Where Do We Put the Middle?

In 1909, the first American junior high schools—grades 7and 8—opened in Columbus, Ohio, with the idea that there needed to exist a transition period between elementary schools and the college-prep years, known as high school.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

The junior high model spread rapidly, with the intention of preparing students for the more complex world of high school by offering dedicated core classes, standalone electives, and sports.  By 1950, it was becoming widely accepted that students who were entering 6th grade needed to be removed from the confining curriculum and basic social structure of the elementary school as well and into a more “adult” structure.  In Bay City, Michigan, the first middle school opened and welcomed grades 6 through 8, a model that also spread quickly.  By the 1980s, almost every public middle-level institution was either a junior high school (7-9) or a middle school (6-8).

So, enough of the history lesson; let’s get to the new stuff.  There hasn’t been very much scientific research done on our nation’s schools that leads to data to compare the models.  The research that has been done is snapshot and leads to the assumptions that the 6-8 model is actually not very effective compared to the K-8 or the very few 7-12 modeled schools.  Unfortunately, much of the data from these studies is heavily weighted by standardized test scores, so take that as you may.  What I want to talk about is developmental readiness and where the middle fits in.  The rest is up to the serious discussions that must happen in a community of educators, parents, students, and leaders to determine what’s best.

Proponents of the K-8 model point to behavior as the biggest benefit of their school structures.  It is suggested that the presence of younger children keeps preadolescents “in check” and less likely to engage in inappropriate behavior, since they are basically serving in a role-model capacity.  This is an interesting and hopeful notion, but the evidence to support it is scant.  As any statistician will tell you, correlation doesn’t always mean causation, and not all K-8 schools report these correlations.

Others report that keeping young adolescents in the same building with the same “nurturing” environment keeps them grounded and less likely to become anxious about the big changes that come with starting middle school, which means more independence, more teachers, more homework, and the adjustment of a new system with new rules and expectations.  The evidence to support this argument is certainly anecdotal and, again, spread thin.

Critics of the K-8 model will generally refute the points I’ve listed above, using the arguments I’ve listed above, and I will list a few more reasons I’ve heard in a moment.  The K-8 school inherently teaches and treats these young teenagers as though they are, as Rick Wormelli puts it, “slightly more complex primary students,” which they are not.  The 7-12 model suggests that middle school students are “immature high school students,” where perhaps the upper grades peers will lead them by example (which, in my high school, may not have been a good thing).

What do you think?  Does your school incorporate a non-traditional model that is working (or not working)?  Does the middle school model work the way it is now?


About Kris Nielsen
Kris L. Nielsen has been a middle grades educator and instructional leader for ten years in New Mexico, Oregon, and North Carolina. He is a graduate of Western Governors University’s Master of Science Education program, with emphasis on child development and instructional technology. Kris is an activist against corporate education reforms and has had his writing featured in several online magazines and blogs, including those of the Washington Post and Diane Ravitch. Kris currently lives in New Mexico with his young son and beautiful wife.

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