How Can We Make Middle School Less Awful?

Snapshots of life at home.
Oct. 26 2012 3:55 AM

The Worst Years of Our Lives

Everyone hates middle school. But this crucial, oft-ignored part of your children’s education is getting a makeover.

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Illustration by Charlie Powell.

Every morning, the sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-graders at Paul Cuffee Middle School in Providence, R.I. join together in what’s called a Circle of Power and Respect. In this “CPR,” they discuss anything from an upcoming science project to how to get boys to stop purposefully clogging the toilets. Last spring, when a beloved teacher left the school, one classroom used their CPR time to process the change. “He said he’s leaving because this is good for his family,” a seventh-grade boy reassured his classmates. “It doesn’t have anything to do with us.”

If this kind of frank, organized discussion of feelings sounds odd for middle schoolers, it is. But, experts say, if middle schools can give as much attention to emotions and values as they give to academics, the double focus pays off in surprising ways.

Unfortunately, when it comes to our national conversation about what makes great schools, middle schools (which can serve any configuration of grades five through nine) and junior highs (usually grades seven, eight, and nine) are often like the overlooked middle child. Elementary school is crucial, the reasoning goes, because its students learn basic skills and are introduced to the rigors and challenges of a school environment. As the gateway to either college or dropping out, high school is obviously high-stakes.

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But there’s another reason we don’t look very closely at how we educate our tweens and young teens. “Adults don’t like to look back on those years,” says Deborah Kasak, the executive director of the National Forum to Accelerate Middle-Grades Reform. We know what she means. Elizabeth is mortified to remember that she became a mean girl who egged on a friend to put glue in an unpopular classmate’s hair. Josh was a prime target for bullies; he has sent his own sons to K-six and seven-12 schools, thus avoiding the middle school experience as much as possible.

Our reluctance to put serious thought into middle school can also be a reflection of our changing relationship with our own young teenagers. “We’re sad that they’re not cute anymore,” says Robert Balfanz of the School of Education at Johns Hopkins. A friend of Elizabeth’s put it more succinctly when he bemusedly referred to his eighth-grade son—whom, it should be noted, he loves dearly— as “a complete asshole.”

Whatever the reason, Balfanz says that giving the middle grades short shrift is a serious mistake. “Middle School is when kids make a decision if school is for them or is something to be endured,” he says. In fact, his research of high-poverty schools shows that a sixth-grader who either chronically skips school, fails math or English, or receives a poor final behavior grade has a 75 percent chance of dropping out of high school unless the school steps in to help. On the flip side, ninth-graders who don’t get in trouble, have strong attendance, and at least a B average make up the ranks of our state university systems.

What makes a great middle school? The National Forum’s Schools to Watch Initiative identifies four key traits: academic excellence; an awareness of and sensitivity toward the unique developmental needs of early adolescents; a shared vision; and they capitalize on early adolescents’ obsession with fairness by being a trustworthy and democratic community where every student feels a connection to at least one adult in the building.

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