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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.


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.

December 2016

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