Middle Schools Are Evil

A study recently published in Education Next looks in depth at what the authors’ call the “Middle-School Cliff,” or the significant drop off in student achievement for students entering middle school in 6th or 7th grade. The authors’ compared the test scores at stand-alone middle schools to the achievement of peers attending K-8 school.

Our results cast serious doubt on the wisdom of the middle-school experiment that has become such a prominent feature of American education. We find that moving to a middle school causes a substantial drop in student test scores (relative to that of students who remain in K–8 schools) the first year in which the transition takes place, not just in New York City but also in the big cities, suburbs, and small-town and rural areas of Florida.

The authors’ attempt to find a cause for this “cliff,” and drew blanks on every explanation except “school culture.” They could not find any significant differences between resources, cohort size, or educational practices, but did find that principals reported higher instances of violence and feeling that teachers were inadequately meeting the needs of the students. This study gives credence to a recent movement by districts and charters to create more K-8 schools and make the transition to high school a one-time disturbance in a child’s education.

Where I teach, in a rural Louisiana parish, the parish split the schools between K-6 and 7-12 grade classes. When the split was made promises were made to parents that the “gold shirts,” our 7th and 8th graders, would remain separate from the rest of the student population – a promise impossible to make at a rather small school. The bulk of our disciplinary issues come from the aforementioned “gold shirts” and the school struggles year-after-year with the steep drop off in achievement by our 7th and 8th graders.

Middle school is a scary time for students. Ask any 20-something today about their time in middle school and most stories revolve around the drama, bullying, and isolation many people felt at that point in their lives. I recently gave a classroom survey to my students asking them questions relevant to the issues mentioned above. I was quite excited to see that my students gave the class high marks for educational rigor, my own compassion towards them, and the support they receive academically. I was dismayed that the only poor mark that each student gave was to the statement “Students treat each other with respect in this classroom.” This response seemed so contradictory to the other responses that I was forced to think about the reasons behind why they would all universally provide this answer. I believe that this is one small sample of what the study’s authors were trying to get to the bottom of. The developmental and academic age at which students enter middle school is so tumultuous that K-8 schools are better adapted to deal these emotions and changes. When you throw a young student into the midsts of 8th – 9th graders you throw them into a culture that diminishes the academic achievement of students.

Extra – This American Life recently aired an entire episode dedicated to middle school and the tribulations that come along with that period of a person’s life. Excellent listening.


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