The Middle School Mess

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If you love bungee jumping, you’re the middle school type


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Winter 2011 / Vol. 11, No. 1

Video: Peter Meyer talks with students and teachers about the problem with middle schools.

“Caught in the hurricane of hormones,” the Toronto Star began a 2008 story about students in the Canadian capital’s middle schools. Suspended “between childhood and the adult world, pre-teens have been called the toughest to teach.”

“The Bermuda triangle of education,” former Louisiana superintendent Cecil Picard once termed middle schools. “Hormones are flying all over the place.”

Indeed, you can’t touch middle school without hearing about “raging hormones.”

Says Diane Ross, a middle-school teacher for 17 years and for 13 more a teacher of education courses for licensure in Ohio, “If you are the warm, nurturing, motherly, grandmotherly type, you are made for early childhood education. If you love math or science or English, then you are the high school type. If you love bungee jumping, then you are the middle school type.”

Even in professional journals you catch the drift of “middle-school madness.” Mayhem in the Middle was a particularly provocative study by Cheri Pierson Yecke published by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute in 2005. American middle schools have become the places “where academic achievement goes to die,” wrote Yecke.

Hyperbole? Or sad reality? Sometime last year, while walking the hallway of my school district’s middle school, I was pulled aside by one of our veteran teachers, who seemed agitated. I was more than happy to chat. I had known this teacher for years. Let’s call her Miss Devoted: she is dedicated and hardworking, respected by her peers, liked by parents and teachers, one of those “good” teachers that parents lobby to have their children assigned to.

I mentioned that I was coming from a meeting with the literacy consultant, who had shown me her improvement strategy on a fold-out sheet with red arrows and circles that, I said, “looked like battle plans for the invasion of Normandy.”

Miss Devoted rolled her eyes. “I understand,” she said. “The progressives keep doing the same thing over and over, just calling it by different names.

“All I’m doing is going to meetings, filling out forms, getting training. My kids are struggling with substitute teachers.”

Here was a bright and talented teacher in a school that had failed to make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP), the infamous benchmark of the equally infamous 2002 No Child Left Behind law, for four consecutive years. That meant that nearly half of the school’s 600 5th, 6th, 7th, and 8th graders were failing to make grade-level in English and in math. Further, only 10 percent of the school’s African American 8th graders (who made up 30 percent of the total) could pass the state’s rudimentary math exams.

Thus, a swarm of state education department consultants had descended on the school.

“Why won’t they just let me teach?” Miss Devoted asked, clearly frustrated.

By all accounts, middle schools are a weak link in the chain of public education. Is it the churn of ill-conceived attempts at reform that’s causing all the problems? Is it just hormones? Or is it the way in which we configure our grades? For most of the last 30 years, districts have opted to put “tweens” in a separate place, away from little tots and apart from the big kids. Middle schools typically serve grades 5–8 or 6–8. But do our quasi-mad preadolescents belong on an island—think Lord of the Flies—or in a big family, where even raging hormones can be mitigated by elders and self-esteem bolstered by little ones?

Parents and educators have begun abandoning the middle school for K–8 configurations, and new research suggests that grade configuration does matter: when this age group is gathered by the hundreds and educated separately, both behavior and learning suffer.

How Middle Schools Came to Be

Notwithstanding all the despairing headlines middle schools seem to provoke, the more interesting story may be how they became, in relatively few years and with hardly any solid research evidence to support the idea, “one of the largest and most comprehensive efforts at educational reorganization in the history of American public schooling,” as middle-school researchers Paul George and Lynn Oldaker put it in 1985.

The core idea is generally traced to a speech given by William Alexander at a conference for school administrators at Cornell University in 1963. At that time, the dominant organizational structure of American schools was K–8 or K–6 and junior high, a two-year “bridge” to high school conceived in the early 20th century. In fact, the conference topic was “The Dynamic Junior High School,” which was then at its peak, with more than 7,000 such schools in the U.S.

Alexander, then chairman of the department of education at George Peabody College for Teachers in Nashville, was assigned the keynote address but he could find no “dynamism.” He struggled over his speech, according to Jessica Hodge in a 1978 profile in Kappa Delta Pi. Thanks to a delayed flight on his way to Cornell, the professor got “the time he needed to outline a new focus and organization for the school ‘between’ the elementary and high school.” That was, as history notes, the middle school. Too many junior highs had merely appended high-school practices on to the 7th and 8th grades, said Alexander, and so the bridge had become simply “a vestibule added at the front door of the high school.” The schools, he suggested, had lost touch with the developmental needs of the preadolescent student.

Alexander told the gathered educators that these young students had their own needs, which were not being met in the junior high, including “more of the freedom of movement,” “more appropriate health and physical education, more chances to participate in planning and managing their own activities, more resources for help on their problems of growing up, and more opportunities to explore new interests and to develop new aspirations.” And he then set out what, given the subsequent battles, was his most dubious claim, that these students needed “exploratory experiences” rather than “greater emphasis [on] the academic subjects.”

Alexander was reacting to that era’s academic scare—Sputnik and its gremlins—and bemoaning the fact that greater emphasis on math, science, and “more homework” meant for many students “less time and energy for the fine arts, for homemaking and industrial arts, and for such special interests as dramatics, journalism, musical performance, scouting, camping, outside jobs, and general reading.”

The Me Generation Meets the Psychological Society

Alexander struck a nerve. “The content of his Cornell address would forever alter the nature of education at the middle level,” concluded Hodge. “Educators and citizens were receptive to creating schools that respond to the needs of young people.”

In a few short years, middle schoolers would go from Growing Up Forgotten, the title of a 1977 report by the Ford Foundation, to being what David Hough, then director of the Institute for School Improvement at Missouri State University and managing editor of the Middle Grades Research Journal, described as “studied, researched, and analyzed with a greater degree of exuberance and sophistication than ever before.”

In the 1960s and 1970s, many social and political institutions began to be viewed through the prism of psychiatry and sociology and so, in schools, through the personal psyches of individual students. Middle schools, brand new, were the blank slates for the child-centered, social-environment pedagogues. And what better population of student to study and nurture than, as education journalist Linda Perlstein puts it, youngsters whose “bodies and psyches morph through the most radical changes since infancy, leaving them torn between anxiety and ardor, dependence and autonomy, conformity and rebellion.”

It was a perfect storm for creating psychosocial-enrichment holding pens for preadolescent children: middle schools.

March of the Mediocracy

“Holding pen” is a harsh phrase, but it is not surprising that it slipped into the middle-school lexicon as the focus on preadolescent emotional development seemed to overwhelm the academics. By 1989, when President George H. W. Bush and the nation’s governors met in Charlottesville, Virginia, for the heralded education summit, that worm was beginning to turn. Academic mediocrity was not a hard case to make, since middle-school proponents had given, at best, lip service to academics almost from the inception of the model.

“I don’t know if it was deliberate or not,” recalls Trish Williams, executive director of EdSource, a California nonprofit, “but I know that when my kids were in middle school, one of the best in California, one of the teachers told me that her job was to just hold them and keep them safe until they get through puberty. So there has been a philosophy in middle school which deemphasized academic outcomes….”

As Hough noted in 1991, their popularity was “linked to programmatic characteristics…not to student outcome measures.”

The editors of Phi Delta Kappan recognized early signs of trouble when they devoted a special issue to middle schools in 1997 and noted an abundance of “observational studies,” but “little quantitative information to satisfy the demands of thoughtful practitioners and policymakers for assessment of those efforts.” They pointed out that what quantitative work there was attested to “the intellectual underdevelopment of too many young adolescents,” noting that only 28 percent of 8th graders nationally scored at or above the “proficient” level in reading in 1994. Indeed, it was beginning to be apparent that middle schools were doing little to help educate children academically.

In the 1995 Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), students who had yet to enter middle school fared better than those who had nearly completed those grades. U.S. 4th graders scored 12th among 26 countries in math while 8th graders ranked 18th. “These statistics about young adolescents’ poor academic performance suggest that many middle-grades schools are failing to enable the majority of their students to achieve at anywhere near adequate levels,” noted the Phi Delta Kappan editors.

Nothing much has changed since then. Scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) show the middle-school lacunae. While U.S. 4th graders increased their NAEP math scale scores by 24 points between 1978 and 2008, 8th graders improved by 17 points during the same period. And while 4th-grade readers improved by 10 points during a similar period, the nation’s 8th graders improved by just 4 points. Middle schools seem to be dampening the modest improvements being made by our primary schools.

Lightning struck when Yecke published her middle-school broadsides, The War Against Excellence (2003) and, two years later, Mayhem in the Middle. Those reports caught the No Child Left Behind wave perfectly, presenting a searing condemnation of middle schools’ failures to educate a large swath of children. “The middle school movement advances the notion that academic achievement should take a back seat to such ends as self-exploration, socialization, and group learning,” says Yecke in Mayhem.

Sure, Some Middle Schools Work

There is no doubt that some middle schools are working. Unfortunately, the answer to the “what works” question is an elusive one. Veteran middle-school educators John Lounsbury and Gordon Vars, for instance, claim that “when the tenets of the [middle school] concept are implemented fully over time, student achievement and development increase markedly.” In a 2003 story for the Middle School Journal, they argue that there is “hard evidence that the middle school does in fact work,” but they don’t supply that evidence. Instead, we are treated to empathetic descriptions of “legions of genuinely good teachers both touching lives and successfully teaching skills and content in hundreds of middle schools” and hear the complaint that “most of the mandated assessments being used to determine students’ attainment of the standards focus heavily on recall of facts, one of the lowest forms of thinking.” Or, “Is it too extreme an exaggeration to suggest that high-stakes testing may be lobotomizing an entire generation of young people?”

Ironically, the middle schools that we know “work” are those that eschew the tenets of middle schoolism. Charter schools like the Young Women’s Leadership School and those operated by the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP), and private networks like the NativityMiguel schools—several dozen of which serve low-income, inner-city students—have proven that proper pedagogy and academic focus can overcome the developmental challenges of preadolescence. A recent study of 22 KIPP middle schools found “significant” gap-closing results in math and reading achievement at about half of the schools. The Mathematica Policy Research report found that, after three years in the schools, students showed gains in math equal to 1.2 years of extra instruction and in reading almost a full extra year of improvement compared to outcomes for students in schools with similar demographics. The “effects are pretty striking and impressive,” Brian Gill of Mathematica told Education Week.

The latest evidence of middle-school potential is a study from EdSource released in February 2010. “Gaining Ground in the Middle Grades: Why Some Schools Do Better” is, says Trish Williams, “the largest study of middle grades education ever conducted.”

Under the guidance of Williams and Michael Kirst, professor emeritus of education and business administration at Stanford University, a group of researchers from EdSource and Stanford looked into the “black box” of middle-school performance to analyze how district and school policies and practices are linked to higher student performance. Controlling for student background, they studied 303 middle schools and compared 200,000 student scores on California’s standardized tests in mathematics and English to responses to school practices surveys provided by 303 principals, 3,752 English and math teachers, and 157 superintendents.

“Our findings were surprising in their consistency,” the report concludes. The 44 higher-performing schools (those with average school-wide math and English test scores a full standard deviation above the mean) “create a shared, school-wide intense focus on the improvement of student outcomes,” it says. Those high-performing schools did things like “set measurable goals on standards based tests and benchmark tests across all proficiency levels, grades, and subjects”; create school missions that were “future oriented,” with curricula and instruction designed to prepare students to succeed in a rigorous high-school curriculum; include improvement of student outcomes “as part of the evaluation of the superintendent, the principal, and the teachers”; and communicate to parents and students “their responsibility as well for student learning, including parent contracts, turning in homework, attending class, and asking for help when needed.”

The EdSource study findings echo many of the principles espoused by successful “no excuses” charter schools like KIPP. But do we really want more middle schools, when only a very small portion of them will have what it takes to succeed?

Grade Configuration May Matter

The trends suggest that grade configuration matters to at least some parents and educators, who decided some time ago that separately configured schools for preadolescents are not the best way to go. Even KIPP, which has primarily served grades 5–8, began in 2006 a strategy of siting its schools in pre-K–12 “clusters.” Of KIPP’s current roster of 99 schools, 60 are stand-alone middle schools; the rest are Pre-K–4 elementary (24) and 9–12 high schools (15). “When we start in fifth grade, we’re starting in the fourth quarter, down by a touchdown, and the two-minute warning has been given,” KIPP co-founder Mike Feinberg was fond of saying about running middle schools. “Every second counts, and there’s no margin for error.” With the new emphasis on clustering, he says, “we’re still down by a touchdown,” but it’s the first quarter.

Though the 6–8 middle school remains the dominant school configuration for the age group (roughly, ages 11 to 14), a countertrend has been building for much of the last decade. How many separate middle schools remain today? The numbers are not easy to pin down. Hough, now dean of the education school at Missouri State, has been tracking middle schools for 20 years and says their numbers peaked in 2005 with just over 9,000 across the United States. And he cites data from the National Center for Education Statistics that puts the number for the 2007–08 school year at 8,500. Hough says that “the trend is definitely away from stand-alone middle schools” and estimates there will be fewer than 7,950 when the 2010 data are in. The number of “elemiddle” schools, the new term for K–8 schools, has jumped from 4,000 nationwide to just under 7,000 in the last 10 years, says Hough. Cleveland has closed all 16 of its middle schools, re-opening most as K–8 schools. Philadelphia has closed 21 of its 46 middle schools since 2002. Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Tennessee, Oklahoma, and Maryland are all rethinking the 5–8 and 6–8 school configurations, says Hough, and cities such as Milwaukee, Cincinnati, Portland (Oregon), and Baltimore have already moved away from 6–8 middle schools.

Veteran New York educator Kathleen Cashin, a regional superintendent in the city’s sprawling system, explained the trend away from middle schools six years ago, before it was a trend, when she told the New York Times that parents “were clamoring” for a return to K–8 schools. “It’s an elementary-like nurturing environment,” she said. “Because children are older doesn’t mean they don’t need that nurturing care of a loving, caring adult. I have found the attendance is better, almost always. The violence is less, the younger kids defuse the older and the academics are at least as good if not better.”

This sums up much of what I heard from parents I spoke with about middle schools, even as some educators remained reluctant to acknowledge the possible importance of grade configuration. Meanwhile, parents are voting with their feet, and reformers can draw on recent research that offers little support for the stand-alone middle-school model.

Researchers Confirm What Parents Know

First, from North Carolina comes evidence that separating middle-school children from the other grades may exacerbate behavioral problems. “Is there a ‘best’ grade configuration for schools that serve early adolescents?” ask researchers Philip Cook, Robert MacCoun, Clara Muschkin, and Jacob Vigdor in a 2008 study in the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management.

The “conventional wisdom” on grade configuration, Cook and colleagues say, “has changed several times over the past century,” as we have seen. To see what impact configuration may be having today, they studied public schools in North Carolina, which has “led the national trend of incorporating sixth grade” into their middle-school program. In 1999–2000, more than 90 percent of the Tar Heel State’s 379 middle schools served grades 6–8. By comparing the grade 6 cohorts that were not in a separate middle school to those that were, the researchers found some remarkable results: “students who attend middle school in sixth grade are twice as likely to be disciplined relative to their counterparts in elementary school.” They found that the behavioral problems of these middle-school 6th graders “persist beyond the sixth grade year” and that “exposing sixth graders to older peers has persistent negative consequences on their academic trajectories.”

The results of the Cook et al. research complement those of Kelly Bedard and Chau Do, whose 2005 study of national data  found that moving 6th graders to middle school resulted in a 1 to 3 percent decline in on-time high-school graduation rates. Bedard and Do conclude that the decrease in graduation rates of middle schoolers is “a surprising result for a program with the stated aim of aiding less able students.” Given the oft-studied economic impacts associated with graduation rates, e.g., lifetime earnings, unemployment, and incarceration rates, “the negative economic implications of less on-time high school completion may be far reaching and multifaceted.”

Perhaps the most telling research about the impact of middle-school grade configuration is a recent study of New York City middle schools by Jonah Rockoff and Benjamin Lockwood (see “Stuck in the Middle,” research, Fall 2010). The Columbia Business School researchers studied the impacts of grade configuration on learning and concluded that “middle schools are not the best way to educate students” in districts like New York City. In fact, they argue that “students who enter public middle schools in New York City fall behind their peers in K–8 schools.” The effects are large, present for both math and English, and evident for girls as well as boys. And perhaps most troubling, “students with lower initial levels of academic achievement fare especially poorly in middle school.”

Like the Cook research on behavior, the Rockoff and Lockwood study finds that the negative achievement effect on children who moved into middle school “persists at least through 8th grade, the highest grade for which we could obtain test scores.”

The one caveat Rockoff made about this research is the effect of school size. “In New York City all the buildings are roughly the same size, which means that a 6–8 school and K–8 school have the same number of students,” says Rockoff. It may make “a very big difference” if you have 250 kids in a 6th grade (which is what you typically have in a 6–8 school) rather than 80 (which is what you might have in a K–8 school). “Imagine if you’re in a K–8 school, you have 900 kids across nine grades, and one out of every ten 6th to 8th graders is making trouble. So you have 30 troublemakers in the school. Now, imagine a middle school with 900 kids but only three grades, 300 per grade. They have 90 troublemakers in the school instead of 30.”

Needless to say, that makes teaching—and learning—far more difficult.

Peter Meyer is a former news editor at Life magazine and senior visiting fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

Comment on this article
  • CJ Melo says:

    This article and the studies it cites validates my perception of middle schools. Take away the “teams” and the cheerleading staff and you are left with mediocrity — that middle of the road condition that ironically shares its name with middle schools.

    There is far too much emphasis on group-think, at the expense of individuality. Forced fun and team activities do little to provide skills for success in life. Most middle school teachers I have met are not subject area scholars, so they pass their mediocrity on to their students.

    Middle schools are popular solutions to large school districts’ population needs. Rather than have very large K-8 schools, these middle schools are promoted as a way to solve the overcrowding problem in elementary buildings. As the elementary buildings fill, 5th graders are shuffled into middle school, not because the schools fit their needs but because there is no room for them. Is this any way to run a program?

    If elementary teachers were held to more rigorous academic standards, kids would be prepared for high school. Instead, math and science phobes flock to elementary school where they pass their dislike of the subjects on to their students, while emphasizing the “fun” subjects that lend themselves to dressing up in period costumes and completing projects that don’t reflect deep understanding. This is probably the only country in the world where it is socially acceptable for administrators to admit that they did not do well in math in school. Few people would admit to poor grammar or writing skills, so why is it ok to laugh off poor performance in math?

    This will probably not change, since most administrators are drawn from the ranks of social studies and English departments. Math and science people have little patience for the nonsense that passes as sound educational theory, such as the whole language approach and its descendants. Solution? Let’s put in administrators and policy makers who actually have a clue about what kids need to learn and when.
    Stepping off the soap box.

  • […] University researchers Rockoff and Lockwood reveal the existence of an achievement gap affecting NYC middle school students. Middle school is defined as grades 5-8 or 6-8. While controlling for poverty and race, Rockoff and […]

  • John Thompson says:

    My 6th to 12th school was the lowest in the state, and I had a class load that was the worst in the school, with the toughest challenges faced by any 10th to 12th teacher. I was just middle of the pack in compared to the challenges faced by middle school teachers. Turning the corner from our chaotic high school hall into the middle school hall, I often felt like I was hit by a wall of sound, so low and reverberating that it was physically painful. Of course the teachers all had 1000 yard stares.

    And think of the 6th graders thrown into the anarchy. I’ve never heard a middle school teacher call their school a holding pen, but that’s what I saw. If kids came into 9th grade without dropping too much since 6th, that was a victory.

    I don’t know whether we should try the middle school model. KIPP, as you said, will work for only a few, but the NCLB middle school is even worse.

    Our bipartisan reform commission called for pre-k to 8th, with physically separating the 5th and 6th sections, creating middle schools of 300. In addition to breaking up intense concenstrations of challenging students, the purpose was to extend the nurturing of elementary school.
    In each case, some sort of politics interfered. The the politics of discipline was paralyzing. (it was explained that discipline is a “preciment” not a “problem;” problems have solutions but urban districts don’t do discipline. Period. Redicamant shelved.) I also blame NCLB, but you knew I would …

    What we got was the middle schoolization of high school, with no behavioral or attendance standards, just uniform passing kids on, more worksheets, and more high school teachers with 1000 yard stares.

  • john thompson says:

    I meant to say the wall of sound was “so loud.” It hit like a massive wave. Involutnarily, I would lower my head as if trdudging into a storm, or turn around and find some other hall.

    I also meant predictament, not redicament or preciment, maybe the memories effected my word processing. I need another cup of coffee before attempting to type.

    I should add that the middle school fights were bloodier. The injuries may not have been as bad , because a bloody nose can look awful. But still its no fun restraining a tween, looking in his eyes, as he sprays blood all over you. Seeing the fear is much worst than the blood.

  • […] provides insight into why neighborhood middle school teachers have to adopt the personalities of bungee jumpers.  His best idea is breaking up the critical mass of students in the “psychosocial-engagement […]

  • Education Next says:

    The following was submitted as a letter to the editor:

    Peter Meyer’s Winter 2011 article, “The Middle School Mess,” discusses Gaining Ground in the Middle Grades, the study EdSource recently conducted with its partners at Stanford University and the American Institutes for Research. We are thankful for this attention to our research. However, the article left out important details of our study and might lead readers of Education Next to misunderstand the nature of our research, particularly as it relates to the issue of school grade configuration. We wish to clarify the study’s methodology and findings.

    The study surveyed the principals of 303 middle grades schools in California, 3,752 English language arts and mathematics teachers in grades 6–8 in these schools, and 157 district superintendents and charter management organization leaders who oversee them. We asked them about concrete practices and policies in place in their schools. We then analyzed schools’ reported practices against their achievement on the California Standards Tests in English language arts and mathematics in grades 6, 7 and 8 to find out, other things being equal, which practices and policies distinguished higher-performing schools from lower-performing ones serving similar students. (The article’s explanation that our study characterizes, in particular, 44 schools with higher academic achievement compared with their peers is inaccurate.)

    The Winter 2011 article creates the impression that our study focused on middle schools (grades 6–8) alone. This is not the case. Among the 303 middle grades schools in our sample, only about half had a 6–8 grade configuration. The rest were about evenly split between K–8 and 7–8 schools.

    This is important because much existing research on grade configuration does not take into account the concrete practices and policies that middle grades educators undertake within schools. We found that no single grade configuration was consistently associated with higher school achievement after accounting for other practices undertaken by schools. Moreover, the practices that did distinguish higher performance can be implemented with any grade configuration.

    There may be many good reasons for a district to decide on a particular grade configuration, such as enrollment trends and availability of facilities. But our study makes clear there is no substitute for improving the practices that middle grades educators undertake every day on behalf of improved student achievement. The practices and policies we identified, taken together in their full richness, are not the special province of charter or noncharter schools, nor of any particular grade configuration. They are the calling card of effective middle grades schools.


    Trish Williams, Executive Director, EdSource
    Michael W. Kirst, Professor Emeritus, Stanford University
    Edward Haertel, Professor, Stanford University
    Matthew Rosin, Senior Research Associate, EdSource
    Mary Perry, Deputy Director, EdSource

  • Education Next says:

    The following was submitted as a letter to the editor:

    The two recent articles on middle schools (“The Middle School Mess,” features, Winter 2011, and “Stuck in the Middle,” research, Fall 2010) share an interesting characteristic: They treat the title “middle school” as if it represents a uniform, monolithic method and structure of schooling. I write to challenge the logical fallacy of the “straw man” middle school these articles depict and the negative effects associated with it.

    I’ll begin with grade configuration, the criteria used by the authors to define a middle school. National Center for Education Statistics 2005 data reveal that 6th, 7th, and/or 8th graders are found in schools with at least 60 different grade configurations. That statistic alone challenges the use of grade configuration as the defining factor for the straw man middle school. It’s also worth noting that the EdSource study (“Gaining Ground in the Middle Grades: Why Some Schools Do Better,” 2010) cited in “The Middle School Mess,” did not find grade configuration to be a factor in student performance.

    A broader definition of a middle-level or middle-grades school is a separate school that serves a group of young adolescents, ages 10–14, in one or more grades. Using that definition, what can the authors tell us about why such schools, in their view, are not successful? The answer is “not much.” For example, the articles do not address the professional preparation of the teachers in middle-grades schools compared to those in K–8 schools, although NCATE’s [National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education] recent report on teacher preparation highlights the critical connections between teacher preparation and student outcomes.

    The articles also do not take up what is happening inside the classrooms and in interactions between and among educators and young adolescents, nor the organizational structure of the schools, nor the policy and community contexts within which those schools reside. In describing middle schools as ineffective without addressing the variability represented among schools with those two words on the sign out front, the authors use a broad brush—some would argue a bucket of mud—to splatter aspersions on every school that educates young adolescents within a distinct structure. This approach seems illogical because, in fact, it is.

    Gayle Andrews
    National Forum to Accelerate ?Middle-Grades Reform

  • Diane Ross says:

    I am the Diane Ross quoted in paragraph #4. I am a middle childhood teacher educator in Ohio. I have lived and breathed middle level education for 30 years. My heroes are William Alexander, John Lounsbury, Ken McEwin… John Swaim, advocates and committed professionals to young adolescents and middle level education.

    I was asked by Peter Meyer to answer some questions about middle childhood teacher preparation. I was saddened by how he took my words, neglected to quote me completely, and then used them to state the opposite of my belief about middle schools and young adolescents. A student of mine found this article and was surprised and confused to see my quote in an article that was adversarial to everything I believe.

    Here are my quoted words….

    “This is a personal opinion and very stereotypical but I like the analogies… if you are the warm, nurturing, motherly, grandmotherly type you are made for early childhood….. if you LOVE math or science or English… then you are the “high school” type…… if you love “bungy jumping” then you are the middle school type. It is all about loving young adolescents who are in a transforming stage in their life and every day is a new adventure…so the type of student that I believe is the best is one that is high energy and risk taking.”

  • Peter Meyer says:

    I appreciate the comments. Let me try to respond just to those that raise questions about reporting accuracy.

    Trish Williams and her colleagues say I “characterize” their study as comparing 44 “higher-performing” schools with “their peers.”

    I’m sorry if they read my story that way. I thought I fairly clearly characterized their study as looking “into the `black box’ of middle-school performance to analyze how district and school policies and practices are linked to higher student performance.” And I even cite the same stats Williams et al cite in their letter.

    I appreciate the researchers sensitivities about being drawn into an argument about how many schools are good and how many are bad, but they themselves highlight the “higher performers” (see the Williams and Kirst Commentary in Education Week of March 4, 2010) and all I did was attach a number to the “higher performers” (a number supplied by Ms. Williams.)

    As to the story misrepresenting the study as one of only middle schools instead of schools with middle grades, Williams is right about that and I am sorry for the error.

    However, I don’t think my story attributes a conclusion about grade configuration to the Ed Source study. Both Williams and Kirst, in a telephone interview, emphasized to me that it did not. And I would clearly agree — and I think my story makes this point — that grade configuration problems can be overcome, by implementing, as the Williams letter suggests, “the practices that… distinguish higher performance” schools. As my story goes on to suggest, citing other research, making the most out of those practices to achieve higher performance is a bigger challenge in schools that have only middle grades.

    Gayle Andrews makes a similar point about grade configuration — that the EdSource study came to no conclusion about it — but I’m afraid gets stuck in the mud trying to argue that there is no evidence suggesting that grade configuration doesn’t matter. In fact, that’s the point of mentioning the several studies that do find a middle school configuraration effect on future behavior and performance.

    As to Diane Ross’s complaint, I don’t think a reader would conclude that my edit of her remarks did much damage to what I thought was a pretty apt description of the different kinds of challenges different ages of student present to teachers. And I surely didn’t take them to “state the opposite” of her belief about middle schools. I understand how shocking it sometimes seems to see ones factual statements — in this case about the temperment of middle schools — used in a story that come to radically different conclusions than ones own. But I surely didn’t use Ms. Ross’s statement to rebut her larger beliefs — I didn’t know what they were. I spoke to many people who are passionate believers in the “middle school movement,” as I now know Ms. Ross to be, and their views, including those of her heroes Alexander and Lounsbury, are, I believe, fairly and accurately described in the story.

    –Peter Meyer

  • Dusti Deweese says:

    I also am a parent, and I have seen first hand the effects of a “middle school”. My son is now in 9th grade and attended Ohio County Middle School. He turned into a different kid once he entered middle school, he started to worry what others thought…to a very big degree. He became not so interested in school, or his grades, stating “at least I am passing”. This is not my child, he was such a good student in grade school….that is what I was thinking. I now have a daughter in the 3rd grade, and my district is trying to reconfigure our school system (now it is 7-8, and wanting 6-8). I am really scared about this. Our local board has voted 2 times, in the past month, and it has failed…but our superintendent is really pushing the issue, and is still going to make them vote again on the issue. No means no, and trying to push the board members into a Yes, seems very wrong. I feel my daughter is not and will not be able to handle the peer pressure, and I do not want her to be a statistic, that didn’t make it through another year at “the middle school”. Her life and her future means way to much to me, to even question the vote.

    I really enjoyed your article, and am going to reference back to it, at our next board meeting. Thank You so very much.

  • […] There is no explicit mention of preparing students for the “rigors and academic challenges” of high school.  All those mission goals sound lovely, but I’d like it better if our middle school expressed a stronger focus on preparing our children for “academic success” in high school instead of highlighting abstract objectives like developing “meaningful connections”.  After all,  words have consequences. American middle schools have become the places “where academic achievement goes to die.”   &#8… […]

  • Dave says:

    If anyone is still following this thread, I’d be interested in your perspective on this essay:

  • Peter Meyer says:

    It’s an interesting essay, but it suffers from the problem that afflicts the Middle School Movement: a misplaced interest in the social and behavioral traits of children. Indeed, there are many types of kids, many types of learning styles and instincts, including kids with more social graces and inclinations than others. And for schools to begin to try to design curricula around perceived learning styles — this is, currently, a huge question for educators — is a slope as slippery as the one this essay is on. “Why don’t smart kids make themselves popular?” it asks. “If they’re so smart, why don’t they figure out how popularity works and beat the system, just as they do for standardized tests?”

    Who cares? Aside from the odd assumption that “smart kids” use their smarts to “beat the system” of standardized tests, the more important question is why schools would want to participate in popularity training in the first place.

    I often think that the true genius of The Founders (Jefferson, Adams, Madison, et al) was their recognition that one of the most compelling human traits was a desire for individual freedom and that their creation of a government that would best accommodate that self-evident truth was masterful. They recognized reality while getting the job of governance done. What American schools have traditionally done is recognize as best they could the obvious truth that kids are different and then create a system to get some knowledge into their diverse heads. Knowledge counted, not popularity. Schools did everything they could to diminish the distractions, biological and emotional, of growing up — e.g. single-sex schools, uniforms, desks in rows, rote memorization — so that kids could learn something. And that “something” was knowledge of the past, knowledge of other languages, knowledge of scientific laws and theories, knowledge of mathematical truths, etc. It was, in short, knowledge of “the other.”

    Where we lost our way, educationally, was when we began to design schools that spent more time looking inward than outward. Self-expression became the dominant ethos, and with it a contrail of navel-gazing exercises — including an obsessions with self-esteem and popularity — that has left us a school system that puts more emphasis on how kids learn than what they learn, how they get along more than what they know. Schools need to channel popularity instincts into courses on Greek governance, on democracy, on George Washington, on the demagoguery of Hitler and Stalin, rather than writing and rewriting Codes of Conduct about chewing gum and wearing flip-flops and convening school meetings about whether a raised eye-brow constitute bullying or convening committees to discuss a child’s individual education plan. Schools need to spend more time teaching our children some of the truths learned over the last several millennia and less time in group therapy.

    –peter m.

  • […] of several quotable lines in an EducationNext article titled “The Middle School Mess.” In his analysis of the history and future of middle schools, Peter Meyer wrote: “By all accounts, middle schools are a weak link in the chain of public […]

  • Juliet says:

    I am a teacher education student currently enrolled in a Middle School Methods course. I wanted more support for a paper I was writing and came across this article, which of course states the opposite of what the course content is! :) I will bookmark this and read it more closely and compare it to what I am learning. This is my favorite part of learning: finding opposing messages and deciphering them to figure out for yourself what you agree with. In my son’s (5th grade) charter school (his classroom is grades 4-6), this kind of higher level critical thinking is what is the main message. It is the reason I pulled him from the parochial school he had been attending and why he had never attended the local public schools. I have found in my practice teaching, that the kids love the Socratic Method at all ages and they thrive in figuring things out on their own. Team building is important, but I wonder how all of this information and experience will mix when my observation and practice teaching in this course has been done…..

  • Peter Meyer says:

    Dear Juliet,

    Whenever you hear someone talk about “critical thinking,” just ask them, “And WHAT will they think critically about?” Kids sitting around talking about their feelings is not critical thinking — even if they use the phrase. But if they have read the Gettysburg Address and the Emancipation Proclamation and the teacher asks the kids what “four score” means, you can rest assured that your kids are on the road to critical thinking.

  • Bill Betzen says:

    After 11 years as a middle school teacher this research reinforces my experience. Separating students from 5 elementary schools to place them together into one middle school from 6th to 8th grade sets their education back.

    Study what is being done in Finland to achieve the highest grades on earth. Among the many factors are that students are in the same school for 9 years. Within that school, for the grades 7-9, the term “middle school” is used, but they are in the same building they have attended school in for the past 6 years.

  • MURTAZA says:


  • robert,preston says:

    If a kid wants to learn, he will. That motivation comes from the parent and the family, not a teacher, a counselor, nor an administrator. Just as you are accountable for what you do at work, the student must be held accountable for what he does in school. These days, however, the vogue is to hold the TEACHER accountable for what the student achieves in school. Why don’t you go in tomorrow and tell your boss that she is responsible for your job performance. See what happens. After that, you can go ahead and tell teachers that they are responsible for children’s behavior and accomplishments in school.

  • robert.preston says:

    It’s not rocket science that kids should be grouped K-8, then 9-12. Of course, doing so would eliminate thousands of highly-paid administrator and government supervisory jobs. When you think about it, it’s amazing we don’t have even more stratification and levels of management in our school systems. It’s just like the Post Office, which has numerous 6-digit paycheck Postmasters for Post Offices that are not even needed. Our public school systems are outdated, top-heavy, and inefficient. We should issue vouchers and get out of the way.

  • GEORGE says:

    It is always the teacher who inspires a kid from the very first moment of the child in the school. So this site recons us to remember the teachers who laid light in our path of success of life.

  • […] The New York Times series The Critical Years, or the Fordham Institute’s Mayhem in the Middle, or The Middle School Mess by education writer Peter […]

  • Peter Meyer says:

    What years aren’t critical?

  • Dr. Holly Thornton says:

    I think the statement about lack of research on the connection between middle school and student achievement is incorrect. Please see as well as other research and summaries at the AMLE website, as well as a recent study by McEwin and Greene.

  • […] Studies have suggested that middle schools, meant to be a gentle pathway into high school, do more harm than good. […]

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