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At Last: Proof that Middle School May Really be a Black Hole of Learning for High Ability Kids

December 16, 2009
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We all suspected it.  Some of us would have put money on it.  And, at long last, we know that it is true:  Middle school may be a black hole of learning for many high ability students — at least in math.

The shift from junior high schools to middle schools beginning twenty-some years ago was more than just a change in name.  Based on the philosophy that raging pre-teen hormones prevent learning, the middle school philosophy frowned upon ability grouping.  Parents of middle schoolers subjected to dioramas, collages  and other art projects disguised as “hands-on learning” for any subject from social studies to math, have been frustrated by the middle school philosophy for years.   And now, a new study in Massachusetts by Tom Loveless, confirms what we already knew. Middle schools that do little or no ability grouping (Loveless uses the term “tracking”) have fewer students performing at advanced levels and more students who fail.  The study, “Tracking and Detracking: High Achievers in Massachusetts Middle Schools” is sponsored by the conservative-leaning think tank, Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and is the fourth in a series of studies on high achieving students in the No Child Left Behind era, including the excellent report, High Achieving Students in the Era of No Child Left Behind.  For those of you familiar with the also excellent “Nation Deceived” research on acceleration, you may be interested to know that John Templeton Foundation also helped to sponsor this new investigation on high achieving learners.

The new findings are, quite frankly, not at all surprising:

  1. The use of ability grouping (tracking) in middle schools has decreased tremendously in the past twenty years.
  2. Middle schools serving only 7th and 8th graders (the old junior high model) are much more likely to track than the middle schools serving 5th – 8th or 6th – 8th graders (the more common middle school models).
  3. Detracking is much more prevalent in urban, high poverty districts — a critical point when considering the Race to the Top funding that will flow to these districts.
  4. Detracking adversely affects the performance of high ability students and increases the number of failing students.

Shocked?  I’m not.  When I first started advocated for gifted students back in the early 1990s, I consistently told policy makers that the lack of appropriate public school opportunities for gifted children hurt poor, urban students the most.  In fact, before I wrote this post, I dug through some old files and pulled up an article that Colleen Grady (former State Board of Education member, former House representative, and blogger – www.stateofohioeducation.com) and I wrote a column for the Primer, A New Ohio Institute publication.  Colleen and I wrote,

Without appropriate instructional adaptations, gifted children not only fail to achieve at expected levels, but in many cases fail to outperform non-gifted peers.  Their achievement can regress to the mean and even below.  Economically disadvantaged students or those students who reside in geographically isolated areas are particularly vulnerable…..

The Primer article was written ten years ago in 1999.   We predicted then what would happen with the loss of opportunities for high ability students, including appropriate grouping.  This was well before the insanity of the proficiency goals in No Child Left Behind.   What is really interesting is that even the National Middle School Association (NMSA) and the Ohio Middle School Association (OMSA) agreed a few years ago that some ability grouping was a good thing.  In fact, both the NMSA and OMSA issued joint statements with the National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC) and the Ohio Association for Gifted Children (OAGC).  These position statements were written four years ago.  The result?  Not much.  The percentage of middle schools that have detracked classes has doubled since 1991.   Since 2005, there has been no slow down of detracking according to the new Loveless study.

I gave Arne Duncan a hard time a couple of weeks ago in my blog entry about Race to the Top (RttT) application and the lack of emphasis on top students.  But it does appear that the Secretary of Education understands that the current goals under No Child Left Behind are lacking.  In a recent interview in Education Week, Duncan acknowledged that schools are wrongly getting credit for kids coming in a year and a half ahead of peers and who leave with a half a year of learning.  (Ed Week Online, “An Interview with Arne Duncan, Dec. 2, 2009)

Will the re-authorization of NCLB include much needed reform for higher achieving students — especially in the middle school black hole of learning?  Or are we destined to ignore the research of Tom Loveless and once again embrace the low level goal of proficiency only?  I think high achieving students, especially those in poor, urban schools deserve better than what they are getting now.  Something has to change or these kids will fall further and further behind.

*As an interesting side note: Andy Benson was the editor of the Primer, which was published until sometime early this decade.  Some of you may know Andy as the Director of Policy for Knowledgeworks — roughly the liberal equivalent to the Fordham Foundation.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. December 16, 2009 7:16 pm

    Great post, Anne, and thanks for citing all of those resources in one place. I highly recommend them to educators and parents.

    I showed the joint statement by NAGC and NMSA to a middle school principal four years ago. I do appreciate the supportive environment of the middle school philosophy for the age group, but there is one vital area that is missed when applying it to gifted students: Gifted kids especially need to be challenged during these important years of their development to build up their academic skill set and storehouse of knowledge through a rigorous and advanced curriculum with higher expectations for performance, NOT lower. When this is done, the child’s self esteem and confidence rise. The source of self esteem is through real effort.

    We don’t help gifted kids by not challenging them! It is not kind. It is setting the child up for future problems. To have a good sense of self, gifted kids need to know they are capable of meeting challenges through experience. What happens when a child who has been sailing along for years finally meets her first challenge? Surely it will happen at some point, maybe in college. Is she equipped to deal with it? Because she has not built up a tolerance for frustration and a desire to persevere when the answers do not come easily, common outcomes include: underachievement, dropping out, aversity to risk-taking, and unfulfilled potential. And – especially with girls – she may have tied her self concept so much to her experience (“I’m the smart girl, schoolwork is easy for me”), that when the challenge finally comes she experiences an identity crisis. Up until this point, being gifted meant that things came easily to her, so this logic tells her that now when something is hard she must no longer be gifted.

    In mixed-ability classrooms, there seemed to be an effort to try not to stress the kids out with academics since their energy is assumed to be going towrad other developmental goals. What I saw was too much coloring and poster-making and group work where my child ended up being the one to do the bulk of the work (and this had a dampening effect on her performance since there was no motive to do original or higher level work and look “different” to her peers). She was much more frustrated in middle school than elementary and said she was tired of the being her classmates’ “answer key.” She needed to be grouped with other like-ability peers with an advanced curriclum so she could feel free socially to take risks and achieve.

    Bottom line, as always: If heterogeneous grouping with differentiated instruction is the norm in your school, I think it is essential that parents ask specifically what each teacher is doing differently for their child. And ask what training teachers have had to differentiate for high ability students, as opposed to differentiating for struggling students.

  2. December 16, 2009 7:40 pm

    Wow, Ann. You’ve given me more chills than the weather has today. With a second grader as my oldest child, who is currently reading at a 7th grade level, this kind of information is terrifying. And it’s stoking my personal fire to do something about it.

  3. December 17, 2009 12:29 am

    There are many middle schools in Texas where they go to the trouble of identifying gifted students, then put them in the same classroom with the pre-advanced placement(Pre-AP) kids AND then teach all an identical curriculum. Of course they brag they have a Gifted Education program.

  4. CinciMom permalink
    December 17, 2009 6:14 pm

    Great post Ann. Black hole, indeed – our personal experience bears that out. Funny how some educators equate lack of MS achievement with a “lazy” ethic on the part of the student rather than look to the lack of appropriate rigor in the classroom or true differentiation in the abscence of ability grouping.

  5. Susan Rakow permalink
    December 28, 2009 3:17 am

    I’ve been fighting this fight for middle school gifted children, programming, and services for over 25 years. Both of my books provide guidelines for how to eliminate this “black hole.” Without appropriate preparation of teachers and principals, however, (and it’s definitely not happening in the colleges and universities of Ohio that prepare our education professionals) we just keep banging our heads against a wall. It’s very frustrating – but the Middle Grades Network of NAGC and lots of parents and teachers are continuing the battle!
    Susan

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