Academic journal article Education Next

The Middle School Mess: If You Love Bungee Jumping, You're the Middle School Type

Academic journal article Education Next

The Middle School Mess: If You Love Bungee Jumping, You're the Middle School Type

Article excerpt

"Caught in the hurricane of hormones," the Toronto Star began a 2008 story about students in the Canadian capital's middle schools. Suspended "between childhood and the adult world, pre-teens have been called the toughest to teach."

"The Bermuda triangle of education," former Louisiana superintendent Cecil Picard once termed middle schools. "Hormones are flying all over the place."

Indeed, you can't touch middle school without hearing about "raging hormones."

Says Diane Ross, a middle-school teacher for 17 years and for 13 more a teacher of education courses for licensure in Ohio, "If you are the warm, nurturing, motherly, grandmotherly type, you are made for early childhood education. If you love math or science or English, then you are the high school type. If you love bungee jumping, then you are the middle school type."

Even in professional journals you catch the drift of "middle-school madness." Mayhem in the Middle was a particularly provocative study by Cheri Pierson Yecke published by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute in 2005. American middle schools have become the places "where academic achievement goes to die," wrote Yecke.

Hyperbole? Or sad reality? Sometime last year, while walking the hallway of my school district's middle school, I was pulled aside by one of our veteran teachers, who seemed agitated. I was more than happy to chat. I had known this teacher for years. Let's call her Miss Devoted: she is dedicated and hardworking, respected by her peers, liked by parents and teachers, one of those "good" teachers that parents lobby to have their children assigned to.

I mentioned that I was coming from a meeting with the literacy consultant, who had shown me her improvement strategy on a fold-out sheet with red arrows and circles that, I said, "looked like battle plans for the invasion of Normandy."

Miss Devoted rolled her eyes. "I understand," she said. "The progressives keep doing the same thing over and over, just calling it by different names.

"All I'm doing is going to meetings, filling out forms, getting training. My kids are struggling with substitute teachers."

Here was a bright and talented teacher in a school that had failed to make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP), the infamous benchmark of the equally infamous 2002 No Child Left Behind law, for four consecutive years. That meant that nearly half of the school's 600 5th, 6th, 7th, and 8th graders were failing to make grade-level in English and in math. Further, only 10 percent of the school's African American 8th graders (who made up 30 percent of the total) could pass the state's rudimentary math exams.

Thus, a swarm of state education department consultants had descended on the school.

"Why won't they just let me teach?" Miss Devoted asked, clearly frustrated.

By all accounts, middle schools are a weak link in the chain of public education. Is it the churn of ill-conceived attempts at reform that's causing all the problems? Is it just hormones? Or is it the way in which we configure our grades? For most of the last 30 years, districts have opted to put "tweens" in a separate place, away from little tots and apart from the big kids. Middle schools typically serve grades 5-8 or 6-8. But do our quasi-mad preadolescents belong on an island--think Lord of the Flies--or in a big family, where even raging hormones can be mitigated by elders and self-esteem bolstered by little ones?


Parents and educators have begun abandoning the middle school for K-8 configurations, and new research suggests that grade configuration does matter: when this age group is gathered by the hundreds and educated separately, both behavior and learning suffer.

How Middle Schools Came to Be

Notwithstanding all the despairing headlines middle schools seem to provoke, the more interesting story may be how they became, in relatively few years and with hardly any solid research evidence to support the idea, "one of the largest and most comprehensive efforts at educational reorganization in the history of American public schooling," as middle-school researchers Paul George and Lynn Oldaker put it in 1985. …

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