Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Five Studies

middle-school

(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


For more on the science of society, and to support our work, sign up for our free email newsletters and subscribe to our bimonthly magazine. Digital editions are available in the App Store (iPad) and on Google Play (Android) and Zinio (Android, iPad, PC/MAC, iPhone, and Win8).

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.

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 24 • 4:00 PM

We Need to Normalize Drug Use in Our Society

After the disastrous misconceptions of the 20th century, we’re returning to the idea that drugs are an ordinary part of life experience and no more cause addiction than do other behaviors. This is rational and welcome.


October 24 • 2:00 PM

A Letter to the Next Attorney General: Fix Presidential Pardons

More than two years ago, a series showed that white applicants were far more likely to receive clemency than comparable applicants who were black. Since then, the government has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on a study, but the pardons system remains unchanged.


October 24 • 12:00 PM

What Makes You So Smart, Middle School Math Teacher?

Noah Davis talks to Vern Williams about what makes middle school—yes, middle school—so great.


October 24 • 10:00 AM

Why DNA Is One of Humanity’s Greatest Inventions

How we’ve co-opted our genetic material to change our world.


October 24 • 8:00 AM

What Do Clowns Think of Clowns?

Three major players weigh in on the current state of the clown.


October 24 • 7:13 AM

There Is No Surge in Illegal Immigration

The overall rate of illegal immigration has actually decreased significantly in the last 10 years. The time is ripe for immigration reform.


October 24 • 6:15 AM

Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.


October 24 • 5:00 AM

Why We Gossip: It’s Really All About Ourselves

New research from the Netherlands finds stories we hear about others help us determine how we’re doing.


October 24 • 2:00 AM

Congratulations, Your City Is Dying!

Don’t take population numbers at face value.


October 23 • 4:00 PM

Of Course Marijuana Addiction Exists

The polarized legalization debate leads to exaggerated claims and denials about pot’s potential harms. The truth lies somewhere in between.


October 23 • 2:00 PM

American Companies Are Getting Way Too Cozy With the National Security Agency

Newly released documents describe “contractual relationships” between the NSA and U.S. companies, as well as undercover operatives.


October 23 • 12:00 PM

The Man Who’s Quantifying New York City

Noah Davis talks to the proprietor of I Quant NY. His methodology: a little something called “addition.”


October 23 • 11:02 AM

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.


October 23 • 10:00 AM

The Psychology of Bribery and Corruption

An FBI agent offered up confidential information about a political operative’s enemy in exchange for cash—and they both got caught. What were they thinking?


October 23 • 8:00 AM

Ebola News Gives Me a Guilty Thrill. Am I Crazy?

What it means to feel a little excited about the prospect of a horrific event.


October 23 • 7:04 AM

Why Don’t Men Read Romance Novels?

A lot of men just don’t read fiction, and if they do, structural misogyny drives them away from the genre.


October 23 • 6:00 AM

Why Do Americans Pray?

It depends on how you ask.


October 23 • 4:00 AM

Musicians Are Better Multitaskers

New research from Canada finds trained musicians more efficiently switch from one mental task to another.


October 22 • 4:00 PM

The Last Thing the Women’s Movement Needs Is a Heroic Male Takeover

Is the United Nations’ #HeForShe campaign helping feminism?


October 22 • 2:00 PM

Turning Public Education Into Private Profits

Baker Mitchell is a politically connected North Carolina businessman who celebrates the power of the free market. Every year, millions of public education dollars flow through Mitchell’s chain of four non-profit charter schools to for-profit companies he controls.


October 22 • 12:00 PM

Will the End of a Tax Loophole Kill Off Irish Business and Force Google and Apple to Pay Up?

U.S. technology giants have constructed international offices in Dublin in order to take advantage of favorable tax policies that are now changing. But Ireland might have enough other draws to keep them there even when costs climb.


October 22 • 10:00 AM

Veterans in the Ivory Tower

Why there aren’t enough veterans at America’s top schools—and what some people are trying to do to change that.


October 22 • 8:00 AM

Our Language Prejudices Don’t Make No Sense

We should embrace the fact that there’s no single recipe for English. Making fun of people for replacing “ask” with “aks,” or for frequently using double negatives just makes you look like the unsophisticated one.


October 22 • 7:04 AM

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.


October 22 • 6:00 AM

How We Form Our Routines

Whether it’s a morning cup of coffee or a glass of warm milk before bed, we all have our habitual processions. The way they become engrained, though, varies from person to person.


Follow us


Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you've (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.