After spending the first twelve years of my professional career working at the high school level, I finally found my way home six years ago. It turns out I should have been a middle school teacher all along. Allow me a Lorax moment here.
Thought experiment: when you read the words “middle school” in the last paragraph and the title, did your heart leap or lurch? Does thinking about middle school fill you with dread or dreams? If you are like most people, there is no middle ground (puns always intended): your reaction to anything to do with middle school is probably extreme. Without knowing who you are, I feel perfectly safe to bet that your reaction was laced through with negativity. That reaction is part of the body of evidence that public education must turn its attention to the middle level. Allow me to make the case.
For decades, middle school (and middle schoolers) has been greatly misunderstood. As former young adolescents, we adults do not look back fondly on those years. We remember best the personal discomfort and awkwardness of that time. Our attitudes now are at best patronizingly sympathetic, at worst (and far more commonly) irritably impatient with the young humans struggling through this period of their life. Middle school is cast as a hopeless, mindless seething vat of uncontrollable bodies and emotions that can not be understood, merely contained and survived. The attitude of our society seems to be “keep them from killing each other in middle school and we’ll get them fixed in high school”. Too often, this misunderstanding results in nearly hostile attitudes, postures, and even policies towards middle schools and the students they serve. Students very easily read between the lines of the way they are treated in school as a result: you can’t think for yourself (condescension) but we will have to punish you for your mistakes (injustice).
Perhaps worse than being misunderstood and probably as a direct result of some of the factors listed above, middle school is often simply forgotten. School “reform” efforts are almost always focused on early education and/or college & career readiness. We pump resources into elementary schools for the former and high schools for the later; we work hard to understand the developmental nature of students at those ages and what works for education in those settings. And we ignore middle schools – when we are not fussing at them about their discipline rates, test scores, and attendance rates. In many states, including my own, the middle grades receive the lowest rates of funding for teachers. For every middle-grades specific program, initiative, and grant opportunity, there are twenty or more designated specifically for elementary or high school.
I propose three reasons to buck this trend and make middle school a significant priority.
- Evidence of the need is clear. Student performance on most standardized tests does drop sharply in the middle grades. Students do tend to face disciplinary action at a much higher rate than in elementary school and upper high school grades. Depending on how your district/state defines “middle school”, these are the last institutions to which education is compulsory throughout. Most high schoolers are legally permitted to quit in their second year. Research has determined that certain factors (such as being suspended from school) are predictive of future failure to complete high school when they occur as early as sixth grade. Where middle grades educational outcomes are weak, they are so specifically because the span has been neglected, misunderstood, and subjected to practices known to be most effective at different levels.
- Another reality research has demonstrated with absolute clarity is that young adolescence represents the greatest cognitive opportunity experienced at any age. Research in the last decade indicates the human brain develops more during adolescence than during any other time, surpassing the first year of life (as previously thought). This rate of change can be very frustrating for individuals not experiencing such change themselves. Great middle-level educators resist the temptation to confuse “forgets things easily” with “can’t think”.
- Young adolescence provides the most promising blend of flexibility and capacity. Students’ brains are literally transformed during their time in middle school. Most middle schoolers begin to grapple with truly complex ideas – Who am I? What do I believe? How do others view and understand the world? Middle school provides an incredible opportunity for learning. Instead of railing against and trying to contain the variability and seeming chaos, we should embrace it. Call it flexibility, not ADD; call it resilience, not emotional instability; call it determination, not stubbornness.
As adults, we need to remember that we were young adolescents once too. We have been studying young adolescence for decades; to speak and act as if it were a mystery greater than so many others around us is deeply disrespectful to the amazing young women and men who are passing through this phase of their lives. We must make middle school a priority in public education. Doing so begins with a commitment to understanding young adolescence.