ATLANTA - Georgia school officials are reluctant to give up $70 million a year in rewards for middle schools, despite a preliminary state report that raised questions about whether the schools produce any better results than old-fashioned junior high schools.
Georgia School Superintendent Linda Schrenko wants to spend more than $1 million on a three-year study to determine the impact of the incentive program, which provides middle schools with an extra 13 percent in state funding.
But with the preliminary report showing children in schools that received the grants dropped out more often and scored no better on standardized tests, some are concerned that lawmakers who fund the program will need some good reasons to continue spending the $70 million.
"I don't think the legislature is going to wait to make some significant changes," said J.T. Williams, chairman of the state Board of Education.
The middle school grant program grew out of recommendations by the Education Review Commission's reform proposals of the early 1980s.
The aim was to make middle schools more nurturing and less threatening than high schools for a group of children just reaching their teens.
While junior high schools covering sixth, seventh and eighth grades were often set up in organization and instruction similar to high schools - with set schedules and bells to let children know when to change classes - middle schools were to be geared specifically for adolescent learners.
Under the concept, students are offered innovative schedules allowing them to explore many topics and teams of teachers collaborate to prepare children in core subjects.
The state began doling out incentive grants in 1988, giving schools that qualified 13 percent more money than those that didn't. Middle school officials had to apply for the grants, and not every school received one.
In the first year, 14 systems and 54 schools qualified, costing $3 million. Last year, 144 systems and 315 middle schools qualified, obtaining $72.5 million in grant money, most of which goes to teacher salaries.
Overall, the grants had cost $358.7 million before this school year started.
The middle school concept drew criticism, however, after a Council for School Performance survey showed high absentee rates, a high percentage of overage students and a low number of parent-teacher conferences at the facilities.
A recent Education Department comparison between junior highs and middle schools raised even more questions.
For instance, ninth-grade teachers were more likely to say their students who attended junior high schools were more prepared than their students who attended middle school. There was no statistical difference on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills between middle-school and junior-high students.
Pupils in junior high schools were less likely to drop out than middle schoolers in seventh- and eighth-grade. Former middle-school pupils were more likely to be held back in the ninth grade than ex-junior high students.
Mrs. Schrenko and the Georgia School Improvement Panel, which is appointed by the governor and superintendent, indicated support last week for a three-year study, however, because they said the preliminary report didn't go far enough.
"Over the past 10 years, the middle school program has spent $360 million, and Georgia educators have never conducted a formal review of either teaching-effectiveness or cost-effectiveness," Mrs. Schrenko said.
She said a more thorough, scientific review of the program is needed before any conclusions can be reached about whether it's worth the money.
Department of Education officials estimate the review will cost about $700,000 the first year, and probably $450,000 to $500,000 in each of the next two years.
"Our main objective in this review and others will continue to be providing the children of Georgia the best education available while responsibly managing taxpayers' dollars," Mrs. Schrenko said. "After all, how will we ever know if we can improve a program without ever reviewing the program?"
Mr. Williams said he's not advocating doing away with the program, but making sure it's working.
"All of us want to prepare ninth-graders better," he said. "We need to spend the 13 percent. Nobody is arguing we not spend the 13 percent."
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