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The Question of Middle School

Today's New York Times has two more interesting sections about schools and teaching.

Firstly, there's the four letters they chose to publish in response to Tom Moore's op-ed piece under the title Heroic Teachers, On Screen and Off. The writers make some interesting points about the issues raised, and I've linked to the letters in case anyone wants to read them.

But secondly, there's an article on the question of middle schools, and that's what I want to focus on today.

The article, "Taking Middle Schoolers Out of the Middle" by Elissa Gootman, discusses the "national effort to rethink middle school." There are two basic philosophies when it comes to middle school, both of which are based on the assumption that middle school (meaning a school for grades 6-8)ought to be eliminated. One philosophy, expounded by Paul Vallas, the chief executive of the Philadelphia school system, is that students in grades 6-8 are better served if they are part of an overall K-8 school. His idea is that students in these grades need the stability and consistency of being in a comfortable, familiar environment.

Not too surprisingly, the other philosophy is that students in grades 6-8 are better served by being part of a high school environment, in which they can look to the older students as role models and begin to gain exposure to the concepts of varsity sports and applying to college. As it is, there aren't as many 6-12 school as there are K-8 schools, and most of those were created less to tackle the problem of middle school students and more to have extra time to work with students at a high school level.

I read this article with interest, as I've been trying to figure out where I stand on this question. My own experience is somewhat relevant. As a student, I never attended a middle school, per se. I attended two different 1-6 elementary schools, one from first to third grade and then the other from fourth to sixth grade. Then, from grades 7-12, I attended Hunter College High School, an exam school in Manhattan, meaning that overall I had what some might consider two possibly traumatic transitions over my own schooling. I left behind one peer group when I moved into fourth grade, and I left behind another peer group when I entered seventh grade. So not only did I have to deal with new schools, but I also had to deal with making a whole new set of friends.

Furthermore, I've taught in a variety of different schools. I taught at one K-12 school where K-6 was all in one building and 7-12 was in another; I taught at a 9-12 school, where students from different feeder schools mixed together; and I taught in a 6-8 middle school that was part of an overall K-8 school. And what I found is that while students had many different issues dealing with school, most of these issues didn't seem to be based upon specific transition difficulties.

In short, I'm not sure how much it matters. It's true that when I taught middle school, we had an overall philosophy of using the middle school years to help students transition, so that when they graduated they would be ready for the high school experience. And I like to think that we succeeded. But my guess is that such an experience could also be provided just as easily to a group of middle schoolers in a 6-12 school, or even to a group in a 6-8 school. To be honest, I never thought of middle school as an independent concept until I was teaching in one, as my own school experience caused me to see the natural divisions as 1-6 and 7-12.

In conclusion, well, I have no conclusion. I'd be curious to hear about other people's experiences and what they think on the issue.


Middle schools must be relatively new (in the last 2 decades). In L.A. in the mid 1980s, I attended a "Junior High School" for grades 7-9. Then high school for 10-12. Both were magnet schools and may have been different than regular schools, but regardless, grade school, junior high school, and high school worked for me. It might have been more convenient to do 1-6 and 7-12 just because you'd stick with some of your friends longer, but that's really the only advantage that I could see.
My (small private) elementary school was K-8, but at the time I went through, had 3 years of students per class, so my "middle school" was three years in a 6-8 classroom. At the time, I mostly felt, that combining grades had more advantages than disadvantages, though depending on the social makeup and balance of numbers, being in the lowest grade could get you picked on a lot. Looking back, I feel like doing 6-8 in a small group meant that we ended up being more innocent--in a good way--than the general Traumatic Social Experience Of Middle School seems to generally leave people. (Not that we didn't have our share of social trauma. :) But, for example, it was hard to really have a lot of ranks of Popularity: there just weren't enough of us to support serious cliques. Though on the flip side, it was hard to make new friends when you didn't get along with your old ones any more, because there weren't any new people.)

I wonder whether being in a K-8 setting also contributed to us staying "younger"--i.e. not quite so viscious. But we didn't interact with the younger kids a lot, so I don't know.
I too went to a junior high. There was no "transition trauma" for us; we had about two elementaries feeding our junior high and two junior highs feeding the high school, so we saw pretty much the same people in all cases.

In our case, 1-6 (I don't think they did kindergarten back then, where I was) involved kids having the same teacher all day; in 7th grade, you started switching to different classrooms for the different subject. For all I know, that distinction is as archaic as the "junior high" concept, though.

I would really hesitate to combine too many grades in one building, in whatever direction. Older kids tend to bully much younger kids far more than they tend to "mentor" them, in my experience. Little savages, all of 'em. :>
I went to a rural public school. K-3 in one building. 4-6 in another building at the same location. 7-8 at a different location. 9-12 at yet another location. The 7-8 was considered jr high. I believe most of the decisions were made based on available space. My lower grade schools were all old high school buildings left over from the days when each small town had it's own school. Jr high was also where all the kids from all the different small towns were put together in one graduating class. It made me think jr high was exciting because I got to meet a whole bunch of new people. It was a good transition to high school.
On LI the public school I attended was K-9. 7-9 was in a separate wing, but physically attached. Although the two groups did not mix on the playgrounds or at lunch, there were programs where the older kids went back and essentially functioned as supervised T.A.s. I remember as an 8th grader going back and reading a first grade class One Fish Two Fish in both English and Spanish. The kids were really excited to hear the Spanish, which surprised me.

There were other schools in the district that had a smaller grade range. Our 'rival' Junior High School on the other side of town was 7-9 with no younger classes. When we all came together for 10-12 (high school) I didn't seem much difference between the two groups. I was something of an outcast at my old school, so most of my friends in HS had gone to the other Junion High school.
I started middle school in 5th grade; our whole peer group transitioned together. At the end of 5th we moved and I went to a 6-12 school for 6th - 8th, which was also fine. It was a small school (Alternative school with about 150 students) and we had a lot of interaction with the high school students - I still have a gift from one, he gave me Walter Farley's Man O' War. I met one of my dearest friends in 6th grade and we still visit. My parents decided to put me in the traditional public high school, and I have to say that was awful. It felt like a factory - the teaching involved a great deal of memorization and almost no thinking, and a lot of speeches about how special we were (honors level, the school had a 4-level tracking system) and how honored we should be to be in these classes. The Interlochen Arts Academy, where I escaped for grades 11 and 12, was a huge relief, in spite of the much longer hours. Class discussions, and time to talk to the teacher after class if you wanted - what a concept!
Sorry for the ramble.

I like the old junior high system that I grew up on, personally. Elementary was 1-6, junior high was 7-8, and high school was 9-12. In even older times, it was 7-9 and 10-12. I like a four year high school, though. I think it is important for 7th and 8th graders not to mix socially with high schoolers. This is just when kids are hitting puberty, whereas high school is older adolescents, and there is a world of difference.

Likewise, elementary school kids should probably not be mixing socially with pubescent kids in middle school, although that distinction needn't be so strong. Our junior high school was self contained, but it was right next to the high school, so theoretically the high school facilities were available for the junior high as well (junior high sports got cut a long time ago), and that also made it possible for JH kids to go to accelerated classes at the high school.
I went to middle school, and the kids who had been merely unfriendly in elementary school became violent and hateful in the new environment, I think in part because having different teachers throughout the day meant that what you did to other kids between classes wasn't any teacher's problem. Nothing in my life has yet equalled the hell of middle school, especially 7-8th grades (for one thing, I haven't been spat on, farted on or cornered in the bathroom since then). I think kids would do better if they had to answer to the same teachers all day, in an environment where the adults had known them since they were knee-high and could put the fear of God in them with a raised eyebrow.
My middle school experience was pretty awful (think: mixed gender, haunted, minimum security prison without uniforms, where you get to go home at the end of the day). There's got to be a better way.
I did the middle school thing, as I am young enough that middle schools were the norm (my [older] sister went to a 'junior high', although the distinction seems arbitrary to me).

As far as I can tell, middle school exists because it is when students go through the highly traumatic process of puberty, and it is better to have a separate school for this so that their terrible experiences will not color their impressions of elementary and high school. It's like a quarantine, basically. You concentrate your hatred for that particular social and biological catastrophe into only three years, which can be easily repressed.

(I didn't particularly enjoy my time in middle school, as you may have gathered)

Lumping middle school in with high school seems like a terrible idea to me, for the same reasons that it seems like a good one to others: they will look to the older high school students as role models. The problem with this idea is that many high school students are irresponsible idiots. If we joined middle school to high school, I think we'd see more alcohol, drug, and sexual experimentation among that age group (although I'm just guessing, it might actually work out). I think it'd be better to connect middle school to elementary, where the middle schoolers themselves can be role models for the younger children, and the atmosphere of the school is still...child-like, is the word, I suppose.
I support having a separate middle school building for many of the reasons that you mentioned, though I think it's worthwhile to have the middle school and high school buildings adjacent to one another and administered jointly.

The main reason for this design is that it permits bright students to take more advanced classes without requiring a special tutor (which is an expense most schools can't afford). I was lucky; by the time I got to 8th grade, there were 8 or 9 of us who needed to take algebra, so our teacher from 7th grade managed to con the administration into teaching a middle school algebra class. But my older brother was advanced two years in math, and they had a lot of difficulty scheduling him into a geometry class at the high school because the HS was on a block scheduling system and the middle school wasn't.

I am not sure how much the proximity to the high school matters for bad role modelling. A lot of middle school students are going to have older siblings in high school, so they already think that sex and drugs are cool.
The scheduling reasons can easily veer into whole other education issues...for instance, I had algebra in my middle school because I live in a fancy-pants town, but that's a whole 'nother discussion. It wouldn't be necessary to jump the schools together to allow kids to jump ahead--as you allude to, it would be easy if they just used the same scheduling system. My middle school had a block system on a 6-day cycle. I have no idea who's M.Ed. thesis determined that that system was optimal, but it made the CSW mod system a walk in the park by comparison.

This gets back to an earlier MAB post (and the response by that lawyer fellow)...it's very difficult to make a small change effectively, because lots of parts of the education system need changing and they're all interconnected.

Older siblings always have the capability to be great, or terrible role models (just like parents). That's unavoidable. I think older strangers are much more sinister in this capacity.
Another, less palatable issue is that shaping the school system on what is best for bright students is, honestly, a terrible philosophy. Exceptional students can work outside the system, and while bright students certainly should get encouragement, they don't need the system to cater to them especially.

I guess what I'm saying is...while there's no reason to keep someone from advancing, it doesn't justify changing the system if there's any downside for anyone else.
I grew up in Quebec, which has yet another system.

Elementary school goes from K-6, and secondary school goes from 7-11 (referred to as Secondary 1-through-5). After that, we go to CEGEP, which has two basic streams - trade college programs like computer sciences, plumbing, welding, communications, and programs designed as pre-university such as Social Sciences, Pure and Applied Sciences, Fine Arts, Health Sciences, and Liberal Arts. The former were three-year programs; the latter, two years (ideally). As in a university, one could do part-time courseloads.

CEGEP's pre-university stream was designed to prepare us adequately for college, and in some respects it did - I learned how professors are much more interesting if you can track them down in their offices and how to find primary sources. (I could have done without the critical thinking skills, though - I have lost marks on papers in university for defeating my own point!)

What it did more, though, for me was rob me of what enjoyment I found in school. It just seemed to me to keep going, more and more steps, putting off the end; CEGEP meant that I didn't get to go to college until I was nineteen (and even then I had to leave the province, as I never graduated from CEGEP). It felt like the system was trying to keep me a child for as long as possible. When I finally DID get to a university, friends my age from other places (I'm thinking mostly Scotland) were close to finishing their bachelor's.

Psychologically, for me, fewer (if larger) steps would have worked better. An extra year of high school? No problem, because I wouldn't have kept reaching the top of the mountain, only to see another mountain.

It's not quite middle-school, but it keeps that intermediary step, really. It wasn't traumatic because I kept changing environments; it was traumatic because I never got to feel that I'd accomplished anything with any finality.
"trade college programs like computer sciences..."

Sorry, I should have explained it better. I think the exact name of the program type was "career training". The program name itself WAS Computer Science, though. I presume it differs from a university degree in some way, but I honestly don't know enough about the program to say how. Friends of mine who were in the program talked a lot about C++ and Visual Basic, which I know are programming languages, and did work-study terms in their third year.

CEGEP is a very weird thing.
My Jr High was 6-8. I had no idea this was so unusual. We seem to be assuming that a middle school should be removed, and just debating which group to append those grades to. Why are we so sure about this?

Anyway, I'd say that in most cases kids in school will date other kids in their school, and it's a good idea to separate 8th graders from 12th graders. Maybe 9th graders, too.

Furthermore, I think changing social circles and environments are good for kids. Teaches them to adapt. In some small way, shows them that things are bigger than the little social cicrle they know. Many people move after high school and never interact much with their high school friends, but they often do not realize that this will be the case while they are in grade school, and thus, they get way more worked up about things than they might otherwise. I was an Air Force brat, and went to grade school in three different states. Each move was sad in a way, at the time, but it also gave me the impression that there is a lot more to the world and to life than what I interacted with day-to-day, and made me realize that the friendships I made at that age were not the most important things in life. More importantly, neither were the emnities I made or suffered from. Don't sweat the small stuff, and it's all small stuff.
I'm a product of Catholic school education. Kindergarten (which was really glorified daycare in those days) was in a public school. 1-3 were in one Catholic grammar school, 4-8 in another after we moved. 4 years each of Catholic high school and Catholic college. In evaluating schools for my children (or watching my suburban nieces' education), I find any other system to be foreign and "wrong". Not in an ethical sense of wrongness, but just that it's a pointless complication of a pretty simple maturation process. Of course, Catholic students of my generation led fairly naive lives up until high school, which is no longer the case (my fifth grade daughter has a heck of a lot more second-hand information about pre-teen relationships than I did in 9th grade).

Personally, I'm opposed to moving kids around too often. An 8-year stretch in a single grammar school gives them a sense of place and belonging. It allows them to become part of a community, which, to me, is nearly as important to the educational process as the book learning. Good K-8 schools will give the "junior high schoolers" a chance to tutor and mentor their younger counterparts in the school. From what I've seen, that leads to a greater sense of self and accomplishment that carries over to high school.
I'm a horrible person to ask about this stuff, because I went through a bizarre set of grades at a series of different schools:
2nd and 3rd grade in a 1-3 elementary
3rd (reprise)[1], 4th, and half of 5th in a 3-5 elementary
the rest of 5th and 6th in a K-6 elementary in another district (enrichment program/magnet school)
7th and 8th: return to home district, days split between a 6-8 middle school and a 9-12 high school (due to some classes only being available at the HS)
9th/11th[2] and 12th at the HS

[1] social demotion, since I'd skipped 1st and was having trouble dealing with the older kids
[2] in September, I was in 9th; in November, 11th. This was the result of the district staff & my parents figuring out which requirements could be waived/modified to get me out before I ran out of classes to take.
I agree with a comment made earlier--the problem with middle school is not the transition issues, it's the social ones. Personally, I would like k-7 and 8-12...I think it would work much better in terms of socialization, education, mentoring...and it would seperate seventh and eighth graders, which i think would be key to avoiding a lot of the hidiousness that is the middle school years.

Also, all teachers of grades 7 and 8 need special training in dealing with and understanding early adolescent behaviors, imho. Either that or a dash of basic empathy.
I went to a strange combination of schools. The first was k-3. Then I went to publich school where our building was k-4. Middle school was 5-6 in its own building. Jr high was 7 & 8 in the same building as the high shcool but a seperate wing when possible to keep us apart from the high schoolers. I then switched to CSW which was 9-12. I liked being away from the younger & older students in 5 & 6 but think it would have been better 5-8 instead.

December 2016

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