Focus on the Wonder Years: Challenges Facing the American Middle School

Focus on the Wonder Years: Challenges Facing the American Middle School

Focus on the Wonder Years: Challenges Facing the American Middle School

Focus on the Wonder Years: Challenges Facing the American Middle School


Young teens undergo multiple changes that seem to set them apart from the other students. But do middle schools actually meet their special needs? In Focus on the Wonder Years, the authors describe the unique challenges faced by middle schools and offer ways to tackle them, such as reassessing the organization of grades K-12; specifically assisting the students most in need; finding ways to prevent disciplinary problems; and helping parents understand how they can help their children learn at home.


Today in the United States there are nearly 9 million students in public middle schools (typically, schools that include grades 6 through 8). Middle school youth are especially vulnerable to multiple risks. For example, the process of social alienation that ultimately leads students to drop out of high school often starts during the middle grades. Hence, the middle school years are critical in setting the trajectories for subsequent life success.

How well are middle schools serving our young? The RAND Corporation set out to assess the state of American middle schools and identify the schools' major challenges. The research team collected and synthesized literature that describes pertinent research conducted during the last 20 years. We reviewed the issues that have received substantial attention, as well as those that have not been recognized or discussed. We supplemented the literature review with our own analyses of some of the most recent national and international data.

This monograph describes our findings. To assess the effectiveness of middle schools, we focus heavily on middle school students and student outcomes, such as academic achievement. But we also review research on the other key players, including teachers, principals, and parents. We provide context for our analyses by describing the historical changes that have shaped today's middle schools and the key organizational and instructional practices and multicomponent reforms that U.S. middle schools have adopted in recent years. Finally, we summarize the main challenges identified and discuss future directions for middle-grade education.

This work should be of interest to a wide audience of those who are concerned about and responsible for young teens, including education policymakers and administrators at the national, state, district, and local levels; private advocacy and philanthropic organizations; teachers; parents; and researchers. The monograph is not the “how-to” guide that we all might wish for. Rather, our goal is to provide a broad context for future decisionmaking. We hope that our review and analyses provoke new ways of thinking and help point the way for those who must address the many challenges facing America's middle schools.

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