Here's the problem. Portland Public Schools has a long way to go before implementing a K-8 school model that works. The ham-handed and heavy-handed "mandate" of former superintendent Vicki Phillips for a return to K-8 schools certainly hasn't helped matters. That was made clear by the district meeting held earlier this week.
But I'm conflicted.
On the one hand, I've been an advocate for a return to the K-8 model in public education. I have fond memories of my own K-8 experience right here in Portland.
On the other hand, I know that middle schools can be a good thing. For 15 years I was a middle school/junior high teacher in Hillsboro. It took me a few years of acculturation, but I eventually developed an appreciation and understanding of the "in-betweeners" who were my students. My middle school teaching stint also opened me to the possibilities of leading education down a revolutionary and drastically different path from the cluttered and confusing subject-based road that secondary schools have followed for over a hundred years.
Middle schools in the late 80's and early 90's were indeed a hotbed of school reform, and many became cutting edge models of how schools should be run. I believe that my school in Hillsboro --Evergreen-- with its teaching teams, its integrated and thematic instruction, its student-centered focus, its small and flexible learning communities, and its teacher-scheduled days with no bells, was perhaps THE most progressive and innovative public middle school in Oregon.
My dilemma is this. I've long argued that school reformers should emulate elementary schools. That means that teachers should be trained as generalists rather than as academic specialists, but that they should also know enough to be able to teach across the traditional curricular divisions through early adolescence. That's the elementary model. It was the K-8 model when I went to school.
But what about instrumental music? Art? Higher level math courses? Foreign languages? Can K-8 schools offer adequate instruction in those areas? I believe, with proper funding, and a willing and properly trained teaching staff, they can.
My K-8 experience serves as an example. I took algebra in grade 8. The three eighth grade classrooms were regrouped each day for math. I also learned to play the trumpet in an instrumental music class that was available starting in fifth grade. One foreign language class --German-- was offered to seventh and eighth graders. Although I didn't opt for German then (we learned a smidgen of Spanish in my home classroom), after four years of high school German, we all ended up in the same place and in the same classroom anyway.
In seventh and eighth grade, we all went out for shop or home economics daily. We also had P.E. classes in either the school gym or out on the playground. Art? I don't recall any special classes offered other than what we did in the classroom.
Everything else --reading, writing, grammar, science, social studies, public speaking-- was taught by the remarkable Mrs. Federman in my regular self-contained classroom, a "small learning community" of perhaps 25 students.
The key is adequate funding, which is crucial for any school to succeed regardless of configuration. Middle schools in theory are able to offer more of what parents demand --comprehensive course offerings and advanced classes for students with exceptional skills. But without the staffing, they'll get neither that specialized coursework nor the closer relationships found in the self-contained classroom.
Portland's approach to school reconfiguration is muddled at best. The K-8 model has been proposed as solution to lagging achievement (meaning test scores) rather than as a place for the social and emotional development of children, which is what it does best. Larger schools were mandated to justify increased staffing despite the evidence that smaller schools are better for student learning. And most troubling, especially for those concerned with equity, the middle school option has all but disappeared from the poorest parts of the city.
The bottom line is that Portland rushed into school closure and reconfiguration without a well thought out plan for what was to follow. And, perhaps more importantly, without a clear understanding of what genuine school reform looks like.
I think now is the time for a moratorium on the K-8 "mandate".