Why Chancellor Walcott’s “Middle School” Speech Missed the Mark: Creating Effective Middle Schools Is Not a Secret!

After five months of skipping around the city polishing the mayor’s image, from
school to church to business forum, the kinder, gentler face of the Department
gave a policy speech.

Dennis: Fire the speech writer, or, the policy wonk who suggested the topic.

The solution to fraying scores in the eighth grade is close more schools, create
charter schools, and, yes, emphasize teaching literacy!

A woeful attempt to defend the mayor’s legacy.

The upside of the chancellor is his political skills, Walcott has avoided attacking
the unon, in fact he has worked with the union “around the edges” of some crucial issues.

Dennis and union president Michael Mulgrew are beginning to dance with teacher evaluation.

The Department and the Union must come to an agreement on implementing the new state teacher evaluation law.

While the current S/U (satisfactory/unsatisfactory) remains in place the Department is utilizing the Danielson Frameworks to develop and assess teachers on a day-to-day basis. Awkward and confusing, but change ofttimes is.

The focus on middle schools is sadly humorous. Since the fifties there have been
one or more middle school task forces every decade – with fanfare and university experts major reports are rolled out, with little actual impact on schools.

Early adolescents are a separate species.

Patricia Hersch in her acclaimed book, A Tribe Apart catches the essence of early teens,

A Tribe Apart is an important book not because it contains new ideas –she herself points to many reports by government agencies and independent institutions whose analyses of the problems of adolescence she echoes – but rather because she makes her case so powerfully through her accounts of the teenagers whose lives she describes.

 Adolescents have formed their own culture that is increasingly distinct from the rest of culture. Hersch argues that students need parents, teachers, and other adults to be more involved in their lives. It is not enough to give them more lessons on the dangers of drugs, sex, or antisocial activities. The fundamental problem is not that naïve teens are led astray by a few black sheep; most teens are quite capable of thinking for themselves, and they often do give their actions considerable thought. We need a more sophisticated understanding of why adolescents make the decisions they do, and through her detailed pictures of their lives, Hersch gives her readers a good idea of how it goes down. Drugs and alcohol are readily available, and many people they know use them. Many children and teenagers are engaged in sexual activity, and most teenagers have ample opportunity. Given their options and their social situations, there are great temptations for adolescents to experiment, and sometimes they enjoy their experiences. Many of them have bad relationships with their parents and turn to drugs, alcohol and sex as emotional release. They experience great pressure to succeed, but they do not receive strong social and emotional support from their communities.

Closing schools, opening charter schools, and other structural changes do not address the core issues. You need school leaders with rich and extensive experience in working with early adolescents.
Walcott bemoans that only one Leadership  Academy graduate became a
middle school principal. Whose fault is that? Does he actually think that a
summer of intensive training and an internship can turn someone into an
extraordinary middle school leader?

Middle school leaders require experience as highly successful middle school teachers. Intensive training, an internship and mentoring can hone skills but are not sufficient.

As Jonathan Swift  told us, it is really, really hard to turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse.

Why isn’t Walcott taking about “guaranteed and viable curriculum”? Mike Schmoker in Focus writes,

What we teach – a guaranteed and viable curriculum matters immensely. Curriculum may be the single largest factor that determines how many students in a school will learn (Marzano, 2003).
In this bipolar world of the Department of Education the so-called Chancellor
deals with the political side while Deputy Chancellor Suransky struggles
mightily with the “teaching and learning” side.

Who knows, maybe this is a model for success?

Structural changes will not create successful middle schools; schools stumble and fail due to poor leaders and the absence of support at the district/network level.

For the past twenty years the State Education Department has been conducting visits to “failing” schools under the Schools Under Registration Review (SURR) and Joint Intervention Teams (JIT) programs. The annual summaries, unfortunately not on the web always lists the primary reasons for poor performance as,

the absence of leadership at the district and school level.

the lack of a curriculum and appropriate materials,

Select a highly competent superintendent/network leader with a strong background in middle schools and instruction, school leaders with the same skills and you will create effective middle schools.


8 responses to “Why Chancellor Walcott’s “Middle School” Speech Missed the Mark: Creating Effective Middle Schools Is Not a Secret!

  1. The problem begins in the lower grades. That is where we mistake the short term gains of test-prep for education. As kids fall further behind in vocabulary and essential knowledge, they find by the time they take the eighth grade tests that they are hopelessly behind. Truth is, they were already behind the eight ball in fourth grade despite “rising” scores. It is what we teach (curriculum) and how we teach (teacher skill and experience) that will make a difference.


  2. All the problems in education can be solved in elementary school…we just need the babbling rabble to get out of our way


  3. What you missed in the Mayor’s poodle’s speech was that the entire class of teaching fellows will be sent to the middle schools. Just what these children need “newbie teachers” who have no clue how to teach.


    • Why is dicipline ignored? Dicipline is the the problem in middle school. We need strong leadership in the schools. No matter what the newest education expert says…children at that age need control. Order preceedes learning. No child can learn while other students are in and out of the hallways durring class time. There are no real consequences for disruptive behaviors. The parents are unresponsive and the deans don’t exist anymore. Find a school in a poor neighborhood that does well, you will find a strong A.P.


      • Norm

        Strong leadership in schools is essential … high expectations and consequences for inapproriate behavior must be a collaboative effort – from the classroom to the supervisors – if the culture is fingerpointing between teachers and supervisors the entire school will suffer – consturctive education practice supported by school leadership results in effective schools.


  4. True. Strong leadership is essential. A climate of trust between teachers and administration is difficult to create inorganically. Trust grows from experience. Leadership changes so frequently. A supervisor must be given the time to create relationships with the staff. Both the children and the neighborhoods would benefit. Currently some administrators are moved from school to school in the same year. In IS109 one AP had a split schedule between two schools.


  5. Angeles Quezada

    Great information 🙂


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