Opinion
School & District Management Opinion

Mayhem in the Middle

By Cheri Pierson Yecke — January 31, 2006 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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.

BRIC ARCHIVE

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.

Related Tags:

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Webinar
Stronger Together: Integrating Social and Emotional Supports in an Equity-Based MTSS
Decades of research have shown that when schools implement evidence-based social and emotional supports and programming, academic achievement increases. The impact of these supports – particularly for students of color, students from low-income communities, English
Content provided by Illuminate Education
Classroom Technology Webinar Building Better Blended Learning in K-12 Schools
The pandemic and the increasing use of technology in K-12 education it prompted has added renewed energy to the blended learning movement as most students are now learning in school buildings (and will likely continue
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Webinar
A Whole Child Approach to Supporting Positive Student Behavior 
To improve student behavior, it’s important to look at the root causes. Social-emotional learning may play a preventative role.

A whole child approach can proactively support positive student behaviors.

Join this webinar to learn how.
Content provided by Panorama

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School & District Management Many Principals Say They Want to Quit. Will They?
More than a quarter of principals surveyed said they plan to leave the profession in two to three years.
3 min read
Image of someone balancing happy, sad, and neutral emojis.
Nuthawut Somsuk/iStock/Getty
School & District Management Teaching Unvaccinated Students Separately? This District Will Be the First to Try It
An in-person program for unvaccinated kids honors families' choice, says the superintendent. Legal experts say it would violate state law.
6 min read
Anti-vaccine mandate protesters rally outside the garage doors of the Los Angeles Unified School District, LAUSD headquarters in Los Angeles on Sept. 9, 2021. The Los Angeles board of education voted to require students 12 and older to be vaccinated against the coronavirus to attend in-person classes in the nation's second-largest school district.
Protesters rally against a COVID vaccine mandate for students outside the headquarters of Los Angeles Unified school district in September. Statewide, a COVID-19 vaccinate mandate for school attendance will begin to take effect for all of California's school districts in July.
Damian Dovarganes/AP
School & District Management Principals of Color Are Scarce. Here's What Districts Are Doing About It
More than three-quarters of principals are white, though more than half of students are nonwhite. Here are some approaches to change that.
17 min read
Leslie Alexander, right, talks with North Forsyth High School Assistant Principal of Instruction La Quisha Linder about what to expect while interviewing for the Winson-Salem/Forsyth County School District principal talent pool. Alexander is the Area Superintendent of Leadership Development and is working to develop a principal workforce that is representative of the district's demographics.
Leslie Alexander, right, talks with North Forsyth High School Assistant Principal of Instruction La Quisha Linder about what to expect while interviewing for the Winson-Salem/Forsyth County School District principal talent pool. Alexander is the Area Superintendent of Leadership Development and is working to develop a principal workforce that is representative of the district's demographics.
Alex Boerner for Education Week
School & District Management What the Research Says Q&A: How Can High Schools Continue to Improve Now?
The way to do it, says researcher Robert Balfanz, is to dig beneath the averages to find real solutions to schools' thorny problems.
6 min read
Conceptual illustration of students making choices based on guidance.
Viktoria Kurpas/iStock