6th Grades’ Organizational Structure Criticized

By Robert Rothman — March 09, 1988 4 min read

The quality of schooling an 11-year-old receives depends to a great extent on which of “the three 6th grades” he or she attends, a forthcoming study concludes.

There is “less consistency” in the way this critical transition year is organized than in any other grade, according to a preliminary draft of the study to be released this week at the annual meeting of the National Association of Secondary School Principals.

“How can three very diverse ways of organization be equally appropriate for kids the same age?” asked John Lounsbury, the study’s author, in an interview last week. “One or another ought to be better.”

Team Approach ‘Exciting’

Currently, 6th grades are organized either in self-contained classrooms, like elementary grades; in a departmentalized structure, like junior and senior high schools; or by using an interdisciplinary “team” approach, said Mr. Lounsbury, a member of nassp’s council on middle-level education, which sponsored the study.

The team approach, which is the most prevalent structure, is, he said, “clearly the most exciting and holds the most potential.”

“Teaming provides a transition that is highly desirable for 6th graders,” Mr. Lounsbury said. “Sixth graders are neither primary-grade students nor high-school students. A teamed approach is likely to give them an appropriate transition between grades, a chance to explore their interests, and opportunities for informal and formal guidance from adults.”

He suggested that an appropriate structure would team two or more instructors, either teaching together or in successive blocks of time.

Other structures, he said, rely too heavily on “seatwork” and too little on individualized instruction. And they often fail to take into account the physical and emotional needs of 11-year-olds.

A Grade ‘in Limbo’

The study, “Life in the Three 6th Grades,” is based on observations of 132 students in 44 states last March 11. The observers, who were primarily teachers and principals, reported their findings to a team of 29 educators, who analyzed them and drew conclusions.

The conclusions are similar to those found in two separate reports on middle schools released last year.

Those reports--issued by the California State Department of Education and two University of Michigan researchers--urged, among other recommendations, a less rigorous classroom structure and more independence for students. (See Education Week, Jan. 28, 1987.)

Such considerations are important in all the middle grades, Mr. Lounsbury said, but they are particularly vital for the 6th grade, which has in recent years often been shifted from the elementary school to the middle school.

“This grade is in limbo, and has not been sufficiently addressed,” his report states, noting that “there have been inklings that all is not well in the 6th grade.”

Mr. Lounsbury, who is a retired teacher educator, said that there was “a danger of assuming 6th grad8ers are like 7th and 8th graders, and treating them the same way.”

“I don’t think we do 6th graders a favor by putting them in structures inappropriate for them,” he said.

The report notes that, in most cases, schools fail to deal with the 11-year-old’s growing sense of identity. Early adolescence is a time when youths are developing independent thoughts and activities, it says, and schools should encourage, rather than restrain this independence.

“Where the programs generallyown,” the report states, “was in the active promotion of opportunities to express personal views, to try out various responses in order to judge peer and adult reactions, to experiment with ideas that involved feelings as well as information.”

“Individualization of instruction, so logical during this period of life, was sadly lacking,” it says, “while whole-class instruction predominated.”

Many teachers did recognize individual differences and offer students individual help, it notes, but these instances seldom occurred in departmentalized class structures.

Growth and Change

Noting that adolescence is “life’s major period of growth and change,” the report also urges schools to take the 6th graders’ physical development into account. In particular, it recommends that schools provide greater opportunities for adolescents to move about.

“Lacking more legitimate occasions for physical activity,” it says, “6th graders cross and uncross their legs constantly; they sit on their knees; they shift their positions every few minutes; they create reasons to get up and move around; they fidget.”

Schools must also acknowledge and deal with 6th graders’ growing sexual maturity, an emphasis the report found lacking in the schools studied.

“With limited exceptions, March 11, 1987, passed without the schools’ providing instruction or discussion on either the physical, social, or moral aspects of sex,” it states. “If this, indeed, is the reality, it must be altered.”

But while it points to needed changes, the report is optimistic in asserting that most schools already possess the resources and attributes to make such reforms possible.

“While lacks and gaps can quickly be identified and a wish list generated by any school,” it says, “the more significant truth is that school improvement is not really held up by money or the things money can buy as much as it is by the attitudes of adults--teachers, administrators, board members, and parents--and by the perpetuation of old assumptions and traditions that are no longer valid.”

The report notes that teachers, with few exceptions, are “conscientious and caring"; that students are generally well satisfied; and that schools “almost always provide adequate physical facilities in which instruction can go on.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 09, 1988 edition of Education Week as 6th Grades’ Organizational Structure Criticized