Minnesotans for Better Education, Standards and Testing

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Noel Schmidt: Yecke spins a distorted view of middle schools

Noel Schmidt

Published January 18, 2004

Recently, Cheri Pierson Yecke, Minnesota's commissioner of education, published "The War Against Excellence: The Rising Tide of Mediocrity in America's Middle Schools."

In the book, the commissioner claims that middle schools have failed to deliver as educational institutions, particularly to the talented and gifted students. Yecke asserts that it is time for the "American public to reject the radical middle school movement."

Huh? The "radical middle school movement"? The same middle school movement that has worked successfully for more than 30 years for hundreds of thousands of students and parents?

While the commissioner claims her purpose is not to "bash" Minnesota middle schools, her rhetoric says otherwise. In the book, she says middle schools encourage a "rising tide of mediocrity." She says middle schools are filled with "radical activists," who are a "threat to the integrity of the public schools." These are words of rancor designed to inflame passions and prey on the emotions of people. They are designed to strike fear into our hearts and to persuade us to throw out 30 years of sound middle school research and follow her messianic version of the junior high. They are words of hyperbole and mystification designed to advocate and support a narrow ideology. No educational researcher that I know uses language like this.

Using reams of data and quotes, the commissioner spins a convoluted web of misinformation about middle schools. Many of her "facts" are distorted or deliberately skewed to her version of reality. Here are some myths that Yecke spins in her book.

Myth No. 1: Middle schools have negative attitudes toward talented and gifted students.

Reality: Middle schools strive for high standards of excellence for all students, including those with exceptional talents. This is why many middle schools offer enriched classes, advanced classes, after-school activities and honor band and honor choir.

Myth No. 2: Middle schools are guilty of using cooperative learning experiences. This is a bad thing to the commissioner.

Reality: The main reason that adults get fired from their jobs is because they haven't learned how to work cooperatively with other people.

In the building where I work, we are guilty of the following cooperative learning experiences: Our students donated enough money to place American and Minnesota flags outside the entrance to the school; our students donated over 300 coats to the Salvation Army's coat drive; our students collected and donated more than 6,300 books for an elementary school in St. Paul; our students wrote over 1,000 letters to members of the armed services stationed in Iraq -- in return, the students regularly receive letters from mail-starved U.S. soldiers who are grateful for the letters our students have written.

Myth No. 3: Middle schools are working to eliminate competition from the building, Yecke claims in her book.

Reality: Almost every middle school that I know uses a very competitive "A-B-C-D-F" grading system and publishes a list of students who made the "A" honor roll and the "B" honor roll. Middle schools regularly give awards, certificates and honors to students who excel in a variety of subjects.

The commissioner makes even more pedagogical and philosophical assumptions in her book, all slanted to achieve her political end. She appears more concerned in promoting her version of reality than reflecting what is really happening in middle schools in Minnesota. I challenge her to drop her political agenda and visit middle schools to discover what is really happening.

Noel Schmidt, of Hugo, is a middle school principal for the White Bear Lake Area Schools and president of the Minnesota Middle School Association.