Monday, November 15, 2010

Should We Get Rid of Middle Schools?

Forget about just getting rid of F's--should be be getting rid of middle schools altogether?  Researcher Peter  Meyer of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute certainly seems to think we should, at least according to his article in Education Next entitled "The Middle School Mess."  Meyer cites studies that show that students who attend K-8 grade schools, rather than stand-alone schools teaching 6th-8th grades, demonstrate fewer behavior problems, maintain higher rates of on-time high school graduation, and earn higher grades and higher standardized test scores.

So what's the problem with middle school?  Meyer argues that the typical middle school does not put a high priority on academic achievement, and so does not demand sufficiently rigorous learning demands on the students in these grades.

According to Meyer, middle schools are a relatively recent invention.  For most of the 20th century, 7th and 8th graders attended "Junior Highs" that were supposed to prepare them for high schools.  But in the 1960's and 1970's, such institutions were attacked to putting too much pressure on the students, while not recognizing the developmental needs of early adolescents.  The fear was that starting the academic preparation for college in junior high was forcing 12 and 13 year olds to focus solely on the core classes--math, reading and writing, and science.  However, the educational theorists of the time protested that early adolescence should be a time for discovering and pursuing passions like art and music, journalism and drama, scouting and other outdoor experiences, and (in those time) topics like home and industrial education.  Early adolescents, they felt, were dealing with a lot of physical, emotional, and hormonal changes, and needed time to explore not only these interests and potential study and/or career paths, but also to figure out who they were becoming and how they related to their family, peers, and world.  Thus, middle schools were founded as a transitional time for 6th, 7th, and 8th graders to get used to the high school system of different classes with different teachers and other such attributes and to acquire subject-matter content and skills necessary to be successful in high school without overloading them with work so that they could try on different activities and ways of being as they matured into true adolescents.

So should we get rid of middle schools?  I guess it depends on how much you buy into our current system of evaluating educational progress primarily, if not purely, by test scores and other quantifiable data.  If one's priority is simply higher test scores, then our 1970's-style, more humanistically-designed middle schools are probably out of place.  Meyer states that the recent trend is towards eliminating middle schools in favor of more K-8 institutions.   However, I can see other curricular, economic, and practical rationales behind such schools, so I don't know without more research that a backlash against the middle school concept is fueling that trend.

My personal bias is that schools should be about developing happy, productive, well-rounded, and effective citizens, and I don't think that is measured by standardized tests.  In fact, the current preoccupation with testing is one of the reason we have chosen to homeschool.  And I would like to think that somewhere along the now 17+ years of institutionalized education that we now expect our children to attend there would be some kind of focus on developing aspects beyond being a highly-performing testing machine.

But, then, I know I'm an oddball.  So what's your opinion?  Do we need to get rid of middle schools, or at least get them on a more academically-focused track?


  1. There was no school separation when I was growing up in Ukraine. The same school taught all 10 grades. The tradition for the opening ceremony was for a boy from 10th grade to carry a girl from the 1st grade, ringing a big bell. You can see a picture here:

    Separating kids who transition (middle school) is a particularly horrible idea. But it's like that joke:
    - Hey camel, how come your back isn't straight?
    - What part of me IS?

  2. Well, I do think there is value in making distinctions in how education is delivered and the expected behaviors and outputs between various groupings of students. But I supposed it could be done within the same institution. Certainly as homeschoolers, it works really well to have some events that involve all ages, some that are geared to a narrower age range, and some that target a particular age or grade level.