School Climate & Safety

Detachment Starts in Middle School, Study Finds

By Lynn Olson — May 29, 2002 4 min read
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Teenagers’ disengagement from school starts as early as middle school, a study released at the Brookings Institution asserts.

“Something important happens between 7th and 9th grade that adversely affects many students,” said Laurence Steinberg, a psychology professor at Temple University in Philadelphia, during a conference on the American high school held here this month at the public-policy think tank. (“Research Underscores Need for Tough Courses,” May 22, 2002.)

Mr. Steinberg based his conclusions on data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, or AddHealth. The data, collected in the middle to late 1990s, come from a nationally representative sample of about 12,000 students in grades 7-12.

The researcher found, for example, that the proportion of students who reported that they had trouble paying attention in class at least once each week increased from 20 percent among 7th graders to 33 percent among 9th graders.

The Brookings Institution plans to publish the paper early next year. More information is available at www.brookings.edu

About three-fourths of the 7th graders said they felt close to people at school, compared with only two-thirds of 9th graders. Nearly 85 percent of 7th graders said they felt a part of their schools, compared with 75 percent of 9th graders.

Similarly, 60 percent of 7th graders said they believed their teachers cared about them, but only 45 percent of 9th graders felt that way. Meanwhile, the proportion of students who said their teachers didn’t care about them increased by 50 percent from the 7th to the 9th grades.

Mr. Steinberg noted that the survey did not include students who dropped out by grade 9. If it had, he speculated, the gap between 7th and 9th graders would likely have been even larger.

“I do not think that this simply reflects a general tendency for students to disengage from school as they get older,” said the psychologist, “because one does not see a similar drop-off after 9th grade.”

Rather, he suggested, “it has something to do with the nature of junior high schools or middle schools, or with the lack of fit between the way these institutions are structured and the developmental needs of young teenagers.”

Mutual Dislike

Moreover, Mr. Steinberg added, “schools seem to dislike young adolescents nearly as much as young adolescents dislike school.”

Nearly two-thirds of all suspensions among students in the sample took place in grades 7-9. Students were also more likely to be expelled from school during those grades.

The results echo many of the findings in Beyond the Classroom: Why School Reform Has Failed and What Parents Need to Do, a 1996 book by Mr. Steinberg and his colleagues. (“Teen Culture Seen Impeding School Reform,” June 5, 1996.)

That book argued that many students are disengaged from school, in part, because of a teenage culture that frowns on school success. The new study suggests those problems start even earlier in students’ careers.

The analysis also found that despite alcohol-, drug-, and violence-prevention programs in school, half of all the 7th to 12th graders surveyed reported drinking alcohol at least once monthly, nearly 30 percent had smoked marijuana, and nearly 20 percent of urban students had seen someone shot or stabbed during the year prior to the survey.

Although 85 percent of the students had taken classes on sex and pregnancy, one-third had experienced sexual intercourse before the end of 9th grade, and more than two-thirds by the time they graduated from high school.

Talking With Parents

Beyond the Classroom estimated that as many as one-third of parents were insufficiently involved in their teenagers’ lives or schooling. According to the AddHealth data, two-thirds of the adolescents had talked about their grades or schoolwork with their parents during the previous month, and half had talked with their parents about some other aspect of school.

The survey also asked questions of a subset of parents. One-fourth of all parents reported that they had not spoken to any of their child’s teachers in the past year. And fewer than one-third had volunteered at their child’s school in any capacity.

As in Mr. Steinberg’s previous research, a majority of teenagers surveyed worked for pay, with the average senior employed 21 hours a week. Similar to his earlier study, Mr. Steinberg found a significant negative relationship between hours of employment and school achievement.

“I’m not sure what we can do about these problems,” Mr. Steinberg concludes in a draft paper presented at the Brookings meeting. “But I am pretty sure that whatever we have been doing isn’t working. It seems to me, as someone who is several steps removed from educational policymaking, that we are still tinkering at the edges and ignoring a very large elephant that is sitting in the classroom, and that elephant is the broader cultural context of schooling in America.”

What’s needed, he suggested, is a broader policy focused on adolescents, not secondary education.

A version of this article appeared in the May 29, 2002 edition of Education Week as Detachment Starts in Middle School, Study Finds


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