THE PURPOSE OF MIDDLE SCHOOL
Many of us share a common unpleasant experience: the first confusing and frightening months of junior high school. Middle schools were proposed and developed to address the difficulties inevitably encountered when students enter traditional junior high. The attempt will be made here to present what middle school should look like and how it is expected to solve the problems associated with the transition to secondary school.
Eleven to fourteen year-olds are enduring puberty, a time educators refer to as early adolescence. Early adolescence involves the most profound physical, emotional and mental changes that children will ever experience. Within the traditional American public education system, educators simultaneously force the young adolescent to undergo yet another substantial change. This is the progression from the elementary school to the secondary school. The move into the early secondary school, unlike the four to five year growth through puberty, occurs over a two or three day period at the beginning of the sixth or seventh grade. Since the 1940's, educators have known with certainty that impacting youngsters with the changes of puberty and secondary schools simultaneously was difficult for every child and devastating to many. Recent research has demonstrated that the negative results of the two changes occurring together will include lowered achievement, lowered Grade Point Average, diminished student leadership behaviors, poor self-concept, and over-reliance on the peer group.
The Place They Knew
The elementary school in the United States public education system is expected to be a child-centered place where kindergarten through fifth or sixth grade (seventh or eighth in some areas) children are kept in cohesive, stable membership groups of about 22 to 30. Students remain with one teacher whom they know well for three or more hours per day. This practice is referred to as self-containment. By the time he has reached fifth or sixth grade, the elementary school child has been comfortably nurtured within self-contained learning environments for longer than half of his lifetime. The elementary students who are fifth or sixth graders are also the upperclassmen of their school. They are the largest, most privileged, and most mature students in their environment. Lamentably, this child’s self-contained situation and eldest-child status change dramatically upon introduction to the next level of schooling no matter what type of middle level school he enters. This change can be much more severe if the middle level school to which the students move is not a "real" middle school.
The Junior High School
The secondary school that awaits the 11 or 12-year olds appears in two forms: the traditional junior high school or the middle school. The junior high is simply an imitation of the high school. The child new to the junior high school (either the 6-7-8 or the 7-8-9 variety) is faced with much more travel, responsibility and interpersonal interaction than he experienced while at the elementary school. He may change rooms and classes as many as eight times a day and is responsible for being at succeeding classes on time and with completed assignments for each class. Here, students do not journey in protected groups as is common in elementary school but are instead expected to navigate within the much larger building (with its much larger students) by themselves. Every class the student attends has a unique content, structure, mood and thirty or so different faces. This is much unlike the self-contained classroom he recently departed with its twenty-three or so familiar faces and well-known environment. The instructor of each subsequent junior high class has a different personality, voice, delivery and style.
The typical junior high school tends to be subject-centered. What is taught is more important than who is taught. Sadly, many of today's middle schools are not true middle schools but are instead junior high schools for eleven year-old children. These institutions function exactly as junior high or high schools with seven classes, seven peer groups and seven teachers for each anonymous child.
The Real Middle School
A real middle school emulates the elementary school for its youngest students. In this school, entry-level students belong to only one or two peer groups, as in elementary school, rather than the six, seven or eight peer groups of the typical junior high school. The sixth grader is easily intimidated by complexity, so middle school schedules for the "little ones" ought to be fairly transparent.
Middle school students in the real middle school are taught within teaching teams. Teaching teams model the elementary school in that they limit the number of peer groups with which the student must associate. The academic program provided by the teams emphasizes essential and accelerated skills that are coordinated, as they would be in a self-contained elementary school class. Math, English, science and social studies requirements are organized so as to support the total academic program, to individualize learning for the student, and to keep student daily work loads reasonable. Expectations are high. Students on the teams are expected to be productive and successful. Quality work is benevolently demanded of everybody, everyday. The teaching teams also have similar rules, consequences, assignment style requirements, teaching and testing methods. This is designed to minimize the confusion that can be experienced by a twelve year-old who is accustomed to one teacher. The teaching teams - along with parents, principals and counselors - should make the instructional decisions critical to the student with input but not interference from the central office. As the child proceeds from 6th to 7th to 8th grades, more independence is expected, more peer groups are available and more responsibilities are conferred. By the end of the 8th grade, the student is hoped to be ready for the high school.
The real middle school has an active intramural program, physical education for all, and opportunities for students to simply run. "An organism that runs everywhere it goes, which, upon arrival to its destination, hits somebody," is a humorous definition of a sixth grader. Health and fitness are emphasized because of the firm belief that children who receive daily exercise and have a basic understanding of health and fitness issues will be more productive.
Children tend to pull away from parents at this age. This is reflected in the drop in parental involvement that is often noted as the child proceeds from the elementary to the middle level school. To counter this trend, true middle schools should encourage informed parents to be actively involved in the education of their child. The school and the family belong together.
Finally, the real middle school will be closely tied with the community. The school can be adopted by a community business, it may use community resources for career exploration or enrichment of academic or extra- curricular programs. The belief is that the community can and will enhance and improve the effectiveness of the educational experience if it is simply allowed into the education process.
Any stakeholder ought to examine the middle level schools in their districts to determine whether or not they are real. Real middle schools will make a "real" difference for children.
Michael Mitchell Ph.D. - 1989