Photo by marsmettnn tallahassee on Flickr.

DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson is working on a plan to improve the quality of the system’s middle schools. But there’s been a debate about how best to educate this age group for years. What can we learn from it?

DC isn’t the only place in the country fretting about middle schools. In New York, newly appointed schools chancellor Carmen Fariña is focusing on this sector as well, predicting that “if we get middle school right, the rest is going to be a piece of cake.” And one former Louisiana superintendent has called middle schools “the Bermuda triangle of education.”

"Middle school has been this overlooked, forgotten period for too long,” says Lynsey Wood Jeffries, chief executive officer of Higher Achievement, a nonprofit that works with middle school students.

While it may have been overlooked in some ways, educators have been experimenting with changing grade configurations for this cohort for over 50 years. Until the early 20th century, kindergarten-through-8th grade schools were the norm. Junior high schools, serving 7th and 8th grade separately, became popular during the 1950s.

Then in the ‘60s, middle schools that started at 6th or sometimes 5th grade became trendy. More recently there’s been a movement back to K-8 schools (DCPS calls them “education campuses”). But none of these configurations seem to have provided the magic formula.

A tough group to educate

To hear some tell it, 11- to 14-year-olds are just a tough group to educate, obsessed with their places in the pecking order, their identities, and their swirling hormones. One former middle school teacher told Ira Glass of This American Life that he came away from the experience “think you’re sort of wasting your time trying to teach middle school students anything.” When Glass asked if perhaps these kids should just be sent off to work for a few years, the former teacher said, “Yeah!”

The Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss proposed something similar a couple of years ago, suggesting that we “create middle-school education environments that would allow kids to learn skills in unconventional ways and that would give them far more time to engage in physical activity outside the classroom.”

The difficulties of dealing with this population may explain why middle schools have high teacher turnover. Another problem is that few teachers are certified specifically to teach middle school, although many have credentials geared to elementary or high school teaching.

And, as a New York Times series on middle schools that ran several years ago pointed out, academic and behavioral issues that exist at other levels can be magnified in middle school. The work gets more demanding, so students can fall farther behind than they do in elementary school.

In high school, students are often tracked by ability, but middle schools don’t do that as much. And in high school, troublemakers often play hooky. In middle school, they still show up for class.

But others see middle school as a time of tremendous possibility. Brain science has shown that neurologically, this period sees an amount of growth that is second only to early childhood. Whatever activities kids this age pursue leads to a certain amount of “hard-wiring” in the brain. And they’re old enough to be interested in exploring the world around them and capable of complex thinking.

K-8 versus middle schools

Much of the academic research on middle schools has focused on grade configurations: specifically, whether students do better in a K-8 environment or a stand-alone middle school. The verdict has generally been in favor of K-8 schools. All transitions are hard for students, and one that comes at this age may be particularly hard.

One study found that switching to middle school causes a sharp drop in students’ test scores that persists through high school, as compared to students from K-8 schools.

But researchers also caution that school configuration isn’t determinative. You can have a great middle school and a so-so K-8 school. (Other countries, by the way, use completely different configurations. In Germany, students go to one school through 4th grade and then on to secondary school. In Finland, students attend the same school from 2nd grade to 10th.)

While a K-8 configuration can make things easier, and parents often prefer it, some studies conclude that what’s more important is what goes on inside the school. And one study of Philadelphia schools concluded that the K-8 advantage pretty much disappears when the student population is high-poverty and predominantly minority.

What goes on inside the school

Researchers have identified a number of key “effective practices” for middle schools. They include things like setting measurable goals for students on tests, holding teachers and administrators accountable for student progress, and expecting parents to share in the responsibility for a student’s learning. Others have recommended small learning communities, professional development for teachers geared to the middle school years, and cooperative learning.

Four years ago, the New York Times series said that “almost every kind of experiment” was under way in the city’s middle schools, including dividing middle school into themed academies. Apparently, none of them was the magic bullet.

None of the recommendations or experiments is particularly revolutionary, at least compared to the idea of sending middle school students out to work. And rather than focusing on adolescents’ social and emotional needs, they’re at least equally geared towards academics.

That makes sense. After all, middle schools need to prepare students to do high-school-level work, and they won’t get there without focusing on academics. According to one account, the original impetus for creating middle schools was to nurture kids’ emotional development more than junior highs were doing. But it then became apparent that kids weren’t actually learning much in middle school.

Ideally, there should be a way to both provide kids with the developmental experiences they need at this age while at the same time inculcating the content knowledge and fostering the higher-order thinking skills they’ll need in high school.

Higher Achievement’s Lynsey Jeffries suggests that middle schoolers need what she calls “voice and choice:” a say in what goes on in the classroom and a variety of options to choose from, both academically and in terms of extracurricular activities. She also says it’s important to give them real-world experiences that will help them connect school with their future: taking them to workplaces, for example, where they can see doctors, lawyers, or other adults in action.

What does all this mean for DCPS’s middle school plan? We’ll tackle that in a future post.

Natalie Wexler is a DC education journalist and blogger. She chairs the board of The Writing Revolution and serves on the Urban Teachers DC Regional Leadership Council, and she has been a volunteer reading and writing tutor in high-poverty DC Public Schools.