The Surprising Science of Middle Schools

The Failure of the Middle School Model

Over the last 50 years, the middle school model has not produced any of its promised results. The sweeping shift to the middle school model appears in reality to cause net educational harm, not benefit.

The origin of middle school

According to a Harvard publication, until the early 20th century, U.S. schools were mostly configured as K–8, followed by a 9-12 high school. After WWII, junior highs were added, mostly to meet Baby Boom school enrollment growth. In the 1960s, a trend rapidly grew toward the creation of middle schools for grade 5 or 6 through 8th grade. These schools either replaced junior highs or split up K–8 schools.

In 1970, there were 2,100 middle schools. By 1999, there were 11,200, an increase of more than 430 percent. During the same period, the number of junior highs declined by nearly 54 percent, from 7,800 to 3,600.

Education reformers thought that there is a significant difference in the pedagogic needs of pre-adolescent, early adolescent, and later adolescent children. Middle schools were supposed to dramatically improve learning out comes by freeing early adolescents from the dragging academic “anchor” of elementary school, but protect this fragile period from the blacktop “jungle” of high school, allowing for a running start into high school.

Not only has the ship not turned, it may be sinking

Although the tsunami of adopting the middle school model is more than a half century old, the model has not delivered on any of its promises. There has been no overall increase in learning and education outcomes. And the sweeping shift to the middle school model appears to actually cause damage.

Among numerous studies with similar, consistent findings, a 2012 study — led by Dr. Martin R. West of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education — is typical in finding that moving to middle school led to a substantial drop in student test scores in the first year of the transition. Further, the study indicated that the longer students stay in a middle school, the lower their achievement.

Clearly, when a drastic, systemic alteration doesn’t change the course of education outcomes in any positive way — and appears to cause harm instead — one would suspect some sort of systemic failure.

And there is. The middle school model has a basic systemic flaw.

What’s actually causing the failure of the middle school model?

The problem is not middle schools, per se. Although separating children along developmental lines may have some benefit, it appears to be completely overwhelmed by a fundamental feature of the middle school model – transition and change.

Transitioning from one school to another is highly stressful and disruptive to all children of all ages. And this is particularly true for transitions between different school models or configurations. Changing from one elementary school to another is less damaging than transitioning from elementary to middle school.

Transitions are to be avoided

The middle school model requires two transitions. Research finds a significant achievement loss during each transition year. Studies clearly indicate: students who make fewer transitions need fewer years to make up for achievement losses caused by transitions.

As Dr. Martin noted when publishing his findings:

Research does not show that any particular grade configuration is best, but it definitely shows that avoiding and minimizing the frequency of transitions is highly beneficial.

Numerous studies and research consistently support the decision by a minority of school districts to have only one transition. In its day, such a decision may have been driven by coincidental enrollment trends, but the science shows that those that have since chosen to steer wide of the middle school course may have been proved wise.

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Joel L. A. Peterson is the national award-winning author of the novel, Dreams of My Mothers (Huff Publishing Associates, 2015).

-- 1st Place Winner, 2015 Readers' Favorite National Book Awards (Gold Award)

-- Book of the Year Award Winner, Foreword Reviews’ 2015 INDIEFAB Awards

“Compelling, candid, exceptionally well written, Dreams of My Mothers is a powerful read. Very highly recommended.”

— Midwest Book Review

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