Fine aims, but: Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott hopes to reform the city’s middle schools, but the whole idea needs rethinking. Click here to read the op-ed in the NY Post.
Saving’ the Edsel
September 23, 2011
On Tuesday, Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott unveiled his vision of middle-school reform. I applaud his aim to replicate the successes that some charters and other public schools have had with fifth-, sixth- and seventh-grade students — but was saddened to hear he wants to build 50 more middle schools.
Sorry, Mr. Chancellor: Even Ford stopped building Edsels.
As I noted last month, public middle schools are failing New York’s children. It’s time to drop the whole concept.
In his plan, Walcott invoked all the right clichés, calling for a focus on literacy, high-quality leadership, setting high expectations, discipline and instilling a love of learning. But his middle-school plan offers little more than reshuffling the deck and throwing more money at the problem.
Walcott and his brain trust seem to think that applying the same reforms that seemed to improve our elementary and high schools to floundering middle schools will do the trick. I strongly beg to differ.
For more than 40 years, middle schools have failed New York students.
It’s a hard age: Grades five through eight are when most children first face the challenges of puberty — a time that teachers everywhere know presents special discipline problems, within each grade and also between grades, with children just a year older being much more physically mature.
On top of that, children who’ve been held back can be far larger than even their classmates in these years.
A stable, familiar environment can work miracles in handling these challenges — but instead help we typically feed four or five elementary schools into one middle school, putting the children in a huge institution without the authority figures they’ve come to repect.
Educators I respect say it’s time to abandon the stand-alone middle school — and so does the evidence.
For decades, parochial schools have successfully educated poor white, black and Hispanic students in a K-8 setting for a quarter of the cost of the public schools. But we refuse to support tuition tax credits or vouchers, so the city must build 50 schools to absorb parochial students coming from shuttered Catholic schools.
Jeffrey Litt, headmaster of the successful Icahn Charter Schools, says that the K-8 environment is most conducive to creating a culture of learning, discipline and high achievement. At Icahn, 100 percent of eighth-graders meet the bar in math and 86 percent in reading.
After 40 years as a teacher, principal and school leader, Jeff Litt knows these “students just aren’t mature enough to be off by themselves.”
He points out that the K-8 school allows teachers to know children over nine years and provides a common culture that everyone — students, teachers and parents — knows.
Visit the Icahn School, a parochial school and any public middle school, and you’ll immediately grasp Litt’s point.

“At Icahn I, there’s no graffiti, no gangs and we don’t have the same social issues. We have an engrained culture of high academic achievement,” says Litt.

Walcott’s plan does little to halt the academic slide that seems accelerated among students at the city’s public middle schools. The parents of former parochial students now heading to public middle schools have reason to be anxious.
If Walcott really intends to implement the best practices of our most successful charters and other public schools, he should see the truth. To recast a line of Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s, “Public middle schools should be blown up.”
To spare future generations the middle-school nightmare, Chancellor Walcott should invest in K-8 schools. He could begin with schools in my home borough of The Bronx.