Walk through any middle school in the United States, and what
you'll notice are the big feet - just a hint of the physical,
and emotional changes that make Grades 5 to 8 so challenging to many
"We have sixth-graders who are 6 feet tall and wear a size 15
shoe. They wake up every morning and their bodies are different. It
can be a very emotional time," says Sue Pope, a sixth-grade
mathematics teacher at Ellicott Mills Middle School in Howard
Her reading colleague, Kathy Benditt, furnishes her classroom
soft chairs she bought at a yard sale. "Sixth-graders are not
designed to sit in hard chairs, and reading is a recreational
activity," she says.
For most of this century, educators have argued that such students
need their own schools. Early reformers created junior high schools
(Grades 7 to 9) to help students bridge the chasm between the warmth
of a neighborhood elementary school and the anonymity of a large
In the 1960s, the middle-school movement (variously, Grades 5 to
8) targeted the developmental needs of "volatile" young learners.
Now, the pendulum may be shifting back to a focus on traditional
academics, and disgruntled parents are pushing it.
Public-school officials in Cincinnati, which launched the first
middle schools, are in the process of scrapping them. "We found that
we just couldn't implement the middle-school model as it was
designed," says Jack Lewis, director of research and evaluation for
Cincinnati public schools.
For example, a signature reform of the middle-school movement was
the creation of interdisciplinary teams of teachers to follow
students through their middle-school years and help create a sense
belonging. But there was so much staff and student mobility that
Cincinnati schools never developed stable teams or consistency for
In addition, officials say that achievement improved as they began
to reintegrate middle schools into a K-8 system. Truancy and serious
discipline problems also dropped. "One of the problems with middle
schools is having so many kids of a vulnerable age in the same
building, without role models they can look up to, as in high
or younger students for whom they can be role models, as in
elementary school," says Kathleen Ware, assistant superintendent of
Cincinnati public schools.
"We've had many calls from other districts all over the country
interested in doing the same thing," she adds.
Poor discipline, low achievement
In Cincinnati, as in other cities, unhappy parents were a catalyst
for change. Alarmed by poor discipline and student achievement in
the middle-school years, many were pulling their children out of
Cincinnati public schools after elementary school. In response to
similar concerns, Baltimore is beginning to phase out its middle
The Third International Math and Science Study (TIMSS) shows
American students competing above the international average in the
fourth grade, but falling behind in the middle-school years. In
addition, some 39 percent of eighth-graders are unprepared for high
school work, according to results from the National Assessment of
Educational Progress (NAEP).
"We don't seem to make the same kind of progress between the
fourth and eighth grades that some other countries do, especially in
math," says US Secretary of Education Richard Riley.
Critics blame the middle-school philosophy and structure. "Middle
schools are the wasteland of our primary and secondary landscape,"
write Marc Tucker and Judy Codding in their recent book, "Standards
for Our Schools."
"Caught between the warmth of a good elementary school and the
academic seriousness of a good high school, middle-school students
often get the least of both and the best of neither," they add. They
urge going back to a K-8 system.
A recent report by the Atlanta-based Southern Regional Education
Board said that "the middle grades - Grades 5 through 8 - are the
"weak link in American education," but held out hope for reform. …