Thursday, December 8, 2011

Middle Schools: Educating Our Pre-Teens

I was a good student in elementary school.  I didn't have to work hard at it, I just was.  I attended a very small elementary school, and I was fairly popular.  I was comfortable in my elementary school.  I knew who I was, who my friends were, what was going on, and, most importantly, where I was going.

I started middle school in sixth grade.  Suddenly, all of my good friends were ripped away from me and sent to other teams, I was moved to a school with about 1200 other students, assigned a locker, and given a schedule that included changing classes in crowded hallways.  I was devastated.  And I hated the book that we were reading in my reading class (still do, actually).  When grades for my first six weeks as a middle schooler were recorded, my usual A's and B's were replaced with C's, D's, and (gasp) a U.

For those of you unfamiliar with modern-day grade reporting, a U stands for "unsatisfactory" and is the PC way of saying "F".  You find it most commonly in elementary and middle schools.

My mom recognized immediately that there was a problem and we had a heart-to-heart.  From then on, my grades improved generally, but I never did quite get back what I had all ready lost in math.  I have struggled with math off and on since then.

Why do I share this information with you?  A journal article by Guido Schwerdt and Martin West, both of Harvard University, was published this past September.  The article is entitled "The Impact of Alternative Grade Configurations on Student Outcomes through Middle and High School".  In short, what does it mean to your child's long-term educational growth by moving them into middle school in sixth grade versus moving them into middle school at another time or not at all?

Most people in my generation who have attended a public school have probably attended the most popular school model in the United States:  K-5, 6-8, and 9-12.  Students of my parent's generation overwhelmingly attended schools based on the junior high model.  My husband attended a private parochial school so he skipped middle school altogether as his school was a K-8 school.  

Early in American education, most school districts had a single K-8 elementary school and a 9-12 high school.  As more and more parents began sending their children to school, though, many school districts responded by creating junior high schools to accommodate grades 7-9.  It was an interesting experiment in American education, supporters arguing that a junior high school could prepare students for the rigors of high school while maintaining separation from older students.  This, of course, was at a time in American education when a high school diploma was a big deal, and enrollment at American colleges and universities was no where near what it is today.

In the 1960's, however, a reformist group began arguing that students as young as sixth grade (or, in some cases, fifth) had special social, academic, and psychological needs that necessitated separate schooling.  Thus, the junior high was replaced by the middle school, and the middle school model has been the prevailing educational model for going on sixty years now.

But how effective is it?  This was the question that Schwerdt and West sought to investigate, and their results more or less confirm what high school teachers have suspected for a long time.

  • Students who attend a K-5 elementary school, have greater statistical gains in math and reading prior to entering middle school compared to their peers who attend K-6, K-8, and K-12 schools.
  • However, when those students enter middle school in sixth grade, their math and reading scores drop and this loss follows them through the first two years of high school.
  • Students who attend a K-6 elementary school show a similar pattern when they enter seventh grade.
  • K-8 students do not show the initial statistical gain that their K-5 peers do, but they tend to overtake and surpass their peers by the eighth grade.
  • The sharpest decrease in scores is found in schools located in urban areas (as opposed to suburban or rural areas).  This is not a surprise, but it is probably more closely linked to socioeconomic issues, and less with the transition into middle school. 
My oldest child is three and a-half, and, even though middle school is years away, thinking about sending him to middle school makes me somewhat panicky.  Partially because I remember how miserable my own middle school experience was, but partially because I've always wondered why school districts thought it was a good idea to cram a bunch of pre-adolescent lunatics into one school together.  Between the hormonal changes taking place, the social upheaval, and the shift in organization and structure, it's no wonder that so many middle school students struggle.  Additionally, more and more policies are making it difficult for middle school teachers to retain those students who truly need it, and middle schoolers are smarter than we give them credit for.  They learn quickly that they can simply not do the work and they will be passed on anyway.  This is what harms them the most when they transition to high school, and it creates behavior problems.

So, what can we do?  As a parent, you obviously need to make the best choice for your family and your budget.  Some students move on to middle school and do exceptionally well.  Your child might be one of those.  This research seems to suggest that there is absolutely no benefit to transitioning a sixth grader into middle school.  If this scares you, then look at your school district's options for charter schools, some of which are K-8.  You might also request to send your child to another elementary school in the district that is a  K-8 school.  This will probably mean that you have to take your child to school yourself, but that might be a small price to pay.  If you can afford it, most private elementary schools are K-8 and may also be a valid option.  

But what if the only option for you is a traditional 6-8 middle school?  It is tempting as a parent to breathe a sigh of relief when our children graduate elementary school and relax ourselves and our interest in school.  After all, by the time they hit middle school, most of them are 11/12 years old; they've been at this school thing for going on seven years.  But I think that the reality is that middle school is the time when our kids need us to be the most involved.  They'll hate you for it, I promise, but I'm not advocating that you become a helicopter parent--just an involved parent.  Join the PTA, chaperone middle school dances or field trips, let your child know that you know what's going on.

As for school districts, maybe it's time we revisited the K-8 model.  Or, at the very least, admitted to ourselves that middle schoolers need more supervision and structure than we like to think they do, and transitioning them more slowly might be the better option if we absolutely must stick with this middle school model.  I don't feel that most 11-year-olds are emotionally equipped to handle the social pressures associated with middle school in addition to the structural and organizational changes that come with it.

It also wouldn't hurt to hire more male middle school teachers.  Pre-teen boys are hitting adolescence and they need good male role models around them.  Sadly, many of them don't have one at home.

Let's do our best to ensure that our children have a better middle school experience than we did.

If you want to read the full-text of "The Impact of Alternative Grade Configurations on Student Outcomes through Middle and High School", you can read it here:  It's a little math heavy, but there are tons of figures, and the authors do a pretty good job of explaining their results and examining their methods.


  1. I think the worst thing for me in middle school was the bullying. My situation was a little unique in that I was a part of the last 6th grade class to graduate from my elementary school. We were sufficiently prepared in elementary school for the scheduling differences. We had started changing classes in 5th grade. What I wasn't prepared for were the social changes. Most of my friends ended up in another group than I did and my mom couldn't get me changed over. My other friends quickly dumped me for more socially advantageous peers. I was picked on mercilously to the point where I started writing about killing myself at the age of 12. I was miserable. My teachers wouldn't help. They mostly thought I should toughen up. In fact, one took that attitude to the extreme and actually started participating in the bullying herself. I couldn't physically escape my situation, so I found my escape in my schoolwork. I was a bad to mediocre elementary school student and I learned to excel at everything except math and gym (my weakest subjects anyway). It helped a lot because I found something to be proud of about myself. Of course, I probably missed out on some help because kids that have good grades are always thought to be doing well in all other respects as well. That's what would scare me if I were a parent- unseen bullying. I think it's at it's worst in middle school because the students are all at the same development stage but they are isolated so there's no pressure on them to set the example for younger peers and there's no one there to set the example for them. All in all, I have a low opinion of middle school. I would have done better in a K-8 environment, I think. It would have also helped to have had my mom more involved. I agree with the whole keeping up parent involvement levels. Mom did what she could, but the whole single parent thing really limited her ability to advocate for me in that instance... Ah well. Water that's long since passed under the bridge. It would be nice, though, if school districts would revisit the concept. More work is needed there. The good news is there's so much room for improvement that even small changes might be able to make a big impact...

  2. I seriously have zero good memories of middle school until 8th grade. Seventh grade was certainly better than sixth grade, but sixth grade was just the absolute pits. I wound up with just a handful of my elementary school classmates on my team, and none of them were what I would call "close" friends. But there were lots of other kids whose friends were all on the same team with me, and it wasn't like I was going to infiltrate their ranks. Chorus was the bright spot of my day, and I was good at it. If it hadn't been for that I don't know what I would have done. But how many kids don't find an outlet or find a way to channel that frustration and fear? I was fortunate enough to gather enough acquaintances in each of my classes (except math) to keep myself sane. I only talk to one of those people now. I would like to say that it always seemed like the popular kids had it easy (the cheerleaders, the basketball players, etc.), but I suspect that if you went back and talked to them now their experience would be just as bad as ours was. Since then, I've encountered lots of friends who I thought were doing fine, but were actually getting picked on and bullied as much as I was (comparatively, my bullying was mild and short-lived). Hopefully, now with the big push to tackle bullying in schools we'll see a turn-around.