The Middle School Slump

20104_Rockoff_Open Yesterday, Jonah went off to his first day of 6th grade at our local middle school. After some grumpiness about being forced to wear a "nice shirt" to school on the first day, he ran off with his buddies and walked to school. I crossed my fingers that he learns something this year. Education Next reports that children who attend a middle school do poorer on test scores than children who attend a K-8 school. (via Joanne Jacobs)

… students who enter public middle schools in New York City fall behind
their peers in K–8 schools.  This is true both for math and English
achievement. Even more troubling, the middle-school disadvantage grows
larger over the course of the middle-school years. With the transition
into a middle school, students set out on a trajectory of lower
achievement gains.

It's an extensive study with great graphs about what happens to student achievement when kids leave the protective nest of elementary school and enter the state of nature in the middle school cafeteria. 

They are honest about the fact that they can't quite explain why kids do better in a K-8 school, rather than a middle school.

Given the data we have, we can only speculate about why it is harder to
educate middle school–aged students in large groups. Developmental
psychologists have shown that adolescent children commonly exhibit
traits such as negativity, low self-esteem, and an inability to judge
the risks and consequences of their actions, which may make them
especially difficult to educate in large groups. The combining of
multiple elementary schools and their students also disrupts a student’s
immediate peer group. And middle schools often serve a more diverse
student population than many students encountered in elementary school.
Yet while it seems plausible that these changes in environment would
matter, we could not find any evidence in our data that any one
hypothesis can explain the drop in learning among students moving to
middle schools.

My guess is that by isolating the most obnoxious, peer-obsessed, hyper-hormoned, Justin Bieber-obsessed children in one school, their worst tendencies are amplified. Also, teachers treat K-8 kids like children, but in a middle school, they treat them like the enemy. 

This is a really interesting study that should be replicated and expanded. The problem is that there is no way to change course on middle schools. The buildings have been built. The administrators are hired.


17 thoughts on “The Middle School Slump

  1. “Also, teachers treat K-8 kids like children, but in a middle school, they treat them like the enemy.”
    What I’ve heard is that even when 6th, 7th, and 8th graders are combined in the same middle school, 6th graders are pretty distinct. 6th graders are still little kids.

  2. “6th graders are pretty distinct. 6th graders are still little kids.”
    As I just told Amy, I’m in the middle of first-schoolweek-hell combined with other issues, but I can definitely agree with this based on my daughter’s first day in middle school (6th grade). She really disliked it, too. In 5th grade, they ruled the school and now they’re the young disrespected ones. 🙂

  3. I went to a 4th-6th grade intermediate school before moving to a 7-12 grade junior/senior high school, just missing the transition to middle school. In the intermediate school we spent most of the time with our home teacher, but with walks down the hall to our reading groups and visits from a music teacher, so it was essentially structured like an elementary school. As I recall, immediately after the move to the junior/senior high school on the same block, the 7th graders suddenly started to cuss a blue streak and there was a lot of fighting in the halls. I skipped 8th grade, but the fighting definitely died down by high school (although it may just be that the older kids were more patient and discreet in waiting and settling their differences behind the bowling alley after school).
    I believe that 5th and 6th grade are traditionally regarded as the best classes to teach–there’s maturity, but without the horrors of adolescence.

  4. We here 4-5 as the best class to teach (the “star” science teacher in my kids’ school said it explicitly). She said she’d been given a choice of where she wanted to teach, and said she chose 4-5 ’cause they’re teachable but not obnoxious.
    We’re in a K-8, and my perception is that it lets the 6-8’s remain children for longer, but I don’t really know yet. The problem some have with it is, yup, that they remain children for longer. That means, for example, that the competitiveness (not rigor, but competition) still stays childlike, still elementary school grading (which means things like “practicing” in our school, rather than ranking), still elementary school athletic competition. Some of the kids are ready to join the larger world.
    I loved junior high school (7-9) because it was when academics really seemed to start for me, with separated classes, and where I felt I really started learning. 1-6 had seemed mostly skills acquisition, and, mostly, skills I’d already acquired in 2nd grade or so (i.e. reading, arithmetic, etc.). So real math, real reading, real work in 7th grade was a step up.
    I’m hoping our K-8 has the academic rigor combined with the childlike socialization, but I won’t know until my kids are older.

  5. I also agree that there’s a big difference between 6th & 7th graders. I take pictures at a group concert for our K-8th school, and a notable trend is that in 6th grade there are still pre-post adolescents (some kids mature earlier than others, but there are still lots of kids). By 7th they’ve grown up and look like young men and women.
    I have to wonder whether the switch to middle school rather than 7-9 (junior high) was a bad one, or if 6th graders could be returned to K-6 as a solution, even if “middle schools” aren’t goign to go away.
    I remember when the switch was made in our school, the scuttlebutt was that the motivation was to avoid having to have high school qualified teachers in middle school (for the 9th graders).
    Our elementary schools are over-crowded, so this isn’t a great solution for us, but maybe it could work elsewhere (and even here, the middle schools are more over-crowded than the elementary schools).

  6. “I loved junior high school (7-9) because it was when academics really seemed to start for me, with separated classes, and where I felt I really started learning. 1-6 had seemed mostly skills acquisition, and, mostly, skills I’d already acquired in 2nd grade or so (i.e. reading, arithmetic, etc.). So real math, real reading, real work in 7th grade was a step up.”
    Very true for me, too, although some of that may be developmental. Personally, there was a lot to learn in 4th and 5th grade, it’s just that I wasn’t learning it (I got very used to coasting in early elementary school). Then in 6th grade the switch somehow got flicked on in my head, and I was somehow actually learning, and by 7th grade, I was paying attention and being a student, rather than coasting. It was like coming out of a fog. I don’t know how to explain the transition, which suspiciously coincided with puberty.

  7. I grew up on a college campus in the 50s in the mid-west and attended the Lab grade-school 1-6 and the Lab Jr H 7/8 in a separate bldg close by. I still feel that is a better approach–although having a class consisting predominately of faculty children with a few select “townies” thrown in is perhaps not an educational setting easily replicated–especially as the 50s might as well have taken place in a parallel universe long, long ago in a Galaxy far, far away insofar as discipline, motivation and deportment are concerned–not to mention test scores.
    Lets face it, SAT scores peaked in 1963 and have been in free-fall ever since despite attempts to disguise the fact by dumbing down the tests and “re-centering” the averages. My generational cohort (the “War babies”) was really the last generation to learn to read pre wide-spread access to/cultural saturation by, TV. And it shows..
    Not to mention the fact that the only professions largely open to motivated intelligent college-educated females were
    either nursing or teaching. Most of my teachers were in their 40s-50s and had their MA from Columbia, Chicago, etc.
    Conditions hardly replicable in ANY setting today as the success of the feminists have opened up the other professions and both nursing and teaching has suffered as a result, e.g., today SAT scores of university education majors fall mainly in the bottom quintile.
    But middle school? Most here seem to argue it’s a big leap from 6th to 7th in maturity. I would agree. Which raises the question: Who in the H started the whole “middle-school” movement, anyway? It was largely unk and not wide-spread until the sixties. I always wondered upon what school of educational pedagogical theory it was based..

  8. “I always wondered upon what school of educational pedagogical theory it was based.”
    That is a huge can of worms, right there. I believe there’s something called “the middle school model.” Middle school parents or teachers, any thoughts?

  9. Our local school is k-8. The school is officially divided into “elementary school” and “middle school.” In practice, the school feels as if it’s divided into segments of k-4, 5-6, then 7-8, mostly driven by the students’ maturity at each grade level.
    In my hometown, I attended a 7- 8 Junior High, which became a 6 – 8, then 5 – 8 Middle School. These successive changes arose from a falling enrollment in the system, after the tail end of the Baby Boomers left the system.
    IF a k – 8 school is more likely to produce good academic results, I can think of two possible explanations. First, it’s possible the curriculum and teaching is better aligned. If the 7th and 8th grade teachers notice the students don’t know their math facts, they can bring up the topic in the teachers’ lounge. Second, my hometown’s school changed to the middle school model to deal with a declining enrollment. That may not be an unusual choice for school systems to make. A declining enrollment means the budget is not under pressure from increasing enrollment. Class sizes may drift smaller. There isn’t a scramble to find new teachers to teach classes at the drop of a hat. Fewer students, with a stable budget, is much easier to deal with than trying to decide whether you should spend money on lighting the building or buying toilet paper.
    As a last thought, I do think teachers treating students “like the enemy” has a great influence on students’ behavior. Low expectations tend to reinforce themselves.

  10. My guess is that by isolating the most obnoxious, peer-obsessed, hyper-hormoned, Justin Bieber-obsessed children in one school, their worst tendencies are amplified.
    Last time my H visited our middle school, he said it evoked a “Lord of the Flies” vibe for him.
    Middle schools must recognize they have problems, seeing this posted on the National Middle School Association website:
    There may be no task more important today for middle level educators than public relations.
    Glad to see they have their priorities straight.

  11. Middle schools seem to be obsessed with trying to “creating a safe environment” and “educating the whole child” while neglecting the academics needed to prepare students for high school and beyond. Our MS principal says they’re going through too many hormonal changes and therefore shouldn’t be stressed by too many academic demands, or words to that effect.
    Actually, I see the schools as having a split personality. On one hand they bombard the students with endless “character assemblies” and “caring community” exercises, but when a distracted 6th grade boy forgets to take the right folder/binder/notebook/text from his locker for his afternoon classes, he’s likely to get slammed for “not taking charge of his own learning”. It’s brutal.

  12. My boys are in middle school, and it looks to me to be going well. Far better than junior high school did for me: they are divided into teams, and go to class in the same physical area. This means my 6th grader was not in the same hallways as the 8th graders, so bullying was not convenient.
    VX is right, I think, that feminism has knocked down the competence and qualification of teachers – women who are now gunning for partner in a downtown firm, or investment banking, 40 years ago would have been teaching school, and the Chico State grad who has come in behind them has a Hell of a time even learning everything a sixth grader needs to know, much less teaching it, better to get a math teacher and a geography teacher and a history teacher.

  13. Our kids’ private school is currently JK-11, with the 12th grade and a new Jr/Sr high school hoped for next year (the space is very tight this year). When the construction is done, we’ll have a JK-6 school in the old school (which rents space in a downtown church), plus a new 7-12 grade school across the street.

  14. You say that there’s no way to change this because the ‘buildings have been built’… but is this true? I went to a Catholic grade school that was 1-8. It was a small school with two 30-student classes per grade. That means 16 classrooms plus a library, gym, administration, music and art. All told maybe 25 rooms in the whole school.
    My youngest daughter is in a middle school now that must have in excess of 60 rooms. So…surely they could do K-8 with as many as 5 classes of 25 per grade for a total 45 classrooms and plenty of other rooms to spare. It’s a pipe dream but logistically possible.

  15. I have all of two days’ experience teaching middle school, but so far, the difference between 6th & 8th grade is huge. My 8th grade homeroom is evenly split. One set of girls are mature and seem ready to be in high school. The others remind me of 6th graders. They squeal. They play. They’re rowdy. Because they’re older, I have more difficulty settling them. My 6th graders are more rowdy, but also more willing to obey authority figures.
    Our middle school is small–a total of about 130 students, compared to the over 1000 students at the public school my son went to. And what Rose said above was totally my experience. My son got no support for juggling the 7 classes he had to keep up with. When he lost homework, he was told to buck up and get with the program. And yet, he didn’t fall prey to some of the things they’re most worried about–bullying, drinking, smoking, drugs, sex. They spend an inordinate amount of time worrying about the 5% of the school who are going to do those things no matter how many assemblies you have on the subjects. I think of middle school as the lost years, and I’m just glad he was able to start over in high school.

  16. Those ages are a nightmare of awkardness, but the structure of the school makes a huge difference. I spent 6th grade in a Christian K-6th grade school, then 7th grade in a gigantic, incredibly overcrowded 7-8 junior high. Getting through the long hallways to your next class was always a shove-fest, and the place was full of swearing/bullying/mean girls/smoking/drugs/kids making out. For some bizzare reason all the lockers were in a secluded area between the entrance to the school and the cafeteria, far away from classrooms (and from adult supervision.)
    For my 8th grade year the brand-new 6-8 middle school opened. Same teachers, same kids, but what a difference! Every grade was sequestered on a separate floor (actually a half-floor, since each grade were further split into two “teams.”) Lockers, homerooms, and all classes were right next to each other, which meant very little opportunity for crap in the hallways. Everyone on your team had the same 6 teachers, who coordinated exams and papers and the topics they were covering. So. much. better.

  17. And what does the research show about K-12s like the one I teach in? Granted the lower school is mostly by itself k-4, and the middle school (5-8) is mostly by itself and the US is mostly by itself but they overlap in various areas sometimes on purpose (all school Thanksgiving assembly), sometimes because that’s where the available room is (that US language class taught in the Middle School, the Middle School Math class in the Upper School classroom). Somehow it all works out pretty decently, mostly because faculty are around, lockers are in high traffic locations etc. Did I mention my school was (mostly) single sex?

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