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Are Middle Schools Getting a Bum Rap?

Voice of Experience

A recent USA Today news story took a few swipes at middle schools. The article briefly examined the reasoning behind many communities' efforts to disband middle schools in favor of smaller K-8 schools. In this week's Voice of Experience essay, educator Max Fischer -- who has had experiencing teaching in elementary, junior high, in-name-only, and true middle schools -- defends the middle school concept. Many communities that are questioning the value of middle schools have never fully implemented the elements of a true middle school, says Fischer. Included: Five components of a successful middle school.



Max W. Fischer


Middle schools were taken to the proverbial woodshed in the recent USA Today article "Middle School Getting Edged to the Back -- Low Scores, Parents' Concerns Propel a Move to K-8 Model." The October 17, 2002, article focused on a twofold condemnation: the relative anonymity of students in overly large schools and the decline of test scores, particularly in eighth grade.

One K-8 building principal decried the impact on students of enormous, impersonal middle schools -- schools where "teachers don't know them from Adam." A Philadelphia school administrator noted that that city was planning a conversion to K-8 buildings in part because middle school teachers were hard to find and retain. She added that the school system "started to treat [middle school students] like mini-high school kids, and they were not ready."


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To me, those two administrators were describing traditional junior high schools, not middle schools. In fact, their condemnations of the middle school structure defy the true nature of an actual middle school.

In fairness, USA Today did offer a minor paragraph of rebuttal by James Beane, a middle school expert from National-Louis University in Chicago. Beane noted that properly organized middle schools can boost academic performance. In many cases, however, only cosmetic changes occurred when communities reorganized their former junior highs as middle schools; in reality, the new middle schools don't operate much differently than the old junior highs did.


Having spent my first 20 years in education at the elementary level in buildings with small student populations, I believe I have a unique perspective for reflection. Quite frankly, I couldn't agree more with Mr. Beane and the National Middle School Association's position (see sidebar).

During the late 1970s, the rural district in which I was teaching sixth grade decided to implement the middle school concept. All the sixth grades were moved to a separate wing of the junior high building with limited access to the older students. The junior high remained a traditional junior high, and the three sixth grade teachers, including myself, departmentalized our program. As instant as a scratch-and-win lottery ticket, this in-name-only middle school was born. It lasted just a couple of years.


Some years later, I arrived in the district I now teach in. I began teaching sixth grade in a small, one-class-per-grade elementary building. Over the years, horror stories of life at the one and only middle school in the district trickled my way via former students and parents; they told of violence in the hallways, drugs, and out-of-control students.

Eight years ago, I was offered the opportunity to transfer to this den of iniquity -- and I accepted. Many of my elementary brethren, and even some parents, questioned my sanity. "Why would you want to go to there?"

I made the change because I needed a change. In my way of thinking, change was less hazardous than stagnation. But that wasn't the universal view that I encountered among staff within the building. The institutional re-christening to a middle school had taken place but, inside, the school was easily recognizable as a junior high. As a matter of fact, it wasn't much different from the junior high I had attended 30 years earlier. I taught three seventh grade world geography classes and three eighth grade American history classes; I had a personal conference period, lunch, and a duty period. I saw each student for about 10 percent of that child's day. Collaboration was limited to discussing chronic discipline problems over lunch.

Sure, the cast aluminum letters on the outside of the building identified it as a Middle School, but placing a hood ornament on a Ford and calling it a Lincoln does not make it a Lincoln!


Components of a
Successful Middle School

The National Middle School Association lists five components of a successful middle school:

1. Interdisciplinary teaming involving a core of teachers assigned to the same students.

2. Advisory programs consisting of small groups (less than 20) of students matched with a teacher, administrator, or other staff member to discuss issues of concern on a regular basis.

3. Varied instruction, including integrated learning experiences, problem-solving, collaboration, and community involvement.

4. Exploratory programs in areas such as foreign language, clubs, allied arts, and exposure to programs that promote academic, vocational, and recreational career options.

5. Transition programs that help elementary students adjust to the middle school culture.


Over the years, there had been talk of implementing the genuine middle school concept in our in-name-only middle school. Some staff members had even visited functional middle schools. Much of the staff, however, was oriented to traditional secondary instructional approaches. It took a forceful mandate from the superintendent and school board during the spring of my first year in the building to begin the actual implementation of a true middle school format the following year.

That fall, some staff members were kicking and screaming, but others were actually enthusiastic about the direction things had taken. Consultants who in-serviced the staff during the summer prior to the changeover and during that first year advised us that the transformation would be a three- to five-year process.

Now eight years into the true middle school concept, the staff is heavily invested in the middle school philosophy.

Now, even more importantly, the parents are significantly impressed with the philosophical turnaround in the building. Many have been able to compare the experience older siblings had in the traditional junior high format to the experience younger brothers and sisters are having; they wholeheartedly endorse the middle school concept. They often remark at the nurturing environment present in their kids' "new" middle school.


Today, our middle school has incorporated most or all of the elements of four of the five components NMSA promotes. The only piece that's eluded our structure is the use of advisory groups.

And what about the impact of the middle school model on test scores? Our eighth graders have traditionally taken the state's ninth-grade battery of proficiency tests. Their scores have remained consistently above state standards in all areas -- math, writing, reading, science, and citizenship -- and the results even show a slight increase from the junior high years.

So what is it about the structure that has enthused parents and increased solid proficiency scores? In our school, six teaching teams provide what I call "anchorage" for groups of about 120 students each. Five teachers centrally located within each team's area actually transform one large building with more than 700 students into six small schools. Our team of teachers is responsible for about 70 percent of each student's day -- not the mere 10 percent that most individual instructors have in the traditional junior high. Each team has a team conference period during which interdisciplinary units are planned, field trips are organized, information on students is shared and discussed, and parents are consulted concerning the best educational interests of their children.


In my opinion, the single most important facet of the middle school implementation process was the school board's allocation of the team-conference period. So much is accomplished during that daily period through professional collaboration. The terms "anonymous" and "impersonal" used in the USA Today article are an insult to middle school pedagogy and the school I teach in. Instead, they describe the "in-name-only" schools that I have experienced at several other points in my career.

Currently, my school is looking into the feasibility of using a systemic positive behavioral support approach that may include advisory groups. Implementing it will take time, energy, input, and engagement from the entire staff. Like anything else worth accomplishing in life, it will not be easy.

Just as no one could reasonably expect to make a living by playing instant lottery tickets, there are no shortcuts when developing a true middle school structure.

A teacher for nearly three decades, Max Fischer currently teaches seventh graders the marvels of ancient history. A National Board certified teacher in the area of early adolescence social studies/history, Max has authored nine resource books for teachers in the fields of social studies, health, and math. You can read a previously published article about Fischer: Simulations Engage Students in Active Learning.