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September 8th, 2011
01:12 PM ET

Middle school: Time to move off the island?

Dave Schechter
Senior National Editor

Middle school (fill in the blank and mind your language).

Do you remember anything good about middle school (or “junior” high school, as it was known where I grew up) or was it just an awkward time in your life that you would never want to revisit?

What’s wrong with middle school? Plenty, it seems. The boys and girls are hormonal, parents wonder whether aliens have entered the bodies of their precious offspring and teachers are stressed trying to help these kids cross the academic bridge from elementary to high school.

Who is best-suited to teach this set? Diane Ross, a middle-school teacher for 17 years and for 13 more a teacher of education courses for licensure in Ohio, offered this assessment: “If you are the warm, nurturing, motherly, grandmotherly type, you are made for early childhood education. If you love math or science or English, then you are the high school type. If you love bungee jumping, then you are the middle school type.”

Ross' comment was one of several quotable lines in an EducationNext article titled “The Middle School Mess.” In his analysis of the history and future of middle schools, Peter Meyer wrote: “By all accounts, middle schools are a weak link in the chain of public education. Is it the churn of ill-conceived attempts at reform that’s causing all the problems? Is it just hormones? Or is it the way in which we configure our grades? For most of the last 30 years, districts have opted to put “tweens” in a separate place, away from little tots and apart from the big kids. Middle schools typically serve grades 5–8 or 6–8. But do our quasi-mad preadolescents belong on an island—think Lord of the Flies—or in a big family, where even raging hormones can be mitigated by elders and self-esteem bolstered by little ones?”

Meyer, a senior visiting fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, pointed to research supporting the proposition that when 11- to 13-year-olds are educated separately, both their behavior and learning suffer. Having recently attended curriculum night at my 7th grader’s school, which covers grades 6-8, these issues feel particularly relevant.

Meyer also noted the relatively recent reversal of a decades-long trend. The number of middle schools peaked in 2005 at more than 9,000 and has been on the decline. By one estimate, the number of “elemiddle” schools, blending elementary and middle school grades together, has nearly doubled over a decade. Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Cincinnati, Baltimore and Tulsa are among the larger districts that have converted middle schools to K-8 or given the idea serious consideration.

Irvin Howard, a professor at California State University-San Bernardino and director of the California Schools to Watch Program, which promotes excellence by middle schools, is an advocate for middle schools. He cautioned a few years ago that K-8 schools are not a panacea: "Kids who feel isolated and who are not being treated as young adults because they are kept in elementary school may look for an outlet. And gangs may be that outlet. Going K-8 is not necessarily the answer. . . Furthermore, very few elementary schools are equipped to handle the issues of students between the ages of 11 and 14. They tend to baby them and treat their issues as insignificant. But they are big issues, including identity, responsibility and self-esteem. Sexuality is also an issue." Middle school, Howard said, also teaches kids how to get along with others of different backgrounds. "If they stay in the same neighborhood elementary school, that doesn't happen, and they lose socialization opportunities.”

“Time to can middle schools” was the headline The New York Post last month placed atop a Michael Benjamin column that asserted: “We should simply eliminate the city’s regular public middle schools: They do more harm than good.”

“Several studies pinpoint the middle-school years as the source of the racial “achievement gap.” For example, Columbia University researchers tracking children over time found that minority students do comparatively well in elementary school - yet the same group begins to fall behind once it enters middle school. . . . For various reasons, all students’ achievement decreases in the middle-school years - but that decline seems accelerated among those attending public middle school in New York City,” Benjamin wrote.

Benjamin goes on to this jibe: “If this doesn’t improve, the Chinese, who are investing in New York, may have to import Chinese workers to make their investments pay off. It’s time to lose the whole middle school concept.”

What do you think, is it time to move middle-schoolers off their island?

Filed under: CNN Newsroom
soundoff (21 Responses)
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  2. Bill Betzen

    Yes, it is time to close middle schools and create neighborhood centered K-8 elementary schools that are also better equipped to handle young adolescents than the k-8 schools of the 1950's. The value of relatiohships long term is proven with dropout statistics that verify dropouts are those students without such relationships. K-8 would increase such relationships. K-8 returns more stability to a child's life, especially in today's world. Finland with the highest achieving students in the world has no middle schools apart from their elementary schools, called basic schools there. Most students have the same teacher from 1st through 6th grade and then subject specific teachers in the same school until they tranfer out in 10th grade. The research showing the value of K-8 is growing, and middle schools are 1,000 fewer than existed in the US 10 years ago.

    February 15, 2012 at 11:18 am |
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    actually, we tax payres don't spend much money paying the Board for their work. They are volunteers for the most part. Seriously, in the end there may be for some Board members an ulterior motive for joining the Board, but while they are there they do not take much of your money away YET. Until they are salaried members of the Government, as proposed by the Board of Supervisors, I don't think you can complain about the time they have spent on this project. The ultimate goal is to improve the schools. We have many more kids enrolling in kinder this year. I was surprised to see that my child's school has 23 extra kids this year, and very few other schools were less enrolled this coming school year. How easy is it for a group of people to focus on this work when it is not their full time job? I think this is part of the problem.

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