Academic journal article Middle School Journal

Special Series: Part 1: Renewing the Middle School: The Early Success of Middle School Education

Academic journal article Middle School Journal

Special Series: Part 1: Renewing the Middle School: The Early Success of Middle School Education

Article excerpt

For the last 40 years, I have had the privilege of being a participant/observer/reporter in middle grades education in a wide variety of circumstances, both in the United States and abroad. During this lengthy period, I have observed and reported on what I consider to be a continuing series of accomplishments in middle grades education. Many of these endeavors seem unknown or unacknowledged by those outside the middle school movement. Perhaps many educators new to, or on the margins of, middle grades education are also unaware of these achievements. It would take more than this article to fairly catalog the successes that middle school educators in America and elsewhere have accomplished during this nearly half century. An abbreviated account will have to suffice.

Origins of subsequent problems

Beginning in the early 1960s, middle school educators attempted to implement a less than fully developed model-something called the middle school concept-with dramatically little direction, even less support, and a considerable degree of resistance, if not hostility. I recall, for example, at an early meeting of the Florida League of Middle Schools in 1972, an important figure in the Florida Department of Education spoke from the podium to the assembled group of several hundred public school and university educators, asking rhetorically, "What is a middle school, really?" He meant to suggest with that question that no one knew the characteristics that should define such a school. He was correct. No one at that time, certainly no one in the state department of education, really seemed to know what a middle school was supposed to be. This, of course, begs the important question as to why Florida, and soon an entire nation, would move fairly quickly into the process of reorganizing K-12 schooling to include a separate middle school when, apparently, no one was clear about the characteristics of an exemplary middle school. Hundreds of schools, thousands of educators, and hundreds of thousands of students and families were affected. What propelled this change?

Many school district and state level decision makers seem to have been motivated to consider new grade configurations for K-12 schools because of factors unrelated to providing the best education for young adolescents. In the South, and elsewhere, one these factors was the pressure to accommodate school district racial desegregation (George & Alexander, 2003).

In dozens of districts of all shapes and sizes, school planners and policymakers made an important discovery. One could redesign a district to facilitate racial desegregation by closing the junior high school(s) and moving the ninth grade to the newly desegregated high school, and then moving the fifth and/or sixth grade(s) out of the segregated elementary schools and creating new and desegregated middle schools. The result would be a plan for a dramatically more desegregated school district very likely to receive court approval. Hundreds of middle schools opened in the late l960s and early l970s were products of this effort. As can be imagined, school planners directed far more effort and attention toward facilitating the desegregation of the district than creating exemplary programs for educating young adolescents, especially since few seemed to know what these programs should be (George, Morgan, & Jenkins, 1997).

A decade or so later, in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s, the changing demographic patterns in the Northeast and Midwest brought new challenges related to managing school enrollments for planners in those regions (George & Alexander, 2003). Buildings in some districts were far below capacity in the upper grades, to the point that high schools might have to be closed-a hitherto unheard of and undesirable option. High schools tend to be the subject of great loyalty and nostalgia, and no one likes to see one close. In other districts, new growth brought a surge of new enrollment in the early grades of the elementary school, leaving crowded classrooms in those buildings. …

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