new york times article on middle schools

there’s been a great sense of frustration growing over the apparent lack of success of the middle school model. the idea of creating an educational space that was specifically attentive to the developmental needs and uniquenesses of 11 – 14 year-olds seemed like a great idea. but it’s not working.

i’ve been a strong proponant of the middle school model in youth ministry, ever since i moved to a church working on that model and found so much to love about it. but after several years at it, i was finding negative aspects i hadn’t seen at first (that usually weren’t the negative aspects those who opposed middle schools would have predicted).

and that seems to be the case nationwide: schools are discovering that there are systemic implications (surprise!) that no one predicted. lots of schools are experimenting with going back to K – 8. time magazine reported on this in their special issue focused on 13 year-olds last year. and it’s mentioned at length in this article in the new york times. this article is critical reading for all youth workers and parents of young teens.

some snippets:

First, educators created junior high schools, believing preteens needed to be treated like adults. But those students weren’t ready to be treated as high school students, either. So reformers created the concept of middle schools, which were supposed to be a warm bath to ease the transition. Now, an increasing number of schools across the country, including in Baltimore and Philadelphia, are shifting the middle grades back to elementary school.

The move toward middle schools, after the push for junior high that started in the late 19th century, was supposed to create environments that were more serious than the story-hour life of elementary schools, though less impersonal and confidence-zapping than the controlled chaos of high schools.

While middle schools still have their defenders, they have fallen out of favor after various studies showed that they actually sapped self-esteem and fostered bullying. And academically, performance on standardized tests plummeted from fourth to eighth grades.

i’m not 100% sure where i land on this yet. but i have to say: my weeks-shy-of-13 year-old daughter is now in a private school that’s K-8 (which is not a christian school), and the difference in culture is night and day.

(ht to bob carlton)

12 thoughts on “new york times article on middle schools”

  1. I heard a discussion recently that I think might be related. Behavioral professionals were talking with a radio talk show host that middle school ages kids need to go back to addressing adults with their titles, not first names. There were many schools that changed from addressing teachers as Mr. Smith, to John, using first names to make them “more relateable” and like a friend that they can talk to about their problems. The result was a decrease in respect and other manner related issues. Is this related? I haven’t really been able to keep up on this subject.

  2. What I thought was interesting about the article was that they addressed “biological” and “organizational” but never seem to touch on American culture.

    It was stated that internationally, this is not a problem. Well…hello? That should be a big clue, perhaps its the American culture that is causing the problem.

    They can reorganize and retrain all they want, but when it comes down to it, Jr. Highers don’t “bump and grind” because of lack of good teaching its because the culture says “thats what you’re supposed to do”.

  3. great question, jennifer. let me give a short and quick response here (and maybe i\’ll elaborate more later). i\’ve noticed these things in liesl and her classmates…

    – decreased obsession with clothing and brands. they don\’t wear uniforms, but they\’re not allowed to have brands that show. consequently, it just doesn\’t matter as much to liesl. this is probably less about being K-8 as it is about the particular private school she\’s in, but i did see a MASSIVE jump forward in this — for liesl — when she moved to 6th grade at the public middle school.

    – decreased obsession with popular culture in general. again, some of this is, surely, more about the school she\’s in than the K-8 structure, as liesl no longer watches TV during the week, since the school wants us to limit media, and she spends very little time on the internet for similar reasons. that said, i have to believe there\’s an intensification of desire to be adult-like, or at least \”fully teen\”, when young teens are in an exclusively young teen population, as opposed to a population that includes a large percentage of children who don\’t care much about those same issues. case in point: two of my 7th grade guys – from the small group i lead — wanted a particular lego set for christmas. i was a little surprised, now that they\’re in 7th grade; and i had to resist the urge to tease them, because i think it\’s FANTASTIC that they remain kids as long as they can! i have to believe that kind of behavior would be more normative in a K-8 than in an exclusively middle school context.

    – play is normative. in other words, the kids at the K-8 all play in around each other before and after school, and during various breaks. and they actually play like kids. i didn\’t see this kind of play at the middle school.

    – fantasy is still ok. i might be reaching here — AND, this really could be more about the school my kids attend, which so strongly encourages creativity — but it seems to be that the middle school was squeezing the creative out of liesl. and part of that was that it was squeezing \’playfulness of the mind\’ (fantasy) out of her. as a 12 year-old, i don\’t think she needs to rush into a life of adult reality yet. i\’m more than happy to have her keep a wonderfully playful mind. she\’ll have plenty of time to deal with reality in the years to come!

  4. Excellent info, Marko. Haven’t read your blog in awhile. Life is crazy.

    As the mom of one of those Lego-crazy boys, I have to say I’m glad he still likes to “play”. Some of that may be due to the fact that he has a 9-year-old sister that he spends a large portion of his free time with, but when the two boys get together, it’s totally wild play time and the Legos are everywhere. We couldn’t afford the mega-Lego set he wanted, but got him one that he thinks is really cool anyway.

    As for some of your other comments about middle school culture, I guess we’re really (mostly) blessed with the public school he goes to. Good thing because private school is simply not an option financially. They have a dress code (navy, khaki, white, and black) that prohibits logos of any kind, except a geometric shape of some sort and no larger than 1″. Being a GATE kid, he’s been placed with teachers who encourage creativity and reward unique perspectives with age-appropriate responsibilities and privileges.

    TV has always been a non-issue during the school week at home. The answer is – NO TV until Friday after school. Even then, we only have very basic cable, so Disney and Nickelodeon and other kid channels aren’t available. Internet access is with parental supervision only, and then it’s mostly limited to research for school projects. He does ask for some music that other kids are listening to, and I screen the lyrics before I decide if it goes on his iPod.

    All of that said, I still always feel like I’m walking a fine line between being an involved parent and making my kid feel like a dork all the time.

  5. Yes, almighty guru of jr. high ministry. I’m also in the process of possibly splitting 7-12 grades into 2 separate ministries. As a matter a fact I remember you suggesting this very thing to me at a YS convention. So, if you have any thoughts or suggestions other than send the 7th and 8th graders down into the children’s ministry… If you can pull that one off let me know… Let us know as soon as you can! You have 5 seconds to comply!!! j/k.

  6. kathy — as you should! no, really. what i mean is: i think good parenting for this age group should always feel like walking that fine line — even more, should always BE walking that fine line!

  7. I’m very fascinated by this talk and the blog interaction you have created Marko – THX

    One of the observations I have seen with middle school/jr hi kids is their desire to want to succeed and to succeed by helping others. If we as a culture give them a chance to do this in every aspect (I know this is a big idea) of their lives I believe the key problems mention in this article (and many others) could be less or not even be major problems. In the article they say, “research shows that volunteering may work: children who used to being helped take pride in becoming the helpers.” Give a jr hi kid the chance to share with a younger child how to do a math problem or learn how to spell a word and watch that jr hi kid grow. Give him a chance to do a short term mission and watch him fly. We need to show and teach them how to do this by Godly relationships with adults but then we need to let them do it. This is also a fine line for us to walk because the opportunity to succeed comes with the opportunity to fail. For most jr hi kids failing will happen. We just need to be there to help them “fail” forward.

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