America’s high schools are the front lines of the battle to prepare every 18-year-old for a successful transition to citizenship in our constitutional republic and employment in our economy. But those leading the fight—the National Governors Association, Bill Gates, and others—would be well advised to expand their area of engagement beyond grades 9-12. The seeds of high school failure are sown in grades 5-8. In far too many cases, it is in America’s middle schools where academic achievement goes to die.
Although the math scores of 13-year-olds on the National Assessment of Educational Progress have risen slightly since 1990, their reading scores have remained flat. Our young adults are reading no better today than when the United States was declared a “nation at risk” in 1983. Indeed, the most disquieting finding from the recent NAEP long-term-trend analysis is that the relatively high achievement of America’s 9-year-olds begins to level off and then plummets in the middle school years. These data are no surprise to countless teachers and parents who readily attest that many contemporary middle schools are places where expectations for high academic attainment and good behavior are often lax and intermittent.
Too many educators argue that little should be expected of middle school students, intellectually or behaviorally, because the storms of early adolescence render high expectations unreasonable. Although its advocates would argue otherwise, this idea is a malady that is part of “the middle school concept.” Its supporters would have us believe that making accommodations for raging hormones should trump high academic expectations. The problem with this argument is that if hormones were in fact the reason academic achievement for preteens declines, then why is it that this is not a global phenomenon? The sad reality is that in this country, by the end of the middle school years, many students are too far behind to pick up the pace and meet rigorous state academic requirements, much less the challenging expectations of laws such as the federal No Child Left Behind Act.
Granted, some schools containing the middle grades are showcases of academic excellence. But it is important to point out that there is a profound difference between the middle grades and middle schoolsthat embrace the middle school concept. The former have high behavioral and academic expectations; the latter often treat nonacademic endeavors, such as identity development and social-skills training, as the priority.
Advocates of the middle school concept will tell you that their approach will work, but, as with most educational fads, “only when it is properly and fully implemented.” The middle school concept has had more than 20 years to show its stuff, and the American public has lost patience. It’s time to face the truth: This approach is not working.
The times appear to be changing, however. Renewed focus on accountability and achievement in recent years has led to a swelling chorus of parents’ and educators’ voices calling for advocates of the middle school concept to wave the white flag, surrender peacefully, and go home. Take, for example, legislation proposed by Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida to make middle school more like high school by requiring students in grades 6-8 to earn at least 12 academic credits for promotion to high school.
The key to renewing middle-grades education is to treat the middle years as a time for learning, rather than a period of personal adjustment.
Some districts have decided that the best way to eradicate the middle school concept is to eliminate middle schools altogether, returning to a K-8 model of education. In Philadelphia, Milwaukee, and Baltimore, one can find examples of K-8 schools accomplishing great things with middle-grades students. But the key to renewing middle-grades education in the United States is much larger than an issue of configuration.
The key is to treat education in the middle years as education, rather than merely a period of personal adjustment. That means rigorous academic standards, a coherent curriculum, high expectations, effective instruction, strong leadership, results-based accountability, and sound discipline. This formula is already showing signs of success in the primary grades and at middle schools such as the KIPP (for Knowledge Is Power Program) academies.
Middle schools that resist common-sense reforms and fail to provide a safe and academically rigorous environment will find fewer and fewer parents willing to trust them with their children’s education. This is the age of accountability in education, and organizational structures that continue to rely on the middle school concept and fail to emphasize academic achievement and sound discipline are destined for marginalization, if not extinction. To policymakers and educators standing bedside while the health of the middle school concept declines, I offer this advice: Do not resuscitate. We owe our children so much more.