This article was originally published by The Mennonite

Miscellany: Those neglected middle schools

It’s fall, and students are back in school. People who want to fix education, or at least improve it, often focus on “dropout factory” high schools or access to pre-kindergarten instruction. But middle schools tend to get ignored.

In “Bad Grades” (Pacific Standard, September/October), Dana Goldstein reports on studies done on middle schools and points to ways they can better meet the needs of the students within them.

A recent study from the University of Illinois at Urbana/Champaign of 1,400 Midwestern middle schoolers “found that about a fifth of students reported experiencing some form of sexual harassment, bullying or abuse, often within the classroom,” Goldstein writes.

Another study showed that 28 percent of Taiwanese eighth and ninth graders earned scores on a math test that placed them at an accomplished level, while only 6 percent of U.S. eighth and ninth graders did.But don’t blame the students, says Goldstein.

Middle schools are poorly designed to meet their students’ needs. Five studies, however, provide some hope.

1. Accept that middle schoolers are adolescents. “Today,” writes Goldstein, “puberty’s onset is happening months and often years earlier than it did in the 1960s.” The most likely cause of this change is diets high in fat and processed sugar. “Early puberty,” she writes, “is associated with depression, misbehavior, academic struggle and sexual initiation at a younger age.”

Middle schools should provide a supportive environment and, writes Goldstein, “because the adolescent brain is not at its best in the early morning, the opening bell should ring closer to 9 a.m. than to 7 or 8.”

2. Crack down hard on truancy. A study of sixth graders in Philadelphia found that, “of the students who failed either English or math in sixth grade, less than a quarter went on to graduate high school.” And poor attendance drives academic failure.

3. Hire better-educated teachers and give them reasons not to quit. “Since the middle school years have a crucial impact on children’s later success,” writes Goldstein, “middle school teachers should be among the most elite and highly paid educators in K-12.” They should have better training and be given incentives to stay, like higher salaries, says Goldstein.

4. Focus on character as much as book learning. Goldstein writes that “the best middle school curricula teach kids coping mechanisms that can be applied both to completing schoolwork and to navigating adolescent friendships and dating.”

One promising program, Habits of Mind, helps students develop skills such as “applying past knowledge to new situations,” “admitting you don’t know,” “listening with understanding and empathy,” “taking responsible risks” and “being able to laugh at yourself.”

5. Or get rid of middle school entirely. A growing number of school reformers believe it makes no sense to isolate sixth, seventh and eighth graders in separate school buildings.
One study of children in Florida found that, “across urban, suburban and rural areas, students who attend middle schools do worse academically than peers who attend K-8 schools and are more likely to drop out of high school,” writes Goldstein.

In response to these findings, she writes, “hundreds of middle schools across the country, especially in cities, are transitioning to K-8 formats.”

According to these studies, teaching middle school is a high calling and needs all the support it can get, because it affects the lives of many of our children.

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