Why do standardized test scores drop -- sharply, in many cases -- when students hit middle school?
Today, The New York Times reported on NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg's answer to the $64,000 question of education:
"Generally speaking, those in elementary school do what you tell them to do. And I think it's also true by the time they get to high school, they don't. It's in those middle years where they transfer from one to another."
He went on to present a maddeningly misguided and half-hearted plan of dedicating $5 million toward 50-performing New York City middle schools.
The mayor of New York City's distillation of our urban education crisis is baffling and offensive. Firstly, how can he be so sure that "what you're telling them to do" is actually in their best interest? Since the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2002, NYC elementary schools have fixated on testing, testing, testing. Today's middle school students have lived with counterproductive mania for this their entire scholastic lives.
Urban kids in sixth and seventh grade are hip to the fact that the test preparation craze that has dominated their years in school is actually a superficial, bureaucratic charade that has nothing to do with their own personal futures. An alarming number of sixth graders taught English Language Arts by my wife in the Bronx pointedly told her last January: "The test is over. I'm done." Scores are dropping now because those children have been failed repeatedly since Day One, and their foundation of enduring skills and understandings was never built in the interest of manufacturing short-end bumps on test score graphs.
Rather than making school a nurturing and personal experience, kids, as early as kindergarten, are jammed into overcrowded classrooms, denied support services like fundamental skills tutoring, denied much-needed counseling, and are supervised by administrators more worried about test scores than their real needs. It's no wonder that they "stop doing what you tell them to do," as the mayor says. Bloomberg is blaming the victims here. (And also, who is the "you" that Bloomberg mentions? Does "you" contain the families of the Bronx, for example? It doesn't seem so.)
Students don't spontaneously combust in middle school. When a student's "achievement" on the line graph tumbles, something undetected has been wrong for a long time. Solving the mystery of the middle school decline will require a genuine look at dedicating real resources to truly support every student -- from birth through high school graduation day.
Bloomberg shows little interest in such a difficult, expensive yet crucial undertaking. The New York Times reports:
"But the mayor shied away from adopting the most far-ranging changes recommended in the reports, like significantly reducing class sizes, creating a special middle school academy to train teachers about early adolescence, and removing police officers from city schools to create a more welcoming atmosphere."
How will voiceless public school students get real solutions, not stunts, from their elected leaders?
Dan Brown is a writer and teacher in New York City. His memoir of his first year teaching, The Great Expectations School: A Rookie Year in the New Blackboard Jungle, is being released this month by Arcade Publishing.