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Middle school is a better choice for sixth-graders

The Medford schools should seize the opportunity to move its sixth grade students into middle schools. There are many reasons why this is the best choice for students academically.

I begin with the experience of my daughter, an honors graduate of UC Berkeley. She was required to take remedial math during the summer prior to entering seventh grade, because she was so poorly prepared for the pre-algebra course at her middle school.

As educators well know, many school subjects are cumulative; each course builds on the one previously taken. As a veteran algebra teacher I am most familiar with the sequence of math courses — pre-algebra, algebra 1, geometry, algebra 2, pre-calculus, etc. Language arts is also cumulative — students must master reading and writing skills before studying literature. History and science courses also build on previously learned material. Thus world history is generally taught before U.S. History.

Elementary school teachers, for whom I have the greatest respect, are responsible for covering all the subjects — math, social studies, language arts, science, even the arts if time permits. Classes are a mixture of students at different maturity levels and aptitudes; one teacher is usually responsible for teaching them the various subjects.

We all have different strengths and weaknesses — including students and teachers. Middle schools allow for specialized teaching — math teachers teach math, social studies teachers teach history, etc. Specialized teachers are well aware of the sequence of courses. As my own children discovered, students cannot be placed in pre-algebra if they lack the foundational skills, and success in pre-algebra is a requirement for success in algebra 1.

Today's 12-year-old sixth-graders are far more mature than my children were 35 years ago. They should be taking specialized classes from specialized teachers to be prepared for the math, language arts, social studies, science and foreign language classes that follow. Middle school teachers should have three years, rather than just grades seven and eight, to work with students and help them reach their academic potential. If students excel in math, they can be placed into honors level classes. The same is true for students in language arts classes. Knowing students in sixth grade allows middle school teachers to better meet their individual needs in future courses.

The issue of socializing cannot be ignored; these middle school years are crucial ones. While we do not want our children growing up faster than they already do, we should recognize that, socially and academically, sixth-graders have more in common with seventh- and eighth-graders than they do with grades K-5 students. I can vouch for that based on my own sixth-grade grandchild, who is thriving in a California middle school.

The Mail Tribune reports that whatever choice is made will require construction or renovation of buildings to accommodate hundreds of students. Clearly this is an investment in the future of Medford and its families. Thus the educational advantages I have described should be considered.

A final issue is the standardized testing — with its emphasis on language arts and math — that has become part of our education system. Congress is considering new legislation to replace the No Child Left Behind law. The new measure, called the "Every Student Succeeds Act," is designed to correct "excessive testing in public schools and using unrealistic goals to label too many schools as failures," according to a Wall Street Journal article Dec. 1, " 'No Child' Redo Advances."

A key testing year is eighth grade, under both the old and new laws. Imagine the advantage to students receiving specialized teaching in language arts and math beginning in sixth grade in schools where teachers get to know students for three formative years. What math is tested on standardized eighth-grade tests ? If students begin preparing in sixth grade, they could succeed in algebra in grade eight just as my children and hundreds of my students did. They could have stronger language arts skills, too. Surely that benefits our schoolchildren, their dedicated teachers and the Medford community. That seems like a good investment.

Betty R. Kazmin of Medford taught algebra for 20 years in Los Angeles public and private secondary schools, and served on the board of education in Willard, Ohio.