Meanwhile, at the center of children's little pulsing innervated kernels is the phylogenetic imperative encoded in their DNA to grow, to expand, to self-organize, to learn, to exercise the autonomy that defines them as organisms. By middle school, the majority of urban male children have a plan, and it doesn't include more of the same sub-routine of baffling bullshit.
Here is a clip from a piece on the "dropout problem" or, more precisely, the reform school problem, in The Notebook by Ron Whitehorne, obviously a teacher with some experience in dealing with miracle protoplasm:
. . . .Absenteeism is lowest in 4th grade. The rate increases by one-third between fourth and eighth grade, and almost doubles again in ninth grade. It continues to be the case that a significant number of students do well in the primary grades, begin to lose interest and fall behind in the middle grades, and stop going to school in droves when they reach high school. Current “data-driven” reform strategies haven't adequately tackled that problem.
In contrast, underlying the small schools movement – like the middle schools movement of the 1980s – is the understanding that adolescents have particular needs, and that education needs to take these into account. Young people want greater independence and more relevance. A curriculum that is strong on real-life connections and problem-solving, a school climate that promotes trust and responsibility, and the active involvement of teachers and staff with their students are the marks of student-centered small schools. Creating the kind of curriculum and climate that will overcome the alienation of students who now experience school as failure, boredom, and frustration is not easy. It will never be done as an add-on to a heavy diet of test prep.
In the Hornbeck era, Philadelphia schools were encouraged to create small learning communities (SLCs) that were supposed to embody these small-school values. As is so often the case with top-down change, it happened mostly in form and only infrequently in substance. But at my school we got grant funds to create viable, thematically based small learning communities. I was part of a four-person team that kept the same students from sixth through eighth grade and organized instruction thematically. We saw improved attendance, behavior, and engagement in learning from our students.
The teachers remember this period as our “best years.” As for the students, there is no data I can cite. But I ran into a student a couple of years ago who had successfully graduated from high school and was supporting a family. After we exchanged pleasantries, tears welled up in his eyes, and he told me that his years in middle school as part of our team had been the best years of his life. When I probed further, he said he felt valued, supported, and successful.
Too many students, once they make the passage from the primary grades, do not feel valued, supported, and successful – and act accordingly. But this lesson is, at best, an afterthought for clipboard-wielding, data-driven NCLB proponents.
When our school was one of a number of schools slated for restructuring in 2002 as part of the state takeover, our leadership team met with the administrator for restructured schools. I told him we had done some things right, like SLCs, and we needed to try to retain these strengths. He waved his hand, said we had tried “all that,” and it was time to move on.
Well, we've moved on, and while some real gains have been made, there is little evidence that a high-stakes, test-driven program is going to turn our high schools (or our middle schools) around. Many things are needed, including a major infusion of resources. But we also need to look at the essential lessons of successful small schools and small learning communities and make them a central focus of school reform.