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Behind The Drive For Middle-School Reform

At the turn of the century, most large American school districts taught Grades 1 to 8 in elementary schools and Grades 9 to 12 in high schools. But only 1 in 10 students ever made it to high school.

That gap prompted reformers to create separate schools to help students make the leap to more demanding junior high schools. Later, middle schools aimed to create a distinctive style of teaching targeted at developmental needs.

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What's fueling moves to rethink middle-school education is another gap - the perception that these schools don't expect enough of students.

If you take a close look at the early documents in the middle-school movement, there's some basis for concern. The influential founding statement in 1982 of the Columbus, Ohio-based National Middle School Association, "This We Believe," argues that there is a danger in pushing students to succeed academically because brain development slows down in middle-school years. The 1995 version of "This We Believe" drops this theory in favor of "high expectations" and a "challenging curriculum for all."

But the original idea was "in play" until recently and influenced many educators, says Hayes Mizell, director of the program for student achievement for the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation in New York, which backs reform. It also set off many parents, who feared that middle schools were dumbing down to accommodate dubious theories. In Howard County, Md., parents came up with a radically different view of the schools from that of two consultants doing a parallel evaluation.

Consultant Edward Brazee, who also developed an evaluation of Howard County middle schools, says that concern over arguments such as "brain plateau" distorted parents' view of what was working.

"That vocabulary has dropped out of sight. Some people went ... too far," says Mr. Brazee, an education professor at the University of Maine and a consultant on the Howard County project.

"Not many schools changed programs based on that, but some people still refer to this as another misguided middle-school attempt," he says.

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