Lost In The Middle

March 01, 1995 7 min read

Students like Newaye could simply be an exception to the rule. But, to a number of researchers who study early adolescence, he could also be something more: He could be living proof that the academic blahs associated with this difficult age group are not inevitable.

“I remember reading articles in the ‘60s, and the authors just assumed this was a function of puberty,’' says Carol Midgly, a research scientist at the University of Michigan’s Leadership in Learning Laboratory. “We now know this isn’t true.’' More important, she adds, schools can help make the difference.

In the 1980s, the late Roberta Simmons, a professor of psychiatry and sociology at the University of Pittsburgh, conducted one of the seminal studies on the declining academic motivation of adolescents. She and her colleagues followed a group of children as they moved from 6th to 7th grade. Some of the children stayed in a K-8 elementary school, while others moved to a traditional junior high school.

Simmons found that girls, especially those who had matured early and had started dating, experienced a decline in self-esteem when they moved to the new junior high. Girls who stayed in K-8 schools, however, did not. That--along with her other studies--led her to conclude that the move to junior high school, which comes as children are undergoing major pubertal changes, may be ill-timed.

Since then, a number of researchers have taken her findings several steps further. They’ve found that boys as well as girls develop negative attitudes toward school in adolescence and that it has to do with the transition of moving from elementary school to junior high or middle school. (The typical junior high encompasses grades 7-9, while middle schools generally include grades 6-8.)

Looking at data from 25,000 students who participated in the National Education Longitudinal Study, Midgly and fellow University of Michigan researcher Jacquelynne Eccles found that the organizational and instructional practices of schools early adolescents attend are similar. Even though middle schools were originally designed to be different from the traditional junior high, the majority of both kinds of schools are larger, less personal, and more formal than elementary schools.

As Eccles pointed out in a 1993 article in The Elementary School Journal, “Middle grade teachers are often subject-matter specialists and typically instruct a much larger number of students than do elementary teachers in self-contained classrooms, making it less likely they will come to know students well and to grant them autonomy.’' In general, she says, these teachers place more emphasis on discipline and control in their classrooms and feel less effective in their work than their elementary school colleagues.

What’s more, students in middle grade schools are often grouped by academic ability, and their work tends to be evaluated in more public ways. Some evidence even suggests that students’ work at this level is at a lower cognitive level than during their final years of elementary school.

All of this suggests, Eccles and Midgly say, that there is a mismatch between the unique developmental needs of early adolescents and the junior high and middle school environments. At a time when they yearn for independence, adolescents find themselves in classrooms where teachers are exerting ever stricter control. As they become capable of more sophisticated thinking, their teachers give them low-level cognitive work. And, during a period when they are painfully self-conscious, they are publicly compared with their classmates.

Other psychologists have found that as children reach adolescence, their view of what it takes to be smart also changes. They begin to see academic ability as an inborn trait rather than the product of hard work. Thus, to try at something and fail means you’re “dumb’'; effort takes on greater risk.

Given all of that, the researchers say, it’s not surprising that students seem to lose their motivation in their middle years of schooling. They suggest a number of ways to head off this decline: Middle grade schools should be small and not so bureaucratic, put less emphasis on singling out students according to their academic ability, and offer challenging schoolwork.

Consider Newaye Daniel. Although his middle school is much larger than the elementary school he attended, it is organized into small teams within each grade, and Newaye goes to classes with other students from his team. Students are also grouped heterogeneously for most classes. Newaye says he finds his classwork more challenging than he did in elementary school.

Some reformers argue that simply reorganizing middle grade schools is not enough. Middle school teachers and administrators, they assert, also need to find better ways to motivate students. “Middle schools are a lot more ability-focused than elementary schools,’' says Eric Anderman, an assistant professor of education and counseling at the University of Kentucky. “School reform efforts need to pay a lot more attention to motivation.’'

In early adolescence, friendships become more intimate and cliques more noticeable. “You hear parents say, ‘My adolescent would probably be more motivated if he or she had different friends,’ '' says Thomas Berndt, a professor of psychological science at Purdue University. But his research suggests that this fear may be exaggerated.

Berndt paired each of 118 8th graders with a close friend. The friends were then separately asked to respond to a number of hypothetical scenarios, which required them to decide between two actions that reflected different levels of achievement motivation. Students were asked, for example, what they would do if they bought tickets for a big rock concert only to find that it was the night before a difficult exam. The pairs were then brought together to discuss their decisions. While student responses predictably became more like each other when friends were present, Berndt says, they did not shift to opposite extremes. Moreover, friends tended to influence each other in more positive--not more negative--directions.

Some research hints that the behavior of parents may also contribute to the middle grade slump. Studies show, for example, that parental participation in school falls off significantly after the elementary grades and stays low thereafter.

“Middle school is a critical point,’' argues Joyce Epstein, co-director of the Center on Families, Communities, Schools, and Children’s Learning at Johns Hopkins University. “If schools don’t have strong programs that carry families along, they lose that involvement in a number of ways.’' Only about 40 percent of middle grade schools have such programs in place, she says. “When families are better informed, involved, and engaged, the schools report better attendance,’' she explains. “Even in inner cities, there are strong correlations tying family involvement to good attitudes about schools.’' Such attitudes, she adds, must “come before we would see a direct achievement change; they are prerequisites.’'

In a national study conducted in 1990, Epstein pinpointed several other practices that she attributes to middle school success: weekly advisory groups that increase student contact with caring adults, extra subject periods set aside for remedial instruction, and grading students on their progress as well as on their performance. “If you tell a youngster, ‘You’re getting a D relative to other students but an A for effort,’ that’s not a good message,’' Epstein says. “Progress grades tell you, ‘You have a D relative to other students, but the teacher and the school are paying attention to you in a way that lets us know and you know that you are making progress.’ ''

All these findings and others have helped fuel the middle school reform movement, an effort that gained national momentum in 1989, following the release of Turning Points: Preparing American Youth for the 21st Century, the landmark report by the Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development. Since then, at least three foundations--the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Eli Lilly Endowment, and the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation--have funded large-scale, multiyear efforts to bring about changes in middle grade education.

But apart from the schools and states involved in these programs, it is difficult to say how widespread or firmly rooted this movement has become. Indeed, Epstein’s 1990 survey suggests that most schools have a long way to go.

--Debra Viadero

A version of this article appeared in the March 01, 1995 edition of Teacher as Lost In The Middle