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(Photo: Corbis)

Why Middle School Doesn’t Have to Suck

• September 02, 2014 • 4:00 AM

(Photo: Corbis)

Some people suspect the troubles of middle school are a matter of age. Middle schoolers, they think, are simply too moody, pimply, and cliquish to be easily educable. But these five studies might convince you otherwise.

The Obama administration has lavished attention on “dropout factory” high schools and vowed to increase access to pre-kindergarten instruction. But what about middle schools? They rarely make the news, but when they do, it’s usually for unhappy reasons. In 2014, scholars from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign released a study of almost 1,400 Midwestern middle schoolers that found that about a fifth of students reported experiencing some form of sexual harassment, bullying, or abuse, often within the classroom. In some horrific cases, children have committed suicide. Then there is the matter of academic performance: According to one study, while 28 percent of Taiwanese eighth and ninth graders who take the math test associated with the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) earn scores that place them at an accomplished level, only about six percent of U.S. eighth and ninth graders do.

Some people suspect the troubles of middle school are a matter of age. Middle schoolers, they think, are simply too moody, pimply, and cliquish— too pubescent—to be easily educable, and schools can’t do much about it. But these five studies might convince you otherwise. It isn’t that middle school kids are hopeless, just that middle schools are poorly designed to meet the needs of the students within them, a condition psychologists call a person-environment mismatch. The good news is that researchers already know what might work better.

five-1ACCEPT THAT MIDDLE SCHOOLERS ARE ADOLESCENTS

The shift from the junior high schools of yesteryear, spanning grades seven through nine, to today’s middle schools, spanning grades six through eight, dates back to the 1960s. Back then, sixth graders were understood as emotionally pre-adolescent and biologically pre-pubescent. Today, puberty’s onset is happening months and often years earlier than it did in the 1960s: on average, at age 8.8 for African American girls, 9.3 for Hispanic girls, and 9.7 for white and Asian girls. (The most likely cause: diets high in fat and processed sugar.) Early puberty is associated with depression, misbehavior, academic struggle, and sexual initiation at a younger age. It is also closely associated with sexual harassment and bullying. Middle schools must therefore provide a supportive social environment, one that deals with issues of puberty head-on. Teachers and guidance counselors (and parents) must have frank conversations with pre-teens about healthy friendships and romantic relationships, about sexual peer pressure, and even about contraception and sexually transmitted infections. And because the adolescent brain is not at its best in the early morning, the opening bell should ring closer to 9 a.m. than to 7 or 8.

—“Onset of Breast Development in a Longitudinal Cohort,” by Frank M. Biro et al., Pediatrics, Vol. 132, No. 6, 2013

five-1CRACK DOWN HARD ON TRUANCY

Just because middle schools have a lot of work to do on addressing the social needs of children doesn’t mean that they don’t have serious academic problems to deal with, too. Robert Balfanz, a research professor and director of the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University School of Education, has called the first year of middle school the “make-or-break year” for children. In 2009, Balfanz published a policy brief that drew on a study he had done of sixth graders in Philadelphia. It found that, of the students who failed either English or math in sixth grade, less than a quarter went on to graduate high school on time. Because poor attendance is a major driver of academic failure for this age group, middle schools must closely monitor absences and have an action plan in place to quickly engage both students and their families in reversing attendance problems.

—“Putting Middle Grades Students on the Graduation Path: A Policy and Practice Brief,” by Robert Balfanz, 2009, published by the National Middle School Association

five-1HIRE BETTER-EDUCATED TEACHERS—AND GIVE THEM REASONS NOT TO QUIT

Since the middle school years have a crucial impact on children’s later success, middle school teachers should be among the most elite and highly paid educators in K-12. Sadly, the opposite is the case. Many educators see placements in grades six through eight as mere stepping-stones to careers in high school, which offers more interesting course material, or elementary school, in which children are generally better behaved. Middle school teachers are also more likely than teachers of other grades to be working out-of-field, meaning in subjects they are not certified to teach, especially math and science. For that reason, teacher preparation programs should treat future middle school teachers more like future high school teachers— requiring them to take advanced classes in the subjects they will teach— and less like elementary school teachers, who receive a more generalist education. Also, middle school teachers should be given incentives to stay, like higher salaries.

—“Who Stays and Who Leaves? Findings From a Three-Part Study of Teacher Turnover in NYC Middle Schools,” by William H. Marinell and Vanessa M. Coca, March 2013, published by the Research Alliance for New York City Schools

five-1FOCUS ON CHARACTER AS MUCH AS BOOK LEARNING

Because the academic well-being of middle schoolers is so closely linked to their social well-being, the best middle school curricula teach kids coping mechanisms that can be applied both to completing schoolwork and to navigating adolescent friendships and dating. In one promising program, Habits of Mind, teachers work with students to develop skills such as “applying past knowledge to new situations,” “admitting you don’t know,” “listening with understanding and empathy,” “taking responsible risks,” and even “being able to laugh at yourself.” Schools as disparate as Briarcliff Middle School, in the affluent New York suburb of Briarcliff Manor, and the KIPP schools, which serve mostly low-income black and Hispanic children, are embracing this type of character education, which is based on research showing that non-cognitive skills like perseverance and future orientation can be more important than raw IQ in determining adult success.

—“Grit: Perseverance and Passion for Long-Term Goals,” by Angela L. Duckworth et al., Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 92, No. 6, 2007

five-5OR GET RID OF MIDDLE SCHOOLS ENTIRELY

That said, an increasing number of school reformers believe it makes no sense to isolate sixth, seventh, and eighth graders in separate school buildings. In 2012, researchers Martin West of the Harvard Graduate School of Education and Guido Schwerdt of the Ifo Institute for Economic Research in Munich, Germany, studied data on children in Florida and found that, across urban, suburban, and rural areas, students who attend middle schools do worse academically than peers who attend K-8 schools and are more likely to drop out of high school. While Florida students also demonstrated achievement drops when they transitioned from eighth grade to high school, the elementary to middle school drop was larger. Why? Probably because the transition to a new environment takes a toll on anxious pubescent kids. In response to these findings, hundreds of middle schools across the country, especially in cities, are transitioning to K-8 formats. Perhaps the future of middle school is no middle school at all.

—“The Middle School Plunge,” by Martin West and Guido Schwerdt, Education Next, Vol. 12, No. 2, 2012


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Dana Goldstein
Dana Goldstein is a staff writer at the Marshall Project, and the author of The Teacher Wars: A History of America's Most Embattled Profession.

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