Good Lessons Were Learned in Eighth Grade Wood Shop

Mike Klein, GPPF Forum Editor

A grandfather whose grandson is in middle school asked the boy what he enjoyed most about his classes.  The boy said manufacturing class because he liked to create things.  In the often abstract and vague world of middle school, manufacturing class made sense.

That begs the question:  Have we become so focused on traditional subjects, test preparation and achieving wide varieties of state or federal standards that we risk losing the kids when they can no longer relate to what they are learning or apply it to their lives?

My middle school experience included building things in eighth grade wood shop.  When you measure the angles correctly and cut the wood precisely, you can build a table.  The lessons learned in math were applied in wood shop and I could relate to the table!  I also learned how to rewire old lamps so they would work like new, a valuable lesson used many times.

“We have lost the capacity to teach in ways that advance the creativity of students,” says Gene Bottoms, vice president of the Southern Regional Education Board.  “That is the way we are going to make big gains in education.”  As one who researches and writes about these things, Bottoms needed to look no further than his grandson’s story about manufacturing class.

Today we should ask, are middle school students at risk to become the next lost generation?

Last week the Atlanta-based Southern Regional Education Board said middle school students in 16 southern states are dangerously close to falling so far behind that they will find it difficult to compete in high school, higher education and the new economy that values analytical skills.

SREB’s year-long middle schools commission produced, “A New Mission for Middle Schools: Preparing Students for a Changing World,” which focuses on this challenge, as described by Bottoms:  “We begin to lose boys in the middle grades, and even some young ladies.”

It is well established that students who begin to disengage in middle school are at risk to fully disengage during high school.  Just three-fourths of incoming ninth graders graduate from high school on time.  And as SREB notes, “The chance that a ninth-grader is on the way to college by age 19 is less than 50-50.  It is time to change those numbers.”

David Spence, President, Southern Regional Education Board

Writing in the middle schools commission report prologue, SREB President David Spence said, “Middle grades are the vital center – the make-or-break point – of our K-12 public school system.”  Spence further said unless middle schools are fixed, “…our decades-long effort to improve all schools and secure our future progress and prosperity will have failed.”

One section of the report especially stands out.  SREB challenged middle schools to stop several practices that do not improve student achievement.  Four were cited:

** First:  Stop providing students with a watered-down curriculum taught at a slower pace.  Instead, accelerate learning through extended time for those students who need more attention.  “We continue to presume that remediation works,” Bottoms said.  “We continue to enroll students under the assumption that they will eventually reach grade level.  It never works.”

** Second:  Stop giving students failing grades without determining what they do not understand.  SREB argued that failing grades do not motivate students. “We are missing the point of assessment,” Bottoms said.  “Find out what they do not understand.”

** Third:  Stop micromanaging traditionally low-performing schools from the district office.  “We are never going to reach high performing schools operating under that philosophy,” Bottoms said.  Rather, give well-prepared principals the authority to implement change, including different staff.

** Fourth:  Stop accepting small, inconsequential gains in student achievement in low-performing schools.  Instead, focus on steady, significant gains for a broad cross-section of students.  The report urged more emphasis on reading as the foundation for learning all subjects.

Spence acknowledged middle schoolers are busy “… fitting into their peer groups, discovering their interests, and learning the latest technology and video games…”  Bottoms said that describes why middle schools must recommit to make learning relevant.  “We seem to have lost that sense.”  As an example, he cited fewer field trips.  “We have virtually wiped that out.  Many students know very little about what is going on in their world.”

Other recommendations include increased emphasis on blended learning, literacy and STEM education – science, technology, engineering, and mathematics– along with earlier and more intense intervention with students who are identified as potential drop out candidates.

Ultimately, the middle schools commission said goals need to change:  Three-fourths of eighth graders who graduate from high school on time should become 90 percent.  The number of students who pursue additional education should improve from less than two-thirds to at least 80 percent and many more students who enter college should graduate within six years.

Bottoms said there is consideration being given to a road show that would roll out “A New Mission for the Middle Grades” at daylong conferences in several of SREB’s 16 southern states.  Click here to read the complete report.

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