School & District Management

Report Questions Wisdom Of Separate Middle Schools

By Debra Viadero — March 17, 2004 6 min read

The nation’s middle schools have far to go to dispel their reputations as an educational “Bermuda Triangle,” a report released last week by a prestigious think tank suggests. Researchers from the rand Corp. portray the middle school years, typically spanning grades 6-8, as a time when American adolescents feel unsafe, socially isolated, and academically unchallenged.

What’s more, the report questions whether students teetering at the brink of adolescence should be in separate schools at all during such a critical, emotionally turbulent stage in their lives.

“It turns out the onset of puberty is really a bad reason to try to move kids to another structure and to another school altogether,” said the report’s primary author, Jaana Juvonen. “Middle schools, intermediate schools, and junior highs became the norm more because of social and demographic reasons, and not so much because of any empirical basis for their existence.”

Read the full report “Focus on the Wonder Years: Challenges Facing the American Middle School,” from RAND. A summary is also available. (Requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.)

The report comes at a critical juncture for the three-decade-old effort to improve middle-grades education. Long a sideline to mainstream educational policy in the United States, the middle school reform movement has been running on support from four large foundations. All four benefactors, however, have bowed out of the middle school business over the past few years. (“Work Partly Accomplished, Benefactors Exit Middle Grades,” May 21, 2003.)

Last week’s report, in fact, was commissioned two years ago by one of those philanthropies, the New York City-based Edna McConnell Clark Foundation. The study was an effort to take stock of the nation’s middle schools and document some of what was learned as a result of those foundation efforts.

Work Undone

The report by the RAND Corp., based in Santa Monica, Calif., does indeed point to some signs of progress in middle schools since the late 1970s. The scores of 13-year-olds on national reading, science, and mathematics tests have improved, for instance, and the test-score gaps between black and white students have narrowed, if slightly. And experts have come up with promising middle school practices and comprehensive improvement programs geared to that age group.

See Also...

See the accompanying chart, “Not Happy Places to Be.”

Still, the authors write, much remains undone. Even though middle schools themselves have become ubiquitous, the practices that are supposed to go hand in hand with the philosophy have not. Many middle schools do not provide common planning times so that teachers can undertake interdisciplinary team-teaching, for example, nor do they offer advisory programs or flexible class schedules.

In addition, surveys suggest that only 12 percent to 25 percent of teachers have specialized training in middle- grades education. And international statistics show that, even though American students start out on an equal footing with their counterparts in other countries, they start to lag behind by middle school.

Drawing on 20 years of research in the field, as well as some new international data, the RAND study offers half a dozen recommendations for improving middle-years schooling, including a call for more research to find strategies that work best for those students.

The recommendation that is getting all the attention, though, is the report’s call to reconsider stand-alone middle schools.

It comes as school systems in Baltimore, Cincinnati, New York City, and Philadelphia have begun returning to traditional, K-8 schools. Experts believe more districts may follow suit.

But advocates for middle schools, such as the National Forum to Accelerate Middle Grades Reform and the National Middle School Association, say that just changing a school’s grade configuration is no magic bullet for improvement.

“If you’re not addressing what happens in the classroom, it really doesn’t make a difference what grade configuration you have,” said Michael J. Dietz, a Mequon, Wis., middle school principal who sits on the middle school association’s executive board. “You have to have programs that are both academically rigorous and developmentally appropriate.”

While they might not warm to the study’s call for more alternatives to separate middle schools, experts said the report, nonetheless, sounds important alarms about the stress adolescents in this country may be facing at a critical period in their lives.

“Folks have been aware, in achievement terms, that what happens in the middle grades is disappointing,” said Douglas J. MacIver, a principal research scientist at Johns Hopkins University’s Center for the Social Organization of Schools. “But I don’t think they realized how stressed middle school students are, or how suboptimal the learning climate is for some students.”

Sad and Lonely

The RAND researchers’ findings on students’ emotional states come from surveys of 33,000 students taken by the World Health Organization in 1997 and 1998, as well as data collected during the Third International Mathematics and Science Study.

The statistics show that, compared with their peers in 11 other developed nations, American students rank last or near last on measures designed to assess their emotional health, whether they felt school was a pleasant place, and whether they considered their classmates to be kind and helpful. On that last question, only students in the Czech Republic viewed their classmates more negatively.

The U.S. students fare slightly better on a measure gauging their sense of social isolation. On that scale, they outscored students in Latvia, Israel, and Lithuania, who reported feeling left out, lonely, helpless, or bullied in school more than American students did.

American students ranked closer to the middle of the pack, though, on questions gauging the level of teacher support and parental involvement they perceived in their schools.

The researchers could offer no clues, however, to explain why U.S. students gave their schools and peers such low marks.

“What this conveyed to us was the need to better understand the global picture in terms of how other countries are educating their young teens,” said Ms. Juvonen, an adjunct behavioral scientist at RAND and a developmental psychologist at the University of California, Los Angeles. “It seems the reform effort has been pretty ethnocentric.”

To some degree, middle school principals echo such findings. In surveys cited in the report, they said they spent more time than they liked dealing with student-discipline problems and parent complaints and too little time on improving teacher quality and training. Such constraints prevent principals from becoming the kinds of instructional leaders their schools need, according to the study.

It’s a situation with which Patti A. Kinney, the principal of a 700-student middle school in Talent, Ore., can identify. Because of budget cuts, her school lost its assistant principal last year.

“I find myself operating more in the management mode more often than I would like,” she said. “Are middle school practices all implemented the very best they can be? No. We’re all human, and we all have budget constraints.”

“But if we see problems with something, let’s work to fix it,” she added. “Let’s not give it up.”

With the federal No Child Left Behind Act emphasizing test-score improvements, the researchers fear that students’ social and developmental needs could begin to take even more of a back seat.

“Given the tight budgets and having to have every single penny go to reading or math doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t have school counselors available at a time when kids really need them,” Ms. Juvonen said.

The study points to promising programs to “fix” middle schools. One is the Talent Development Middle School model that Mr. MacIver helped develop at Johns Hopkins. Used in 24 schools nationwide, the program employs curricula, technical assistance, and other forms of support to improve middle school learning.

Others cited include Different Ways of Knowing, the Turning Points Transforming Middle Schools Model, Making Middle Grades Work, Middle Start Initiative, and AIM at Middle Grades Results.

“It’s a good start,” Ms. Juvonen said. “We just have to do more and we have to do it better.”

Coverage of research is underwritten in part by a grant from the Spencer Foundation.

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