Why Middle School Sucks

This is a FRED Talk I’m giving at OETCx this week. OETCx is the unconference component of the Ohio Educational Technology Conference. The idea with this presentation is that it’s a five minute presentation with 20 slides, automatically advancing every 15 seconds.


My name is John Schinker. I’m the Director of Technology for Brecksville-Broadview Heights Schools in Cuyahoga County. The school district I work in is not the same as the one I live in. That’ll be important in a minute.


This is my daughter, Emily, on her first day of first grade. Like most first graders, Emily was excited about school, and would do anything to please her teacher. She brought home her language arts book the first week, read the whole thing in one night, and took it back and asked for the next one the next day.


Emily’s enthusiasm for school persisted throughout elementary school. She wasn’t a genius (she does have some of her mom’s genes, after all), but she truly enjoyed learning. But that changed when she got to fifth grade.


In fifth grade she went to Intermediate School. Her classroom was not unlike this one, and her teachers’ pedagogy was very similar as well. The teacher was the source of all information, and the students’ job was to absorb knowledge.


The school’s focus was on preparing students to take the Ohio Achievement Assessments. They systematically covered the curriculum, mostly by completing worksheets. The school wanted to make sure that every kid passed the test.


In sixth grade, the OAA became the “super bowl.” That metaphor was used all year, and they counted down the days until the test. Nothing was going to get in the way. The students were going to be ready to excel on the test.


Emily saw that this was a game, and she lost interest in playing. She was reading at a 10th grade level, and her math scores were off the chart. She could easily have passed the OAA on the first day of school, and yet spent the entire year preparing for the test.


The school identified her as gifted, but in her school, “gifted” kids participated in a pull out program that gave them MORE worksheets and projects to do in addition to the classroom work that had to be made up during the pullout period. We opted out of the program.


As she finished sixth grade, we realized that middle school was going to be more of the same. There was little differentiation for students above the mean, and all of the passion for learning was being systematically expunged from the students. We looked for alternatives, finally settling on an online charter.


The online charter wasn’t any better academically. It was still totally focused on getting kids to pass the tests. But at least she could do school at her own pace. In two years, she completed three years of English and three years of math. She also had time for six hours of art per week in addition to music classes and world language. In her spare time, she wrote a novel.


Before we go on, we need to do a really quick review of standard deviation. I know you’ve all seen this before. Just humor me for half a minute. Standard deviation tells us how closely data is clustered.


With a small standard deviation, all of the data is pretty close together. With a larger standard deviation, the data is more spread out. If these are students, the ones on the left all performed similarly on the test, while the ones on the right were all over the place.


I looked at the 2014 data for the OAA math test, and this is the standard deviation of the scaled scores. See what happens? As students move from 3rd to 6th grades, they get further apart from one another. Then, after sixth grade, they get closer together. That’s because schools focus intense intervention on the students who are doing poorly, while virtually ignoring those who have already passed the test.


I thought this might be an anomaly, so I looked at some other years. They all follow the same trend. The kids get further and further apart in math until they hit middle school. Then, we work really hard to get them all back together.


What about reading? In language arts, the same thing happens, but it happens earlier. This makes sense. Schools focus on reading FIRST. Then, when the kids are all passing the reading test (6th grade), they focus on math scores.


The problem with this is that teaching to the middle doesn’t work in middle school. Essentially, this data is showing that there is no middle. The kids are all over the place. So most of the kids are either bored out of their minds or totally lost most of the time.


We need a better model for differentiating in the middle school. Academic rigor is one way to do that. Don’t give MORE work to those who understand the basics. Give them better things to do with that knowledge. Similarly, struggling students may move DOWN Bloom’s taxonomy, not to focus on LESS content, but to engage in it in a different way.


There are lots of other models as well. Blended learning and adaptive learning offer different tools for extending and differentiating that allow the teacher to spend more individual and small-group time with the students who need it. Response to Intervention is a way to apply proven intervention strategies in a consistent way. But regardless of the strategy we use, we have to do something.


This is Emily on the first day of 10th grade. She’s in Junior honors English, advanced math, and honors Chemistry. She still takes every art class she can. High School can differentiate a lot better than middle school, and she’s back to loving school again. But it was a rough few years. Middle school sucked.


I was in the superintendent’s office last week refining a plan for technology and media in our schools. We had a complicated diagram with circles and arrows and boxes all over it. It started with the district’s strategic vision, and specifically the goals of promoting next generation skills, integrating state of the art technology, and offering quality program options that include STEM. It included the technology plan, which is focused on technology infrastructure, ubiquitous access to technology for students and teachers, and appropriate levels of support for both the operational and instructional needs of the district. It addressed student technology needs (both resources and instruction) at various levels, and the plans for meeting those needs. It tied in our teacher leaders, media specialists, and other professional staff who are responsible for various aspects of the plan.

4603106405_0d83269a23_zAfter working through the diagram for about half an hour, the superintendent took the paper. At the bottom of the diagram, in large block letters, he wrote this:


We need technology to do more than test kids. Sure, testing is important. For all of the resources that we devote to public education, for the millions upon millions of dollars spent in schools all across the country, year after year, we should be able to prove that we’re not wasting everyone’s time and money. We should be able to articulate what the learning outcomes should be in each subject at each grade level, and we should be able to demonstrate our effectiveness at getting students to reach those outcomes. Technology plays an important role in the management, instruction, intervention, and assessment of that system.

But it has to go beyond that. Students need to know much more about the technology landscape than their parents do. They have to understand what information literacy looks like in an age of information abundance. It’s not about finding the information anymore. It’s about filtering and evaluating and selecting from multiple sources. It’s about evaluating credibility and giving credit to those whose work you’re building on. Not only are those complicated skills, they’re skills that our students need to be learning in elementary school.

As they learn to navigate in a connected world, our students must embrace the powerful resources of communication and collaboration that have permeated all aspects of their culture. Publication — the sharing of ideas and work with a global audience — is as easy now as consumption. Our students can share their ideas with the world just as easily as they find the ideas of others. They can work together on documents and projects, participate in conversations with full audio and video, and publish their work online in less time than it takes to draw a timeline on poster board.

America’s history is one of innovation. It was our rejection of the rules of war (along with some dumb luck and help from the French) that won our independence. In the 20th century, we innovated our way to victory through the use of air power in the first world war, and the use of nuclear weapons in the second war. The industrial revolution made the American dream a reality for millions of our families. Post-war advances in chemistry, medicine, and technology ensured our status as the last standing superpower for the remainder of the century. As other countries caught up in manufacturing and industry, we innovated by moving to service and technology sectors.

We are facing huge challenges in the decades to come. In many respects, we have been over-spending our resources to maintain our standard of living for quite a while now, and the short-sighted economic decisions of our parents are coming back to haunt us. At the same time, the aging boomers’ need for health care and the rising costs of that care are unprecedented. In the last years of her life, my grandmother paid more per month for her assisted living than she paid for her house. Climate change is very real, and the shortcuts we’ve taken in the name of progress are starting to have disastrous and irreversible impacts on the global environment. Job prospects for today’s youth are unclear, as many of the jobs of my parents’ generation have been eliminated by automation and cheaper labor forces overseas.

Our kids have a lot of work to do. They need to leave school prepared to meet these challenges. And the challenges are much more complicated than answering multiple choice questions that measure their ability to recall information. Education isn’t just about knowing anymore. It’s about applying the “know” to challenges in the “now.”


Photo credit: Veerle Pieters, photo by Marc Thiele on Flickr.


Condoning the System

Several years ago, a colleague was telling me about a recent conversation with his son. He’s a Roman Catholic, with two kids in college. His son had been home recently, and they were talking about the sexual abuse problems that the church had been dealing with. The magnitude of the abuse had been coming to light, and the reality that thousands of kids had been victimized by hundreds of priests over the course of decades was starting to set in. The son was horrified that his father had condoned such egregious acts. The father defended his position. We didn’t know anyone affected. Our priests had no allegations against them. No one in our parish was coming forward with accusations of impropriety. We didn’t know that this was a systemic problem that was more serious than the handful of isolated incidents that were being manipulated to try to bring down the church.

The son continued. You supported the system that allowed this to happen. You contributed time and money to the organization. You blindly believed that the church was inherently a good institution, and that it would do the right thing. The son’s contention was that his father was condoning the actions of the church by not revoking his support for the institution while the allegations and investigations and cover-ups continued for decades.  Dad was telling me all this because it was one of the first times he thought of his son as an adult. This was a case where the two had different opinions, and could express them eloquently and debate them on their merits. “They do grow up,” he told me. “It gets better.”

366958167_939986949c_zBut I was still stuck in the argument itself. Does our failure to speak up against the things we disagree with mean we’re complicit in their adoption? If I don’t speak out against gay marriage, that must mean that I support it, right? Or if I don’t condemn those who attack it, does that mean I’m with them? Is it even possible to stay on the sidelines anymore?

The school district in which I work was labeled “Excellent With Distinction” every year that title was available. In 1999, the school district report card system was instituted in Ohio, where each school received an annual rating based on student test scores in reading and math, attendance and graduation rates, and a few other factors. Eventually, the system expanded to include more testing and additional subjects (like science and social studies). It also added a measure of adequate yearly progress and additional criteria for socioeconomic, racial, and cognitive subgroups. We aced the test. Every year. We were among the best schools in the state. We were proud of that. We had celebrations and press releases and photo ops.

I suggested, as early as 2005, that we distance ourselves from that system. We all had agreed that the state report card was not a valid way to measure schools. There’s much more to a school than reading and math scores. How do you quantify performing arts, or student activities, or a culture of caring? How do you define excellence in teaching and learning beyond the ability of students to recall information? How do you measure the true worth of a school?

It would have been easy for us, at the time, to condemn the system. If your school is failing, everyone expects you to claim the the system is unfair. But if your school is succeeding and you claim the system is unfair, people will take you more seriously. The elite schools in Ohio should have been doing that a decade ago. But we weren’t. We blindly believed that the government had the best interests of students in mind. The goal was to help all students succeed. And we didn’t need to worry, because our students were doing great. No one is accusing us of impropriety in the way we educate students.

But as the system has developed, we have changed with it. The testing has expanded. Between Presidents’ Day and Memorial Day, more than 80% of the school days in our district have a major testing initiative, where 300 or more students are taking a mandated test. And that’s not counting the classroom tests, common assessments, and departmental exams. And we have de-valued those things that aren’t measured, structuring our goals around improving in the areas where the state tells us we’re weak. If it doesn’t count as part of our grade, then it’s not important, and we’re not going to do it.

We are now just starting to disclaim the system, using things like the Quality Profile to paint a broader picture of our schools. But those efforts have much less leverage than they would have a few years ago, when we were at the top of the game in every measure.

I don’t know how we can quantify the value of a school. Mostly, that’s because I don’t know how we can reach some consensus on what it is, exactly, that the schools should be doing. “Education” and “learning” are words without definitions in our information-rich society. Knowledge isn’t power anymore because everyone has it. Going deeper than that — figuring out what to do with the knowledge — should be our primary focus. But we have a hard time defining that, and an even harder time measuring it.

Photo Credit: Jack Hynes on Flickr.