Sunday, December 30, 2007

8 Years of Grade School? No one room school house, hopefully

Across the country, school districts are considering returning to the older concept of school promotion: a K-8 school based around the one teacher model followed by 9-12 high school, instead of using middle schools for grades 6-8 where kids get used to going to separate classes with different teachers by subject matter.

Until the 1980s, many school systems had junior high schools, which covered grades 7-9. (I remember a sixth grade teacher telling the class that she had to “recommend you to junior high school”.) In the 1980s, the concept of “middle school” developed and was supposed to ease the transition by keeping students together with more or less the same teachers. In practice, many schools started with “sixth grade halls” but by seventh grade expected students to become much more independent in going between classes.

The Washington Post story today (Dec. 30) in the Metro Section, p C1, by V. Dion Haynes, is “D.C. Mulls A Return to Pre-K8 Schools: Proposal Worries Parents, Teachers,” here The story indicates that sometimes switching back to K8 (often favored by Catholic schools) has raised test scores, but in some cases (in poorer neighborhoods) the presence of older kids in elementary schools proves disruptive.

When I went to “junior high school” the institution of homeroom helped. Middle schools have kept that (they call it the TA in Arlington). That continued in high school in my day, and homeroom met on almost half the days. We had the same homeroom teacher and section number for three years. That seems to have been dropped. Final exams started in high school – tenth grade in my day, and lasted for three hours, and counted 20% of the final grade. Physical education was mandatory except for twelfth grade. Swimming was not included then, but today it is often mandatory, as it was in college.

One practice at Swanson Junior High (and today, in my experience as a sub, I can say that Swanson is the best middle school in Arlington) in the 50s was grouping English and social studies together as "general education" (that is, "humanities") for two consecutive periods with one teacher (and one letter grade).

The Washington Times today has an op-ed by Betsy Hart, “Driving Anxieties,” that quotes Allstate studies that claim that driver ed courses are often ineffective in younger students because, no matter how good they are, their brains are wired to take risks and not calculate consequences. Yet, in my life, I’ve known of teens who never took unwarranted chances when driving. Some people (within either gender) are naturally much more aggressive than others.

For teachers, the extreme range of student maturity at any age is bewildering. It is complicated by the fact that girls mature sooner than boys, who start catching up in early teen (or “tween”) years. The brain is not fully grown (or “pruned” – the pruning process is particularly important to nurture athletic, musical or artistic gifts) to age 25, they say, and some boys don’t even reach their adult heights until age 19 or even 20. Another controversy is gender-separated education, which hardly seems to prepare people for a global, competitive, and mostly gender neutral workplace, but which does facilitate concentration.

All of this weighs on the minds of people who decide to become educators. I talked in detail about this in July, particularly, here, especially with they July 25 issue (on discipline problems with “middle school kids”). It’s hard to be a master of the content and an involved role model, involved in para-parenting the next generation, at the same time.

Picture: University of the District of Columbia. The National Bureau of Standards, where I had my first job in 1963, used to be on this property at Conn. Ave and Van Ness St, in NW Washington. It was known as Federal City College for a while after NBS moved to Gaithersburg, MD.

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