A Pressing Middle School Matter

Two critical steps to building a public education system second to none begins with a focus on reading between birth to grade three—resulting in all students reading proficiently by the end of 3rd grade—and vastly improving middle school education.

Middle schools are the key to increasing high school graduation and college enrollment rates. The seeds for dropping out often begin during the transition between elementary school and the less personalized middle school model—six teachers and instructional periods—where the content dots tragically do not connect.

In a comment to my column last week, Dale Warner had a point when he chastised me for not paying attention to “the real news” from last week. A huge education story was emerging in our midst, and I did not devote my column to it. I should have, because I worked in middle schools as a principal for nearly 15 years in Santa Clara County. Warner also stated that Sharon Noguchi of the San Jose Mercury News did not give the subject any notice. That is not true.

On June 12, Noguchi wrote, “With fewer than half of eighth-graders testing proficient in English and math, parents in two East San Jose school districts have declared a middle-school crisis and are pressing for opening new alternative and charter schools. “(Mayela Razo) and other parents joined People Acting in Community Together to press Franklin-McKinley officials to improve choices for parents.”

The PACT parents and I agree that it is an educational crisis, and we all know what to do to vastly improve the work.

Superintendent John Porter told the SCCOE Board during an early childhood presentation last week that the situation, relative to middle schools in his district, is going to improve and his middle school staff is 100 percent behind the effort. In Noguchi’s story, Porter is quoted as saying the middle school situation is “intolerable.”

Porter told the SCCOE Board that we will have a ceremony to “bury” the old instructional and school organizational practices, which have been used to teach students for the needs of a 20th century industrial economy. We can, must and will do better with all our middle school students, Porter said. The ceremonial burial will take place this summer.

PACT also recognized parents in Alum Rock School District, asking the leaders of Alum Rock to do whatever is necessary to dramatically increase student achievement based on the California Standards Test. Many parents urged both districts to open more charter schools like the KIPP Academy in Alum Rock. As I have written before, there is a false dichotomy between the choices of charter or traditional public. It is excellent public schools, traditional and/or charter, for all children, in all districts that is the ultimate goal. The good news is we are moving in that direction, albeit not as quickly as most of us would like.

Both Alum Rock and Franklin-McKinley should carefully study what KIPP and other successful traditional middle schools are doing to increase achievement and close the achievement gap. The next few years will make the qualitative difference for the middle school students in Franklin-McKinley, Alum Rock and many of the other county school districts that have neglected major reform efforts far too long for middle level schools.

Thank you to PACT’s parents for raising the issue with a unified voice. While we advance this integral work today, we can’t lose sight of the importance of visual and performing arts and after school programs in high quality middle schools.

Joseph Di Salvo is a member of the Santa Clara County Office of Education’s Board of Trustees. He is a San Jose native. His columns reflect his personal opinion.


  1. > It is excellent public schools, traditional and/or charter, for all children, in all districts that is the ultimate goal.


    If you define the problem incorrectly, and then work REALLY, REALLY hard . . . you will solve the wrong problem.

    “Excellent public schools” may be “the ultimate goal” for public education bureaucrats, but it is NOT the ultimate goal for students and parents.

    As a homework assignment, I challenge you to answer the question: “What IS the ultimate goal for students and parents.”

    Here’s a hint:  it is NOT making sure that teachers unions “have a seat at the table”.

  2. DiSalvo doesn’t understand the problems in middle schools.  He drank the Kool-Aid of the contemporary politicized multiracialism ideology so he believes the nature of the present educational system is relevant to race, and one blame-worthy race only. 

    The good that came from DiSalvo’s revelation about his race-based ideology was that readers of SJI became aware of how divergent academic thought was from the reality of day-to-day life. 

    (1)  One problem with middle schools is that they are based on a quasi-militaristic, tax-paid, and compulsory eight-year system set up in Prussia in the last half of the 18th Century featuring military-style regulations and a rigorous study program to instill loyalty to the Crown and to train young men for the military and the bureaucracy.  This was called the “Prussian System” and took over in America before the Civil War, and still rules our middle schools.

    Breaking the hold of this system in the middle schools is of prime importance.

    (2)  But the second problem with middle schools is that individual school sites contain too many newly hormone-ridden youngsters on a age-cohort basis.  I cannot imagine the degree of stupidity required to mash the products of four or five elementary schools into one giant middle school site, and then try to teach and manage by age-cohorts. 

    These middle schools have to be broken up into smaller sites, and to have the importance of the same-age cohorts broken down.  As Benjamin Franklin said, the definition of insanity is to do the same thing over and over again expecting a new outcome.  Yes, public education in middle schools is insane by definition.

    This conversation is far too important to leave to DiSalvo, Noguchi, and Porter who are steeped in the public school culture as it exists, as well as the politicized multiracialism ideology.

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