‘Saving’ the Edsel

Thursday's Editorial   —   Posted on October 13, 2011

(by Michael Benjamin, NYPost.com) – [Last month, NY City] Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott unveiled his vision of middle-school reform. I applaud his aim to [copy] 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 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 respect.

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 Catholic schools [that have closed].

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 [eliminated].”

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.

*NOTE: The Edsel was an automobile manufactured by the Ford Motor Company during the 1958, 1959, and 1960 model years. The Edsel never gained popularity with contemporary American car buyers and sold poorly. Consequently, the Ford Motor Company lost millions of dollars on the Edsel’s development, manufacture, and marketing. The name “Edsel” has since become synonymous with failure.

This article was first in the New York Post on September 22, 2011.  Reprinted here on October 13th for educational purposes only. May not be reproduced on other websites without permission from The New York Post. Visit the website at NYPost.com.

Questions

1.  What is the main idea of Michael Benjamin’s commentary?

2.  Read the two letters to the editor regarding Mr. Benjamin’s commentary below.  What do you think of each letter? (Does the writer make a valid point? Do you agree with his/her perspective?)

“I have taught grades 6-8 for the past nine years in a Catholic school in Yonkers.  Many of the older students have younger siblings in the school, and they walk together, holding hands, to and from school every day.  The older students help with the younger ones during lunchtime, recess and fire drills.  It helps the older students learn a sense of responsibility for the well-being of those younger and weaker than themselves.  It also lends a family atmosphere to the school which, sadly, some of the students lack in their home life…”

Jack Ciotti, Ossining, NY

“Benjamin is completely correct about returning to the K-through-8 model that has been so successful in charter and Catholic schools.  You can’t argue with success — unless you’re on the left, and then the well-being of the city’s students is nothing compared to the importance of pushing an agenda.

I went to junior high in Staten Island in the 1970s, and it was hellish. I know many others who feel the same way.  I join with Benjamin in urging the chancellor “to spare future generations the middle-school nightmare.”

Mary Nasta, Frenchtown, NJ

3.  What do you think of the idea of making schools K-8 and 9-12?  Explain your answer. (If you did not attend a middle school yourself, ask a parent or friend who did to share his/her perspective with you.)