Monday, January 04, 2010

Public education: Key to reducing dropouts, lifting success rates: Fix middle school

It's always nice to see that more is being done to ensure that students complete a high school diploma and ideally are also prepared to go on to college. Let's hope that addressing the probability of students dropping out in the 9th grade doesn't become focused on increasing their 8th grade math test scores. I believe Dr. Fuller's research also shows that students attending poor middle schools experience upwards of 30 to 40 percent of teachers who are out-of-field; this is most prominent in science and math. So how much is students' vulnerability a function of factors such as this and other disparities in their opportunities for learning?

This blog will be keeping a close watch on this issue.


Austin American-Statesman Editorial
Thursday, Dec. 31, 2009

State leaders, middle schools need your attention.

Students might physically drop out in the ninth grade, but they've flunked out long before that — in sixth, seventh or eighth grade. New research that tracked trends in middle schools in Texas school districts offers an opportunity to address the academic deficiencies that put students on a track to drop out rather than graduate. And we applaud state Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, for making middle school a top priority this year and for 2011. Starting this month, she will oversee an interim study on middle schools and their roles in student success and failure.

But that commitment must be reflected and demonstrated by the folks running for statewide office, particularly governor and lieutenant governor, whose positions offer great ability to get big changes fast. The House speaker has an equally important role to play, but is not elected statewide.

We already know a few things about the middle school years. It's an awkward stage for most students — dealing with raging hormones while navigating transitions from smaller and friendlier elementary schools to larger and less personal campuses.

In past decades, the Legislature and school districts have focused on improving education in elementary and high schools. But they have not done a good job of connecting important dots regarding the significance of middle schools in determining academic success and failure. So we have a system that is good when students first enter (elementary school) and fair to good during their last four years (high school). But middle school is a mess.

Research by Ed Fuller of the University of Texas and the Texas Business and Education Coalition shows that middle school is the gatekeeper for student success in high school and college. Students who do poorly in middle school — particularly on the eighth-grade math portion of the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills — are the ones most likely to fail ninth grade and eventually drop out. And low-performing middle school students who do graduate from high school are less likely to be prepared for college work.

While we're on the topic of fixing things, the school financing system also needs attention. The patches applied every other legislative session or so are busting big time. The Dallas school district this year became a wealthy district that had to pay the state millions of dollars in local tax revenue under the Texas' share the wealth school system, though 90 percent of Dallas students are economically disadvantaged. Bizarre.

Austin, with a majority of students classified economically disadvantaged, has been in that boat for some time. Economic realities might help the Legislature focus on using public education money wisely.

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