'Not In Very Good Shape': Fixing the Middle Schools

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The middle school years are a time of transition and turbulence. Given the changes and pressures facing these almost-adolescents and newly-minted teenagers, it's no wonder that middle schools have been called the “Bermuda Triangle of education” – a place where it's easy for students and educators alike to lose their bearings. In New York City, the academic performance of middle schools has been a concern for more than two decades. The academic performance of elementary and high school students has shown considerable improvement in recent years, but their middle-school counterparts have not kept up. In 2007, fewer than half of the city’s eighth graders tested at grade level in math and reading. And just 27 percent and 40 percent of eighth graders met the state standards for social studies and science, respectively.

Alarmed by this trend, a group called the Coalition for Educational Justice (CEJ) published a report in January that called for a “Marshall Plan” to address the persistent problems of middle schools in New York. Two months later, in response to the CEJ report – as well a new reorganization plan for the city’s public schools, unveiled by Mayor Bloomberg the day after the report’s release, that would place unprecedented responsibility on principals to raise achievement – City Council Speaker Christine Quinn convened a Middle School Task Force to explore solutions to those problems. Over the next several months, the two dozen members of the task force visited middle schools throughout the city and held a public forum in each borough to solicit input from parents, teachers, administrators and various school experts.

On August 13 the task force released a report containing nearly 40 recommendations on topics ranging from curriculum to school safety. At a press conference that day, Mayor Bloomberg, alongside Quinn, Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, United Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, and several task force members, announced that the city Department of Education would make $5 million available to 50 high-need middle schools in order to implement the task force’s recommendations. Beginning this fall, the city will waive fees for professional development for teachers and will begin expanding Regents-level courses at those high-need schools. The focus will be on the high-need schools at first, but the goal is to gradually implement the recommendations citywide. These steps will be overseen by a newly appointed Director of Middle School Initiatives – Lori Bennett, former instructional superintendent for Region 8 in the Bronx – who will continue to receive input on the city’s middle schools from a working group that will include task force members.

The week of the press conference, City Limits sat down with Dr. Pedro Noguera, the chairman of the task force and a professor at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Education.

CITY LIMITS: What did you think of the press conference?

PEDRO NOGUERA: The press conference focused on the positives – on the fact that the report is out, that there’s a high degree of agreement between the speaker, the chancellor and the mayor about the content and the recommendations, and a willingness to try to implement them. I think there was a lot of good faith demonstrated at the press conference, and that was made possible by the negotiations leading up to it. So I think that’s a good thing.

What I think didn’t get enough attention is the fact that there’s a real problem out there. The reason why the task force was created is because the middle schools are not in very good shape, in many cases. And that became really clear through the course of the hearings that we held across the city. Our hope is that this task force will give the attention and focus – and keep it over a sustained time – on the need to improve these middle schools.

CITY LIMITS: Tell me more about how the public hearings went. What was the main thing that the task force took away from them?

PEDRO NOGUERA: The amount of concern out there. Particularly around issues related to school discipline and safety, in many cases, and just the general quality of education being provided to students. The ways in which we are not clear about what a middle school should focus on with respect to the developmental needs of students, and how schools should go about doing that. All of that came out in the hearings in various ways. And I think it helped to send a clear message that something needed to be done.

On the other side, we also heard from the principals of some schools that are being run really well. Those schools exist in the city also, and it’s obviously important to recognize that we have models out there that we can learn from.

CITY LIMITS: The task force also conducted site visits to six schools. What was it about the quality schools that stuck out?

PEDRO NOGUERA: I’m in schools a lot anyway, because of the work I do, but we wanted to make sure that task force members knew the range of schools that are out there. We wanted to look at model schools with a record of academic success, but the problem with a lot of those model schools is that they screen kids, and they only take the highest-achieving kids. It’s easy to be a good school if you only accept the high achieving kids.

We also wanted to look at schools that don’t screen kids, but are successful. And then we wanted to look at schools that were struggling. Why is it that certain schools haven’t improved? What are the missing ingredients there?

CITY LIMITS: In the task force report, a participant in one of the public hearings is quoted as saying, “Without discipline, everything else is an afterthought.” Was that the consensus of the task force – that it’s difficult to address learning and other student needs without first addressing the physical environment of the schools?

PEDRO NOGUERA: I think safety was certainly a central concern, but there was also a recognition that safety is a byproduct of strong relationships between adults and kids, of a well-run school, of students who are academically engaged. That is, that you can’t just address safety by hiring more guards and more police officers. Which, unfortunately, is something I think the city has done, in a few cases. They haven’t really looked at the deeper underlying issues at the schools with persistent safety problems, and instead focused on security measures.

What we were calling for in the report is that you have to address safety, but you’ve got to do it in a way that really gets at the roots of the problem: students who are not connected to learning; students who are in schools that are too large and too impersonal, where no adults really know who they are; schools that are really lacking in essential resources. And if you don’t address these issues, safety will always be a problem. We wanted to make sure that school quality and safety were very much linked, and not addressed in isolation from each other.

CITY LIMITS: The report brought up the presence of NYPD officers in schools – especially that their role may not be clear enough – and recommended that the administration consider returning jurisdiction over safety matters to the DOE. The day after the press conference, the New York Post reported that “sources in City Hall” said that was “highly unlikely.” Was the task force disappointed that the mayor didn’t entertain that?

PEDRO NOGUERA: There was a range of opinions, so there was no real consensus on this issue, but several members felt that it is highly problematic to have police officers who don’t report to the principal in the building. Because many of us, myself included, think you have to address discipline as an educational issue, and not as a criminal issue. Clearly, there are some cases where the nature of the offense warrants the involvement of the police. But what happens when you bring police into the schools is that a number of issues that previously were handled as school matters now become criminal matters. If kids get in a shoving match, if there’s an argument between a student and a teacher, if there’s a dispute over a cell phone – instead of those matters being resolved as a low-level disciplinary matter, they become a police matter. And there have been several cases where educators have tried to restrain the police from intervening, because it involved a special ed student or other circumstances where a different response was warranted. But because the police are not trained in how to interact with young people, once you introduce the police into a situation you lose a large degree of control.

It’s very important that we not minimize the potential threat. There are weapons in schools – even elementary and middle schools. So I don’t want to be na

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