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A Parent Criticizes
"Middle School Theory"

    Nancy Granstrom is a parent in Wheeling, Illinois.

    This article originally appeared in the May 1999 issue of Basic Education.


    A Parent Criticizes "Middle School Theory"
    by Nancy L. Granstrom


    During our eldest daughter's eighth-grade year in junior high school, I wrote a letter to the editors of the local newspaper praising the education in our school district. The teachers were highly knowledgeable, dedicated individuals, who imparted their expertise so well, and did an exceptional job of preparing students for high school. I was convinced that the Community Consolidated School District 21 in Wheeling, Illinois had cornered the market on how to truly deliver a quality education. Two years later, however, it was welcome to Jack London Middle School for our second daughter.

    Our daughter had not been looking forward to all the spelling, vocabulary, history, pre-algebra, and reading of the classics she had seen her older sister do. It turned out that she did not need to worry because little of that took place at her middle school. The explanatory pamphlet from the district stated that middle school theory includes: "Integrated thematic instruction, cooperative learning, problem-based learning, multiple teaching styles, flexible block scheduling, and authentic assessment."

    Under this system all teachers taught all subjects, even if they were not qualified to do so. The philosophy was and is that they should be able to teach anything. The reality is they have to, because the majority of the classes are extremely integrated. There are no letter grades because this forces competition, makes others feel bad, and is not a true assessment of performance.

    For the year, there were six blocks of learning that lasted between 6 and 39 days. Within the longer blocks, students would be in 12-day cycles studying a component of the block with two of the teachers. The rest of the schoolday was filled with exploratory classes, rap sessions, and combined reading and math courses. These blocks were given titles, such as meetings/greetings, changes, and appreciating differences, instead of math, science, or English. All these changes were supposed to help children of middle school age be happier, mentally and emotionally healthier, and better educated. This was the theory.

    When my daughter entered seventh grade in the first week of September, her teacher read The Acorn People to the class. Since middle school theory places great emphasis on hands-on experiences, this requirement was met by having seventh- graders make necklaces by gluing acorns onto a piece of yarn. Not only did she not read this book, but she did not have one book report or any outside reading of novels to do all year long.

    In the reading and writing curriculum, my daughter had the following assignments: two papers about "me," each assigned by a different teacher. She was happy to write, twice, all about herself. Neither of these papers was corrected for punctuation, spelling, grammar, or reality. One included a family tree and a fake family crest. She was also assigned a research paper on an endangered species. She worked hard and, as on most of her papers, she received the equivalent of an "A." This paper, too, was never marked for errors. In all of her papers, she was allowed to write in the first or second person and this research paper had to be written from the perspective of the endangered animal itself. My daughter's teacher even commended her for going to the public library to get more information on her topic! There were no textbooks in reading or writing, and one final exam was given on the appreciation of differences shown in two first-grade books the class had read.

    In poetry, she had to write a silly crime story that had to include 125 words beginning with the same sound to teach alliteration. The rest of the conventions of poetry were covered, but little time was spent finding examples of them in existing poetry. For Valentine's Day, the girls were assigned a boy and vice-versa, to whom they had to write a "really mushy" love poem. It had to follow some of the conventions of poetry, be homemade, and sent in a homemade envelope. They, then, had to read the poem aloud to the class.

    Social science was a course in political correctness with little history content. A great deal of time was spent on building self-esteem and life skills, and discussing prejudice, gangs, customs, and norms. My daughter's research assignment for a class on "Balance" was to list eighty facts or feelings about gangs and drugs and to write a theme paragraph. She did not have to write a paper. Her list was riddled with errors, 38 of which the teacher did not mark. Her grade was the equivalent of a "B." When I talked to the principal about it, she said, "Well you know what [your daughter] was trying to say," and, "Maybe we could have some mini-lessons in grammar." Another assignment in social studies was under the auspices of learning about cultures. She wrote an "A" paper on the culture of the pompon squad! I sat in disbelief as I read about the language, religion, food, entertainment, economy, music, clothes, and ceremonies of the squad.

    Math, for which there was a part-time textbook, went from the mundane to the farcical. Much of middle school theory purports that the curriculum be reality-based. After our experience, one wonders whose reality they were using. For math, some of the students spent twelve days redesigning cereal boxes and decorating them. This was to teach scaling in math, and included art and writing on the sides of the boxes. Others had to draw a face representing themselves and the percentages of time they spent doing activities, such as reading, watching TV (eyes), listening to music, and talking on the phone (ears). They, then, had to draw their features according to these percentages; the failure in the assignment was that they never had to scale the features to equal the percentages they were supposed to represent.

    Science was more hit or miss depending on the teacher at the time. For the study of the environment and the effects of pollution, some students designed their own curriculum, a common feature of middle school theory. Their experiment was to show the hazards of polluted water on goldfish, but students were not allowed to carry out the experiment because it would have been cruel to the goldfish. My daughter built a solar oven that successfully cooked a hot dog. The trouble with this project was that the sun did not do the cooking; the teacher's 120 watt heat lamp bulb did. What did this prove to students about the reality of solar energy? What knowledge did they glean about how man could harness the sun's power?

    Besides these assignments, there was a great push for critical thinking or higher thinking skills. Even proponents of middle school theory agree that in order for those skills to develop, students must be well grounded in basic facts and knowledge about subject matter. Those basics were sorely missing in this curriculum, while much classroom time was spent in peer editing other students' papers. At the end of each block (six throughout the year), students filled out reflection sheets for each of their classes. These sheets asked: "What work you are proudest of, least proud of, and why? What changes would you make if you could do it again? Was the assignment valuable, why, or why not?" These answers became part of students' portfolios, the authentic assessment of their work, and was used at student-run, parent/teacher conferences.

    Cooperative groups were also a big part of middle school theory. Parents spent hours shuttling students between houses, trying to coordinate the schedules of these pre-teens so everyone could meet at the same time. Invariably, it would be the same students who took on the majority of the work load to see that the job was done because the whole group received the same grade. This cooperative grouping, intended to help slower students and to make leaders of faster students, in fact caused resentment when reality hit that not everyone carries the same load.

    The school had to send many explanatory letters home to us, uninformed parents, to explain the programs, grading, and ideologies. Students were graded not only in their "content" areas but also on learner qualities that included: "self-directed learner, problem solver, information investigator, quality producer, collaborative worker, and responsible citizen." Students were allowed to retake any test until they felt comfortable with their grade. The honor roll members and best in the class graduates could qualify for those honors without having the highest academic performances.

    Many parents in our district went to complain about this dumbing down of the curriculum and the stew pot approach to teaching and requested that we be given the choice between a team of middle school theorists and a team of traditional teachers. Two years later, in the 1996-97 school year, many of us were back before the superintendent and the school board asking again for choice for our younger children, many of whom were in a traditional sixth-grade program at the same school. When our parent's group received a resounding NO to our request for choice of delivery systems, some families chose to move out of the district. Seven students, including my youngest, are now attending the one private school in the area, and many students who graduated from this system continue to struggle in high school.

    Middle school theory is a fad similar to new math and the open classroom of years ago. The perpetrators of this theory espouse that all children learn differently. I agree that all children learn differently, but when I ask for a traditional curriculum and delivery system because that is the way my children learn best, these proponents turn a deaf ear.

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