Back in the day middle school students pretty much studied the three Rs -- reading, writing and arithmetic.
I think maybe we need to get back to that if we are to grow.
As a middle school English teacher, the biggest issue for 7th and 8th grade writers is their ability or inability to do the analytical thinking necessary to do a good piece of writing. For the most part, this dividing line is a result of maturity in thinking, not a deficit in intelligence. By extension I think the same reasoning can be applied to all areas of learning in the early grades.
When my fourteen year old son was three, he attended a private school where he learned Spanish and French. While he did not study the grammatical structures of the languages, he was exposed to the sound of the language. The kids sang songs and could label things. Now that he is in 8th grade, my son has a much stronger talent in language than his sister who did not have the exposure he had. Exposing kids to more difficult features of learning is a good idea. Expecting them to understand the fine nuances of such learning seems over reaching.
I would like school reform to focus on those things that make kids prepared. They need a solid understanding of reading and writing and arithmetic before they can be expected to master the more difficult tasks. When students reach high school with a reading level below 6th grade, we are simply ensuring their failure. Let's give kids a chance. Keep learning at their level BEFORE we set them on the high school track.
Let kids read for enjoyment.
Let kids write some silly things -- poetry, letters and stories.
Let kids solidly understand their math facts so math can be fun when they arrive at the more analytical maths.
Give kids a chance.