• U.S.

Is Middle School Bad For Kids?

13 minute read
Claudia Wallis

It’s 10 a.m. on a bright May day, and the arts wing at Gustav A. Fritsche Middle School in Milwaukee, Wis., is hopping. In a band room, 21 members of the jazz ensemble are rehearsing Soul Bossa Nova with plenty of heart and impressive intonation, in preparation for a concert downtown. In another room, woodblocks, timpani and bells are whipping up a rhythmic frenzy as the 75-member Fritsche Philharmonic Orchestra tackles Elliott Del Borgo’s Aboriginal Rituals. In an art room, eighth-graders are shaping clay vessels to be baked in the school kiln. Down the hall, students are dabbing acrylic paints on canvas to create vivid still lifes à la Vincent van Gogh. At 10:49, when the 82-min. arts period ends, kids of all sizes, colors and sartorial stripes pour out of classrooms, jostling and joking, filling the hallway with the buzz of pubescent energy. Then it’s off to language arts, math, social studies and the array of other subjects offered at this sprawling arena for adolescents.

A few blocks away, at Humboldt Park Elementary School, which serves kindergarten through eighth grade, a charming scene unfolds in Karen Hennessy’s classroom. Her kindergartners are enjoying a visit from their eighth-grade “buddies.” All around the room, big kids sit knees to chest in miniature chairs or cross-legged on the alphabet carpet. Each little kid has chosen a picture book to share with a big buddy. Some lean on eighth-grade laps as they listen. Logan Wells, a strapping 14-year-old, reads The Little Engine That Could to Alec Matias and Jacob Hill. Jacob, 5, seems mesmerized equally by the bright illustrations and by the eighth-grader turning the pages. He presses against Logan as if to absorb some big-kid magic. The older boy reads on with gentle forbearance.

If you were 13 years old, where would you rather be? Big, frenetic Fritsche, with its thrilling range of arts classes, bands, Socratic seminars and TV studio, all aimed at 1,030 sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders? Or calm and cozy Humboldt Park, where the teachers seem to know the names and histories of all 585 students, ages 4 to 14? If you’re the parent of a 13-year-old, which would you choose for your child? The two schools represent two sides of a debate that has ripped through Milwaukee and other U.S. cities. For the past decade, middle schools have been the educational setting for roughly two-thirds of students in Grades 6 through 8. But increasingly, communities are questioning whether they really are the best choice for this volatile age group.

In Milwaukee, both Fritsche and Humboldt Park have fine reputations, but the district has decided to place most of its bets on the likes of Humboldt Park. Since 2001, it has expanded the number of K-8 schools from 12 to 48, with 14 more on the way. Meanwhile, the number of middle schools in Milwaukee has shrunk from 23 to 14. “Once young adolescents get to the sixth grade, the achievement level begins to decline a bit and disruptive behavior increases,” says William Andrekopoulos, the superintendent of schools. “We’re providing a number of different options,” including some big middle schools, he notes, “but we know that a small learning community is going to make a difference.”

A surprising number of other U.S. cities have come to the same conclusion, reversing the trend that created thousands of middle schools in the 1970s and ’80s. Cincinnati and Cleveland, Ohio; Minneapolis, Minn.; Philadelphia; Memphis, Tenn.; and Baltimore, Md., are in various stages of reconfiguring their schools away from the middle school model and toward K-8s. Some suburban districts, including the wealthy Capistrano School District in Orange County, Calif., are also making the switch.

While issues such as crowding and cost cutting were factors for some of these districts, the change is driven largely by a series of studies that depict U.S. middle schools as the “Bermuda Triangle of education,” as one report put it. It’s the place where kids lose their way academically and socially–in many cases never to resurface. The most comprehensive report, a review of 20 years of educational research, was released last year by the Rand Corporation, the nonprofit research group in Santa Monica, Calif. Cheerfully titled Focus on the Wonder Years: Challenges Facing the American Middle School, it offered a harsh critique of the middle school record. Among its findings:

*More than half of eighth-graders fail to achieve expected levels of proficiency in reading, math and science on national tests.

*In international ratings of math achievement, U.S. students rank about average–ninth out of 17–at Grade 4, but sink to 12th place by Grade 8, setting the stage for further slippage in high school.

*Reported levels of emotional and physical problems are higher among U.S. middle school students than among their peers in all 11 other countries surveyed by the World Health Organization. The same “health behavior” survey found that U.S. middle schoolers have the most negative views of the climate of their schools and peer culture.

*Crime takes off in middle school. Statistics from 1996-97 show that while 45% of public elementary schools reported one or more incidents to the police, the figure jumps to 74% for middle schools–almost as high as high schools (77%).

*While not many studies directly compare K-8 schools with middle schools, those that do suggest that young teens do better both academically and socially in K-8 schools.

Most significant, the Rand report questioned the very idea of having separate schools for preteens: “Research suggests that the onset of puberty is an especially poor reason for beginning a new phase of schooling.” Jaana Juvonen, the UCLA psychologist who spent more than 18 months crunching data for the report, believes that 11- and 12-year-olds are already dealing with so many changes that it makes little sense to pile on a change in schools. “Right around the time that most kids are transferring to middle school, everything starts to happen,” she says. “There’s physical development: you’re starting to look different. And because of that, people’s expectations of you are changing. In addition, there’s cognitive development and new reasoning abilities. It is a very fragile period.”

In Milwaukee, school vouchers and a policy of choice put a lot of decision-making power in parents’ hands, and pressure to keep vulnerable sixth-graders in their familiar grade schools has sprung up from the grass roots. “I don’t care if you have world-class middle schools, parents just don’t like moving their children from the elementary school,” says Andrekopoulos, who used to be principal at Fritsche. Pressure to score high on the math and reading tests mandated by the No Child Left Behind Act also seems to favor K-8s. “Elementary schools have done a better job of organizing themselves around math and reading,” he observes.

Boosting achievement in math and reading is a big factor in the drive to reshape schools in Philadelphia, where reform has come from the top down. A 2002 study found that eighth-graders at the city’s K-8 schools typically score 50 points higher on state tests than peers who attend middle schools. Under Paul Vallas, the energetic CEO of Philadelphia’s schools, the district is pruning the number of middle schools from 46 in 2003 to eight by 2008, while upping K-8s from 10 to 120. “I haven’t seen anything to support the creation of middle schools, especially the way they work in large urban areas,” Vallas says.

How did middle schools, which were ushered in with such fanfare 25 years ago, fall into such disrepute? The answer, many educators say, has less to do with the philosophy behind the middle school movement and more to do with how it was executed. Coming after a period of youth unrest, when juvenile crime and drug use were rising, middle school proponents argued that old-fashioned junior highs, which usually served Grades 7 and 8 and sometimes 9, were not meeting kids’ social and developmental needs. Instead, they were providing a watered-down version of high school, literally a junior high. Reformers proposed that schools for this age group needed to educate “the whole child,” addressing social and emotional issues as well as building academic skills. Sixth grade became the usual entry point for new middle schools, both because of crowding at grammar schools and because puberty was occurring earlier.

Among the key tenets of the middle school movement are these: fostering a close relationship between teacher and child so that every student has an adult advocate, having teachers work across disciplines in teams (example: students read Johnny Tremain in English while studying the Revolutionary War in social studies), creating small learning communities within larger schools and stressing learning by doing. “Young adolescents learn through discovery and getting involved,” explains Sue Swaim, executive director of the Ohio-based National Middle School Association. “They’re not meant to be lectured to the whole day.”

Some critics contend that the whole movement was soft in the head. It “had as its ideological antecedent the notion that academics should take a back seat to self-exploration, socialization and working in groups,” writes Cheri Pierson Yecke, a former education commissioner in Minnesota, in a forthcoming report for the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation titled Mayhem in the Middle: How Middle Schools Failed America and How to Make Them Work. “A disproportionate regard for student self-esteem and identity development,” Yecke argues, yielded a “precipitous decline” in academic achievement.

But many educators believe that ideology was not the problem. “There were some very good middle schools out there, but middle school reform never got fully implemented,” says Jacquelynne Eccles, professor of psychology at the University of Michigan and a member of a task force that issued Turning Points, a landmark 1989 report on middle schools funded by the nonprofit Carnegie Corporation. Many districts created big warehouse-like middle schools to address crowding and court-ordered busing but without embracing the pedagogy of the movement. “They ended up looking very much like the junior high schools they were designed to replace,” says Eccles.

In urban areas, middle schools often became the antithesis of what reformers had intended. Instead of warm incubators of independence and judgment, they became impersonal, oppressive institutions. “In many urban schools,” says Juvonen, “you can’t help but notice that there are security guards around. There’s someone expecting you to misbehave.” That’s especially destructive, she says, because young adolescents need their independence to be guided and nurtured, not squashed. “This is when kids start challenging social conventions. They say things like ‘Why do I have to make my bed?’ It’s proof of their cognitive maturity, and it’s all good.” Sadly, this cognitive development isn’t well supported by the middle school curriculum either, according to several studies. “It doesn’t help students see the bigger picture or to understand abstract concepts,” says Juvonen.

Ironically, K-8 schools are in some ways better positioned to implement the ideas of the middle school movement. Not only do these more intimate schools tend to foster strong teacher-student relationships, but they often put their older students in positions where they can exercise judgment and leadership. At Humboldt Park, for instance, seventh-graders have worked with the third-graders to write letters to U.S. soldiers in Iraq. “The older grades become mentors and tutors to the younger kids, giving them a sense of responsibility that may not happen in middle school,” says Milwaukee parent Tina Johnson, who has two kids in a K-8 school. “All these raging hormones are kind of directed in a positive way.” Some administrators believe there are fewer behavior problems in K-8s, where your old first-grade teacher–and her current pupils–are watching. Says Humboldt Park student Savannah Bracero, 14: “You have to be much more careful here so the little kids don’t pick up bad behavior.”

Along with grownup responsibilities, K-8s tend to offer the occasional–and still wanted–hug from a teacher, says Dr. Lottie Smith, a K-8 principal in Milwaukee. “In middle and high school, that’s a no-no. We don’t touch,” says Smith. Middle schools were originally intended to be nurturing places, but it hasn’t been easy to pull that off, says Harry Finks, a veteran middle school teacher and principal, who wrote one of the first handbooks for middle school staff: “You want to create a dialogue, so that an eighth-grade boy can come up to you and say, ‘Man, my guinea pig died and I’m really upset.’ Most schools don’t have that atmosphere.”

Those who champion middle schools, however, say that done right, such schools offer leadership opportunities, a caring environment plus a rich variety of courses, facilities and subject-matter specialists that K-8s can’t begin to match. Fritsche, for instance, not only has its elaborate program in the arts but also offers an extensive library, a graphics and electronics lab, three gymnasiums and many extracurriculars. While the best of Milwaukee’s K-8 schools have adopted such middle school features as lockers, science labs, changing classes throughout the day, they can’t equal a program like Fritsche’s. At Humboldt Park, for instance, Spanish is taught by a paraprofessional using computerized lessons; the only gym doubles as the cafeteria.

Milwaukee parent Jeff Wagner decided to send his daughter to Fritsche instead of keeping her at Humboldt Park past fifth grade. “There was no comparison,” he says. Fritsche “had activities after school from forensics to track–plus the quality of teaching and the tough curriculum.” Middle school fans also question the impulse to shelter young adolescents. “You’re not in some sort of cocoon. You need to evolve,” insists Fritsche eighth-grader René Espinoza. And what happens when it comes time to go to high school, asks Fritsche band teacher Joyce Gardiner: “To go from a little-bitty K-8 school to a high school that has 2,000 kids? I can’t even imagine that.”

But educators on both sides of the debate tend to agree that how the grades are packaged ultimately matters less than what’s happening inside the school. “The exact configuration is a distraction,” says Anthony Jackson, a middle school expert and co-author of the Turning Points report. What counts, he says, is good instruction and caring relationships. “You can make that happen in a stand-alone middle school or a K-8 school,” Jackson adds, although he believes that schools with more than 100 kids per grade should be broken up into smaller units. Hiring qualified teachers and giving them time to plan and upgrade skills is also critical. Nationally, only about 1 in 4 middle school teachers has special certification for teaching middle school grades.

Educators watching the flight from middle schools are worried that school districts will see the K-8 building as a solution in itself, without devoting the resources needed to support good education. And there’s reason to be worried. Because that’s precisely what happened 25 years ago, when administrators rushed to abandon nasty old junior highs for those nifty new middle schools. –Reported by Carolina A. Miranda/New York and Betsy Rubiner/Milwaukee

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