Confirming What We Already Know: Middle School Sucks

Study Links Academic Setbacks to Middle School Transition
@ Education Week

While policymakers and researchers alike have focused on improving students’ transition into high school, a new study of Florida schools suggests the critical transition problem may happen years before, when students enter middle school.

The study, part of the Program on Education Policy and Governance Working Papers Series at Harvard University, found that students moving from grade 5 into middle school show a “sharp drop” in math and language arts achievement in the transition year that plagues them as far out as 10th grade, even risking thwarting their ability to graduate from high school and go on to college. Students who make a school transition in 6th grade are absent more often than those who remain in one school through 8th grade, and they are more likely to drop out by 10th grade.

This is just a theory based on my own personal experience, but I think the reasons for the drop in academic performance are physiological and social in nature. Kids at that age are entering puberty, which means a big change in the hormones swirling around their bodies and brains. They become more concerned about the opinions of their classmates, more self-conscious with regards to their physical development, and less able to modulate their emotions. At the same time, the peer group becomes nastier. The kids I teach at work who are in that age range have all reported bullying issues at their schools. Among the girls, the dominant problems are teasing, rumor-spreading, and cliquishness. Among the boys, things get a little more physical. But no matter the gender of the students in question, early adolescents seem especially concerned with enforcing social conformity; if you are the least bit different, you get attacked.

The problem with the middle school model – as opposed to the K-8 model used by most private schools – is that it adds an educational transition on top of all the biological and psychological issues discussed above. Not only do kids entering middle school have to deal with their changing bodies and their changing emotions, but they also have to deal with a whole new school environment in which they have six or seven different teachers and are required to move from classroom to classroom throughout the day. Moreover, when you enter middle school, you’re suddenly forced to interact with kids you’ve never met before, as your typical public middle school receives kids from several neighborhood-based elementary schools. In a K-8 school, on the other hand, the size and diversity of your peer group doesn’t really change, and the between-class transitions are generally not quite so dramatic. The tweens at our parish school, for example, do change teachers throughout the day, but all that involves is moving to a classroom right next door.

So perhaps it is time that public schools drop this whole middle school idea and return to the K-8 model. Such a reorganization might eliminate at least some of the stress middle-graders experience.

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