores but what are we giving up? I'm reminded of those guys who used to show up at a county fairs and could put 300 "set shots" in a row through the basketball hoop. They had that skill down pat. But they weren't on a basketball team because they didn't have everything it takes to actually play the game.

Posted by: meckk | November 12, 2010 3:54 AM | Report abuse

A look at the full report, available at the Education Next website, suggests that these researchers looked hard to find evidence of a STEM crisis, and kept looking until they found a statistic that seemed to show it.
The math gap is caused by just a few very high-scoring countries– Taiwan with 28%, Hong Kong with 24% and Korea with 23% of students at the advanced level. Without these countries, US children with at least one parent with a college education do pretty well. Our highest scoring state, Massachusetts, has 17% of its students at the advanced level, making it 5th in the world, not counting the three exceptionally high scorers.
The three highest scoring countries in math do not do nearly as well in science and reading.
Taiwan, first in math, is near the bottom of all countries in percent of students scoring in the top group in reading, and loses to all states in the US except Mississippi, and this is based on ALL American students in a state, not just those with a college-educated parent. Massachusetts would rank fourth in the world, nearly tying for third. And other states would rank highly too, again, counting ALL students.
Fifteen US states (again, all students) have a higher percentage of top science students than Korea (third in math) does.
The authors did not discuss studies that considered social class and poverty levels, and concluded that American children attending low poverty schools score very well. Bracey (2009) concluded that on the PIRLS reading test, American children attending low poverty schools (25% or less) outscored the top scoring country, Sweden. Bracey also pointed out that "if the students in schools with 24-49.9% poverty constituted a nation, it would rank fourth among the 35 participating nations" (p. 155). Payne and Biddle (1999) reported that when we consider only middle-class children who attend well-funded schools, our math scores are near the top of the world.
Tienken (2010) cites studies showing that a myriad of additional factors operate that artificially depress American students' scores on international tests, including the fact that the US tests nearly all students. Some other countries are selective – on TIMSS, this includes Russia (only native speakers of Russian), Israel (only native speakers of Hebrew), Switzerland (only highest performing regions, 16/26 cantons), Spain (excluded Cataluna), and Italy (excluded high-poverty regions). I don't know if this is true of PISA.

Finally, absolute numbers are more relevant than percentages. Tienken points out that the US had 25% of world's top science achievers on PISA, 2009. China had one percent.

Bracey, G. 2009. Education Hell: Rhetoric Versus Reality. Alexandria, VA: Educational Research Service.
Payne, K. and Biddle, B. 1999. Poor school funding, child poverty, and mathematics achievement. Educational Researcher 28 (6): 4-13.
Tienken, C. 2010. Common core state standards: I wonder? Kappa Delta Phi Record 47 (1): 14-17.

Posted by: skrashen | November 12, 2010 9:42 AM | Report abuse

Perhaps if Mr. Mathews had some real scientific data to back up his claim that middle schools are the culprit, I might give more credence to his ramblings. As such , he did little more than cite a real study, the results of which had nothing to do with blaming middle school for lack of student progress. If he is really interested in proving that middle schools are to blame he should perform a study comparing the performance of students in districts with middles schools to those who come from districts without middle schools.

Posted by: skinner76 | November 12, 2010 10:42 AM | Report abuse

"Our highest scoring state, Massachusetts, has 17% of its students at the advanced level."

Where are you getting this statistic? The linked article has a MUCH lower rate for MA- only 11%, which places it 15th and behind not just the top 3 Asian countries but many European ones, New Zealand, Australia, and Canada as well.

Posted by: CrimsonWife | November 12, 2010 3:35 PM | Report abuse

I am an educational researcher who studies children's sleep and its relation to school performance. Based on the best available evidence, children are sleeping less than in previous generations. A meta analysis of 20 studies of sleep in 9-18 year olds in 23 countries just been published in Sleep Medicine Reviews (Olds, Blunden, Petkov & Forchino, 2010) confirms that school night sleep declines steeply across that age span, about 14 minutes a night less sleep for every year of age. There are individual differences in sleep requirements , but we believe that around 9 hours on average are needed throughout adolescence, and by age 18 American students are sleeping only around 7 hours. Sleep has been shown to be vital not only for optimal attention and learning, but also for consolidation of memory and regulation of emotional control. Moreover, the onset of puberty brings a change in natural sleep patterns such that adolescents have a harder time than younger children falling asleep. Yet school begins early, and many children ride a bus that arrives around dawn. A few school districts have pushed school start times later for adolescents, but traditional school start times remain in the vast majority of districts. In addition to the many other obvious reasons that adolescents are staying awake later, many of them in my community (that is relatively academically oriented) are at sports practice or games until as late as 8pm. You can have the most highly qualified teachers and the best curriculum available, but sleepy adolescents are not responsive to instruction. This does not mean that there are not improvements to make in all aspects of how we teach children, but I have reached the conclusion that insufficient sleep may be a factor that has been overlooked in trying to discern all the reasons achievement that does not meet our expectations.

Posted by: josephb1 | November 13, 2010 7:15 AM | Report abuse

CrimsonWife posted this comment:
"Our highest scoring state, Massachusetts, has 17% of its students at the advanced level."

Where are you getting this statistic? The linked article has a MUCH lower rate for MA- only 11%, which places it 15th and behind not just the top 3 Asian countries but many European ones, New Zealand, Australia, and Canada as well.

My response: Please see table 3 of the longer paper. 17% when you consider students with one or more parents with a college education.

Posted by: skrashen | November 13, 2010 9:25 AM | Report abuse

"17% when you consider students with one or more parents with a college education."

Then your original post is very misleading because nowhere did you mention that you cherry-picked the data for only the students with highly-educated parents.

You could probably get the percent scoring "advanced" even higher by restricting the sample to only those whose parents hold a graduate or professional degree. But that would provide a very misleading picture of the state of U.S. education since only 9.6% of the population holds a graduate or professional degree.

And frankly, I find it disheartening that 5 out of 6 students with college-educated parents in MA fail to reach the "advanced" category.

Posted by: CrimsonWife | November 13, 2010 12:43 PM | Report abuse

Jay,
Your assertion that the US doesn't value math and science careers isn't backed up. Students are pursuing both in college in record numbers (or pursuing engineering, which clearly requires a solid knowledge of both).
You also stated this: "Brookings Institution scholar Tom Loveless, an expert on both PISA and math education, told me "middle schools once offered special, accelerated classes to high achieving math students. Today, the push has been to make those classes available to all students--or not to offer them at all."

I am wondering how you feel about the push for all into lets say Algebra 1 in 8th grade, regardless of math grades/ability prior to being in that course (similar to your push for AP for all) with the clear implication that we no longer offer high-achieving math students specialized/accelerated courses?

Also, I know a few MS math teachers. Not to place the blame on ES teachers, but the students who struggle in MS don't know their basic facts. They use their fingers to add and subtract and forget knowing their multiplication tables. That alone makes it difficult to teach the higher level/pre-algebra concepts to these students.
A long time ago I tutored ES math students. Their books were atrocious (they weren't Everyday Math by the way). They were filled with colorful pictures and funny stories, to keep "kids attention" according to the blurbs in the textbooks, but they jumped from one unrelated concept to another. A few problems on addition and then they would go into geometry (shapes at this level). I went into the old storage room and pulled out old Addison-Wheatley math books..where they had pages of addition problems, with places for students to "check their understanding" and then they moved onto multiplication (since it is of course related to addition). These books were not colorful, or full of little stories...they taught math, and built upon concepts rather than jumping from one to an unrelated one.

I am all for using manipulatives and other activities to get kids interested in math, but they need actual problems to work with. They need to understand number sense, and the only way to get that is practicing with one concept for a while, before moving on to another.

You know this reminds me of one area no one has investigated (the manipulatives aspect). Many of the programs people complain about like Everyday Math, using manipulatives, various reading programs etc. were all programs that initially were used only with special ed students..students who didn't get math (or learning to read)when taught in the traditional way. Somewhere in the past ten years, instead of restricting those programs/texts to the special ed students, they use them for all students. This means we no longer teach in the traditional manner to students who would benefit from that. We use manipulatives in math for all students, even students who don't need it, and could easily move on to higher level concepts, without them.

Posted by: researcher2 | November 14, 2010 6:56 AM | Report abuse

Jay:

Great article on a very important topic.

I share your concerns 100% and don't argue with any of the possible remedies you specify, but I would add one other.

Math education must start in preschool, if not before. There is overwhelming scientific evidence that this is the case.

For example, various peer reviewed scientific articles in recent years have pointed to the fact that math ability at age 5 is the single strongest predictor of future academic performance, not only in math but also in reading and overall. Surprisingly, math ability at age 5 even predicts future reading ability better than reading ability at age five.

Second, many peer reviewed scientific analyses indicate that children as young as 1 and 2 have the ability to develop math-related skills, and that the extent to which they do so is very heavily dependent upon the stimulus and education they received.

As one anecdotal data point, my 3 year-old already is achieved nearly all of the goals of California's math standards for third-graders, and he is not "special" (or certainly unhappy) in any way; he simply has been taught.

Posted by: paul65 | November 14, 2010 10:39 AM | Report abuse

@jbeeler

You would put money on the decline in educational achievement at the point where the "middle school movement" was instituted. I think it began before that with PL-94-142 and it's subsequent iterations. Dumping the special education population in with the regular education population along with a good dose of delusional thinking has resulted in the complete gutting of the curriculum and promulgated a whole host of ineffective models in order to "accommodate" those who don't have the intellectual wherewithal to keep up. Anyone who questioned this "magical thinking" was accused of all kinds of heinous things, including being accused of being "unfit to teach children" and "just mean." The special education industry (bolstered by doctors, Pharma, and a whole host of other equally nefarious characters) will destroy anybody who challenges them. You will never see investigative reporting linking academic declines to special education practices because even to make such a suggestion would guarantee vociferous and hateful vilification.

Posted by: buckbuck11 | November 14, 2010 5:33 PM | Report abuse

Hey, please retitle this: "Even our best kids lag in math--not enough studying to blame"

Posted by: staticvars | November 15, 2010 1:20 AM | Report abuse

Hey Jay -- You're better than this. Seriously, you're an interesting, insightful thinker and writer, but you fell for the simplistic, often media-hyped stereotypes of middle schools and their teachers without doing your homework. I taught middle school math for 11 years, other subjects for another 15, and I've coached thousands of teachers across the country and abroad in general middle school practices for years. I can declare without equivocation, there is no lowering of standards or "going soft" when it comes to the teaching of young adolescents in this country. We are all highly aware that most of our later competencies have foundational roots in the middle years experience. We take that responsibility very seriously, creating a very real future based on what we do with students today. There is nothing in the middle school concept that tells teachers to water down expectations. The opposite is true, in fact, and it's deeply aligned with 21st century global thinking skills. Have you read This We Believe or any of the accompanying research provided by the National Middle School Association (www.nmsa.org)? Please, please understand how much damage you do when you promote such simplistic and inaccurate generalizations about middle schools. I live in Herndon, VA, so I'm in the D.C. area if you want to get together and discuss any of this. You can contact me at rwormeli@cox.net. Thanks for thinking about it. -- Rick Wormeli

Posted by: rwormeli | November 15, 2010 11:24 AM | Report abuse

"Then your original post is very misleading because nowhere did you mention that you cherry-picked the data for only the students with highly-educated parents."

@CrimsonWife: actually, Dr. Krashen did specify that the 17% was for MA students with at least one college-educated parent. From his original post:
"US children with at least one parent with a college education do pretty well. Our highest scoring state, Massachusetts, has 17% of its students at the advanced level..."

That aside, the emphasis on data showing how US students inevitably under-perform in comparison to their international counterparts on these benchmark tests is arguably inaccurate, but more importantly, misguided, IMO. It's difficult to articulate (especially succinctly) but I am convinced that far too much of what goes on in the average K-12 classroom is pointless in terms of what "education" could and should be -- in any society. But that's way too big a can of worms to open...

Posted by: Coachmere | November 15, 2010 1:40 PM | Report abuse

Hi Jay, Here's my assessment of quality of critical thinking in your recent post. I award you a 2 for "partially meets" the standard for critical thinking. You do have some interesting thoughts here. While I agree that the quality of a student's middle level schooling is a key predictor of success in high school and beyond, I was unimpressed by your use of data and how you drew conclusions from it. Although you admitted to being skeptical of such data, I think you were not skeptical enough! By relying on what appears to be incomplete knowledge about the very significant body of literature and research on what constitutes effective middle level pedagogy, curriculum, and the developmental needs of young adolescents you have joined many others engaged in what Bill Tucker, Frederick Hess, and others have identified as "The New Stupid" when it comes to using "Data". This not to say that data isn't important! As with any tool it is extremely significant for good or ill...and equally powerful for both. From literally thousands of research studies comparing the results schools that engage in what research has identified as best practices for students in grades 6-8 and schools that do not use these methods the results are clear. Schools that engage in best practices consistently produce better results in ALL important areas of academic, social,and emotional measures. There doesn't have to be a trade off among the desirable goals of, academic rigor, warmth, caring, and support. The simplest reason for poor academic results in the middle could just as easily be a result of a failure to implement (or support the implementation)of what research has told us time and again does work for 10-14 year olds. My understanding of Occam's Razor indicates this is most likely the reason for the data looking as it does! Stay skeptical!

Posted by: christoynet | November 15, 2010 2:58 PM | Report abuse

Hi Jay, Here's my assessment of quality of critical thinking in your recent post. I award you a 2 for "partially meets" the standard for critical thinking. You do have some interesting thoughts here. While I agree that the quality of a student's middle level schooling is a key predictor of success in high school and beyond, I was unimpressed by your use of data and how you drew conclusions from it. Although you admitted to being skeptical of such data, I think you were not skeptical enough! By relying on what appears to be incomplete knowledge about the very significant body of literature and research on what constitutes effective middle level pedagogy, curriculum, and the developmental needs of young adolescents you have joined many others engaged in what Bill Tucker, Frederick Hess, and others have identified as "The New Stupid" when it comes to using "Data". This not to say that data isn't important! As with any tool it is extremely significant for good or ill...and equally powerful for both. From literally thousands of research studies comparing the results schools that engage in what research has identified as best practices for students in grades 6-8 and schools that do not use these methods the results are clear. Schools that engage in best practices consistently produce better results in ALL important areas of academic, social,and emotional measures. There doesn't have to be a trade off among the desirable goals of, academic rigor, warmth, caring, and support. The simplest reason for poor academic results in the middle could just as easily be a result of a failure to implement (or support the implementation)of what research has told us time and again does work for 10-14 year olds. My understanding of Occam's Razor indicates this is most likely the reason for the data looking as it does! Stay skeptical!

Posted by: christoynet | November 15, 2010 3:00 PM | Report abuse

" For more than two decades our middle schools have followed a warm and welcoming system of dividing students into teams, with each team having a math teacher, a science teacher, an English teacher and a social studies teacher whom they saw each day for roughly equal periods.

The educators who conceived this approach felt it introduced surly and fragile early adolescents to all the major high school subjects, without the pressures of SAT tests or Advanced Placement courses or college admission competition. Nobody cared what kind of grades they got in middle school."

Jay, if you look at 27-year-old models of a middle level program, there might be *some* truth to this. But long ago (heck, before I even started middle school teaching!), we middle level educators realized this model underestimated what young adolescents are capable of, and in succeeding editions of "This We Believe" (the National Middle School Association's research-based document outlining the characteristics of a successful middle school), intellectual rigor and high standards figure prominently.

I'm not even sure what to make of what I perceive to be a snide tone in referring to teaming, as research has shown time and time again that when middle school teachers collaborate across disciplines in support of students, there is a positive effect on student learning. And what is wrong with being warm and welcoming anyway?

Yes, our schools can always use improvement, some more than others. But let's focus on current realities and not outdated stereotypes, on research and not supposition, as we debate where to go next. I've read many of your articles that have helped move my thinking forward and helped me help my students. I am hoping and trusting your next one will return to your usual high standards.

Posted by: billi01370 | November 15, 2010 10:45 PM | Report abuse

Dear Jay,
Your article is very interesting and gives lots to think about. I know that when I compare it to what I know to be happening in my classroom, in my school and in my district...it doesn't match up. All schools need to be aware of what comes before and what comes after…middle schools are in the difficult position of accerlerating the elementary experience into a high school experience. Sometimes we get “squeezed” with the push/pull of these competiting interests, but professional conversations and curriculum adjustments have met the challenge.

Where I work we have been very diligent to align the middle school curriculum with what students will need to be successful in HS, on AP exams and give the foundational skills necessary to do well on the ACT. We spend loads of time talking and working with our HS colleagues to understand how and what we should be doing....does that mean we become a mini-HS prep laboratory? No...it means we take that knowledge and partner it with what we know is best for 11, 12 and 13 years olds.

Years ago we realized students needed more math challenge...so our curriculum moved so that almost all 8th graders would finish the equivalent of Algebra I by the time they left middle school. We spread the components of this curriculum, starting in 5th grade, all the way through each year. It builds and builds so that in 8th grade students are able to work with quadratics and solve systems of equations. Not only are they are able to do this kind of math, but they can apply it to real world problems.

We have only seen the math scores of our students go up and up and up over the years on _________ (you pick the standardized test). More importantly, we know our students can communicate more effectively about the embedded problem solving and real world application of these skills verbally and in writing.

I think the place where your article doesn't "get it" is where you indicate that attending to student's social needs is incompatible with high academic achievement. I have found it to be exactly the opposite…utilizing instructional practices that honor the typical social and emotional needs of a middle schooler only enables them to tackle more intellectual kinds of learning. It gives them an environment to express their ideas, test out their thinking while being coached to apply problem solving strategies to their school work and to their lives.

Posted by: mratzelster | November 16, 2010 11:45 AM | Report abuse

While many search for a silver bullet to “fix” schools, others look for a “villain” to blame – and reporter Jay Mathews has cast middle schools in this role. The reality is no silver bullet nor villain exists. Schools are complex organizations and like snowflakes, no two are alike. Each has a unique DNA consisting of multiple variables – demographics, socio-economic status, parents’ education, special needs students, facility quality, available resources, quality of teachers and leadership, etc.

Jay places the blame for poor achievement on the middle school concept by calling it “a warm and welcoming system of dividing students into teams” where “nobody care(s) what kind of grades (the students get).” As a former middle level teacher, principal, past president of the National Middle School Association, and currently leader of middle level services of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, I know this simplistic characterization is far from the truth.

The middle level concept is well articulated in three resources – NASSP’s Breaking Ranks in the Middle, NMSA’s This We Believe, and the National Forum to Accelerate Middle Grades Reform’s “Schools to Watch” criteria. All call for high expectations supported by engaging instruction and balanced assessments; challenging, aligned and relevant curriculum; organizational structures that promote academic growth and personal development; prepared knowledgeable teachers and principals; collaborative leadership; multiple approaches to teaching and learning; equity and access for every student; a commitment to professional development -- all in a safe, healthy personalized environment. Yes, teaming is a part of this – but as a means to an end – that of providing a quality, challenging education to young adolescents in a manner that best matches the developmental needs of the age.

For several years, NASSP has identified middle schools that serve large numbers of high needs students AND have made significant academic progress for at least three years. The stories of these MetLife Foundation-NASSP Breakthrough Schools can be found at www.principals.org/breakthrough. Middle schools identified as Schools to Watch (a program of the National Forum) can be found at http://www.schoolstowatch.org/. And these schools are representatives of many, many middle level schools that are providing their students with a high quality education that is preparing them for their future.

Are there schools in our country that need to improve? Definitely. Will casting blame by using sweeping generalizations do the job? No. We will only improve our middle level schools when we work together to support the incredibly difficult work that educators face as they seek to provide a quality education to the young adolescents they serve. Jay, want to see this in action? Give me a call at NASSP and I’ll gladly point you to local high quality middle level schools…and even offer to be your tour guide. Patti Kinney

Posted by: kinneyp | November 16, 2010 6:09 PM | Report abuse

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