Stuck in the Middle With You

Posted: Dec 11, 2006 11:55 AM
Stuck in the Middle With You

Yes I'm stuck in the middle with you, And I'm wondering what it is I should do, It"s so hard to keep this smile from my face, Losing control, yeah, I'm all over the place, Clowns to the left of me, Jokers to the right, Here I am, stuck in the middle with you. --Stealer’s Wheel

One of the many useful and important studies issued in recent years by the Fordham Institute is Cheri Yeke’s monograph, Mayhem in the Middle: How Middle School’s Have Failed America and How to Make Them Work.

Yecke, now the K-12 Education Chancellor of Florida argues that American middle schools have become the places "where academic achievement goes to die."

Junior high schools were originally developed as an opportunity for older elementary students to be challenged more than they might be in elementary school. Junior high was also conceived to offer them the opportunity for meaningful extracurricular activities, to treat them as their growing maturity would dictate, to provide physical separation for their benefit and that of the younger students, and to ease the transition into high school.

The problem now though, is not so much middle school as "Middle Schoolism." Middle schoolism is the ideology of opportunistic progressive educrats who injected their ill-conceived notions into the middle school structure. It is an ideology that focuses more on emotional and social development, and less on learning the basics.

Middle schoolism is a legacy of the tumultuous 1960s and 1970s. In this case, this unstable period offered the opportunity for progressives to underestimate the academic capabilities of students in favor of engaging—as such educators are wont to do—in experimentation and the politicization of students.

Those driven by the ideology of middle schoolism work to put their adolescents "in touch with their political, social, and psychological selves, thus downplaying academic achievement. The middle school movement advances the notion that academic achievement should take a back seat to such ends as self-exploration, socialization, and group learning."

The statistics tell a sad story, Yecke reports, as, according to almost all measurements, academic achieve begins a steep decline in middle school from which it never recovers, even in high school. In a separate study, "Problems and Promise of the American Middle School," The Rand Corporation also admits the "lackluster performance" of the middle school but does not seem to recognize the bad ideas largely responsible for such concerns, ideas that Yecke ably articulates. For that reason, until we can exorcise the demon of "middle-schoolism, fixing our high schools is akin to Sysiphus’ vain attempt to roll the boulder up the hill. It just keeps rolling back down.

Some schools now, though, are beginning to return to the old K-12 arrangement; many private and parochial schools never adopted the middle school model in the first place.

Whether the structure changes or not, Yecke convincingly argues that the only possibly way to reform secondary education is to reverse the trend of middle schoolism. She advances the radical idea that the key to recovering middle-grades education in the United States is to treat it as, well, education, rather than personal adjustment. That means high academic standards, a coherent curriculum, good teaching, strong leadership and sound discipline.

There is another kind of "middle" that might be adopted by those supervising the education of students in grades 6 through 8. It is Aristotle’s doctrine of the "mean" introduced in Book II of his Nichomachan Ethics. He explains that excellence is often found equidistant between extremes--on one side an "excess," on the other, a "defect." Patience for example, is the balance between impatience and apathy.

More generally, if the middle student is to grow in moral and intellectual virtue, the hormonal excesses of the emerging adolescent must be curbed. At the same time, however, the defect of an academically weak curriculum must be eschewed as well. Such a moderated approach to middle education, though, is a mark of practical wisdom, or prudence, as Aristotle explains it. It cannot be achieved by pedagogical zealots high on the discredited notion of "middle schoolism." Until this pernicious legacy is overcome, our twelve- and thirteen-year-olds might as well sing, "Clowns to the left of me, Jokers to the right/ Here I am, stuck in the middle with you."

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