The Trouble with Middle Schools: They May Hinder Growth and Graduation

June 6, 2012 — 1 Comment

middle school silos

I have said for years that one of the downsides of our current public school system is that it becomes a “social silo” for teens in middle and high school. Our schools curb maturity in students. Now—I have current research to document my hunch.

Over the last decade, urban school districts in New York City, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Milwaukee and Charlotte-Mecklenberg have reconfigured some schools and returned to the once popular K-8 model, where students stay together through the first nine years of school. They have discovered that students are more prone to test higher and to stay in school through their high school years. (This is all laid out in an article presenting the research, “The Middle School Plunge: Achievement Tumbles When Young Students Change Schools.”)

The research discovered that students who make transitions in grade six or seven experience drops in achievement in math and reading. These drops may seem small to some when you read the numbers, but they amount to between three and a half to seven months of classroom learning lost. That’s precious time vanished.

Examine just one state with me. Math and reading scores for all Florida public school students were analyzed between 2000 and 2009. The research even covered Miami-Dade County, Florida’s largest school district with the greatest ethnic variety. They found that “the negative effects of entering a middle school for grade 6 or 7 are, if anything, even more pronounced in Miami-Dade County than they are statewide.” The bottom line—by splitting up school populations, students lose.

Let me suggest some interpretations of the data.

Why do students drop in performance when they’re moved to middle schools? It’s not necessarily poor teachers or bad school facilities. The reasons are bigger:

1.    They lose a sense of continuity, starting over in new places.

It may seem small, but there is something about continuing together in the same place and experiencing a sense of consistency and continuity. For many students, consistency and continuity are not offered at home.

2.    Their emotional intelligence drops, confined with peers the same age.

One-room schoolhouses are antiquated, but one advantage they offered to students was the development of their E.Q. Your emotional intelligence rises when you are forced to interact with all ages and types of people.

3.    They lose the chance to be leaders / role models for younger students.

This is huge. The K-8 model isn’t perfect and may be difficult because of the size of the student body, but in it, seventh and eighth graders become natural role models and can assume leadership positions to younger students.

May I offer an example of an organization that gets this? It may surprise you. It’s the church I attend each week, when I’m home, North Point Community Church. On Sunday mornings, their teens don’t attend a “Sunday School.” Nope. They’re serving other people, children and adults, during the morning hour, which keeps their EQ high. (I am not talking about a few of them, but hundreds). Next, when they do meet as a group, their group leader continues to stay with them all through their middle school and high school years, providing a familiar mentor who knows them. Third, as they serve younger children they get to lead, which pulls them into being a role model, rather than pushes them.

Sure, we need math and reading scores to go up. But even more, we must prepare our students today for a world that needs leaders with good people skills and high emotional intelligence. Let’s get back to the basics, what do you say?

National Leadership Forum

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