Monday, January 22, 2007

Cutting Out the Middle Man

Check out Gootman’s story in today’s NY Times—Taking Middle Schoolers Out of the Middle. This has been one of the most welcome trends to watch in the world of K-20 over the last few years. The research is clear. US students perform as well or better than international students until 6th grade, and then they fall off the cliff. Guess what happens then? Middle School.

We have to remember that today's middle schools are really a large-scale experiment from the 60s and 70s. The idea was that these kids were going through such a unique time of change that they needed a special kind of focus. To the advocates, segregating these kids made sense. While the sentiment was good, the data are not. There are little-to-no concrete data that support the premise that middle schools work. Indeed, it is about time we admit that this is an experiment that failed, and failed miserably.

Drs. Bill and June Sanders are the researchers behind the SAS Education Value Added Assessment System, which includes deep student-outcome data from more than 500 school districts—many with more than 15 years worth of longitudinal information. Their findings are clear. Any time you transition a child from one school building to the next, you lose on average up to ½ a year’s worth of academic progress. Do the math. Moving most kids twice in two-to-three years means they can lose up to a year’s worth of progress or more!

It makes no sense to take these children at their most socially and academically vulnerable stages and make them suffer through these tumultuous transitions. In essence, we rip them from one learning community to the next and leave them with fewer and fewer adult support systems. Whether you’re a fan of brain science, learning communities, student engagement, the three R’s, or social intelligence research you can see why the middle-school strategy doesn’t work. These students have to spend so much time rewiring their brains to accommodate new social systems and support structures over two transitions in two-to-three years that academics become hard-pressed to compete—particularly with powerful pre-teen social dynamics.

As the NY Times article points out, and as I’ve heard educators who have implemented this change recount, there is something powerful about a seventh grader who is goofing off seeing their 2nd grade teacher stare them down. Or for a young girl going through her early stages of puberty to be able to quickly reconnect with a safe-feeling teacher from third grade. They are in a comfort zone, which helps learning fight for center stage. And there are good ways to insure that you don’t have abuse problems with older and younger kids. In fact, the worry over older-child/younger-child abuse is mostly a red-herring argument used to justify not changing.

The K-8 model makes much more sense to me. However, I’m not wed to that idea alone. Some school districts are offering 6-12 systems, to spark an earlier focus on college readiness. Maybe K-7 would be a compromise that makes sense? I’m not sure. My guess is all of these models will be successful because of fewer overall transitions for kids. However, I personally feel kids are being forced to grow up too quickly these days; so, I’d err on the side of letting them stay bonded K-8 until there are compelling data either way.

A serendipitous side effect here is that by ending middle schools we fully eliminate the need for another layer of administration—helping us focus more money on instruction. Will the benefits never cease?

In the end, we’re all about helping our kids and community members learn more effectively. If eliminating the middle man helps our children learn more effectively, better prepares them for college and a world driven by learning, then lets make this a priority. I’d hate to see another generation of kids suffer through this well-intentioned experiment’s outcomes yet again. Let’s not get in the middle of their learning!

Wednesday, January 17, 2007


The American Council on Education and the Lumina Foundation finally launched the much anticipated KnowHow2Go website. This campaign is all about inspiring kids and adults to aspire to college education, to prepare early and often, and to take proactive steps on this pathway to possibility.

All too often in the US and around the world, what you learn is based on where you live, what family you were born into, and what expectations were drilled into your head (negative or positive) from an early age. But you and I can help change the game. In today’s world, with information at our fingertips and inspirational stories a click away, no child or adult should have to be lost in the wilderness about education.

In a learn to earn world—even a learn to live world!—we can’t afford to let our children and community members be left in the dark. Help someone in your world KnowHow2Go!

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Another Promised Land!

A note from Phil Neal at The University of Texas at Austin:

I was reading your blog about the Kalamazoo Promise and wanted to pass along some information about a similar program in Wyoming. Wyoming has recently experienced great fortunes with the royalties from oil, gas and coal production. It is one of the few states that actually has a surplus of money at their disposal. A couple of years ago, there was a proposal to use some of this surplus to create an endowment which would provide scholarships to Wyoming high school graduates.

The Hathaway Scholarship program was created and students began taking advantage of the scholarship in the fall of 2006. Reflective of their GPA (2.5 and higher) and ACT scores (17 and higher), students will receive one of the four graduated scholarships to be used at the state’s community colleges and/or university. All levels of the scholarships pay for most or all of the full-time tuition at the community colleges, while only a few levels pay for all the tuition at the university. In my mind, this inadvertently created an incentive for students to attend the community colleges for those students with lower GPS’s and ACT scores.Basic scholarship information can be reviewed at The site also contains links to the university and community colleges, all of which have more extensive information.
This program will be a great benefit for students of Wyoming, and has made the financial offices rethink how to use their existing resources for recruitment.Hopefully, its successes, like the Kalamazoo Promise, will serve as models for other communities and states. I agree with you that this type of forward thinking helps to enhance more than the just the educational attainment of the citizens within a city or state. Wyoming is hoping to keep many of its high school graduates from moving out of the state – a problem they have experienced for years – while creating a more educated workforce that helps promote economic development.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Learning to Live Longer

Gina Kolata has a fascinating article in today’s NY Times that is a must read for those interested in education, healthcare, and quality communities. The long and short of the research reported in the story is that the longer you stay in school, the longer you live. Education is more important than ethnicity, income, and a host of other expected key variables. The root of the hypothesized effect of education on life span is related to the ability of a more-educated person to make good choices, delay gratification, and consciously make decisions that positively impact health.

While the studies abound that explore the learn to earn relationship—the more you stay in school, the more you earn—we rarely talk about the significant impact of education on health and wellness in our public policy debates. But this story raises the bar. How can any right-thinking politician or policy maker not care deeply about expanding and improving education access and success with these kinds of stakes? Or, at the very least, how could they not become deeply interested in finding out more.

My favorite part of the article is that the education effect doesn’t end as life goes on. Indeed, it doesn’t matter when you learn, just that you learn. So, pick up a book—your life is at stake :)