The Montgomery County Board of Education is considering ways to make the middle school curriculum more challenging, with an eye toward bringing school system policy on middle school education in line with the proposed recommendations of the Maryland State Board of Education's Middle Learning Years Task Force (MLYTF).
At its March 14 meeting, the Board voted for Superintendent Jerry D. Weast to report back at the September meeting with a comprehensive report and recommended changes to the existing middle school policy, once the state task force report has been finalized, Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) curriculum audits have been completed and key stakeholder groups have identified the resources needed to eliminate barriers to the implementation of an effective middle school program.
The MLYTF is proposing three major recommendations:
Upgrade instruction for all children, emphasizing academics and achievement.
Revamp programs to enhance teacher quality, preparing teachers specifically for middle school classrooms.
Restructure middle schools to reflect the most current research on adolescent development and learning.
Many of the MLYTF recommendations are consistent with existing MCPS policy. In a memo prepared for the Board, Weast noted that MCPS will undertake a number of additional measures as part of a comprehensive plan to secure rigor and challenge for all middle grade students. They include:
Provide ongoing training to integrate instructional strategies that promote higher level thinking and student achievement on the Maryland state performance assessments.
Implement curriculum audit findings as soon as they are finalized. The K-12 mathematics audit is scheduled for completion in July.
Schedule meetings with key stakeholders, including principals, the Curriculum Advisory Committee, workgroups and resource teachers to get recommendations for changes and identify resources to be recommended for the FY 2002 budget.
Provide coordination and direction of services to middle schools through the unit of middle school instruction.
Use the new organizational structure of community superintendents and school performance teams to monitor implementation of the middle school policy.
To ensure a middle school program that "raises the bar and closes the gap," Weast said, several structures must be available. They include an organization with clear guidelines for grouping students, a challenging curriculum and varied instructional practices to challenge all students.
Assessments must match instruction, promote student learning and establish high student performance standards. Staff development is needed to enhance content knowledge, instructional practices and awareness of the developmental needs of young adolescents.
Some barriers do exist and must be overcome before change can occur, said Weast. The MCPS review found that many of the proposed recommendations are consistent with existing system policy.
They include pressures on facilities that restrict flexible grouping; lack of a comprehensive, consistent set of administrative training modules; lack of qualified leaders for interdisciplinary teams or resource teaching positions; lack of guidelines and support for grouping that responds to student needs; testing practices that restrict instruction time; and the combination of increased enrollment and shortage of teacher applications.
Progress under way
Still, progress is being made:
Some Montgomery County middle schools have interdisciplinary teams that plan and implement instructional opportunities within personalized learning communities.
Middle school curricula in the content areas have been aligned with Maryland Learning Outcomes.
For the past two years, Enriched and Innovative Instruction, in collaboration with the middle school instruction unit, has provided symposia for middle school teachers to share successful strategies.
A number of middle schools are implementing benchmark performance assessments tied to the curriculum and the Maryland Learning Outcomes
Three county middle schools have met state proficiency standards and achieved the highest scores statewide. About eight have performed above county standards for reading CRT sub-tests, and four have achieved county standards in the mathematics CRTs. Selected schools have implemented programs to build staff competency.
Although some middle schools are implementing responsive organizational designs, using effective research-based instructional practices and assessments, and conducting staff development programs, inconsistencies exist among schools countywide.
One sign of such inconsistency, Weast noted, is that middle school students' performance on CRT and MSPAP assessments has not improved at the same rate as performance of elementary school students-something the state task force report also noted as a statewide problem.
"These data reinforce parent concerns about the lack of programs that effectively meet the needs of all students within each middle school," he said.