What is a middle school?
Generally “middle school” includes students ages 11-14 in US grades 6-8. Middle school is a relatively new grade grouping. Formerly, in the US, students were educated in “junior high schools“ grades 7 and 8. This configuration was criticized. The experience had no purpose aside from being a “waiting room” where students were kept until high school. A “solution” emerged in the 1960s. In a reaction to the era’s sudden and nationalistic focus on boosting scholastic performance, academicians proposed a separate “middle school” concept. Middle schools would offer students a developmentally appropriate school setting, keep the “whole student” top of mind, include arts and physical activities and take into consideration the emotional and social needs of 11-14 years old.
Good middle schools may be challenging to find
In practice, the results over the past 50 years have been lackluster. Public school districts with robust results for elementary schools have middle schools with sudden drops in achievement. Researchers have puzzled over the reasons why. As students enter the middle grades, motivation and academic achievement decline. It can be hard for kids to manage multiple classes, ramped up homework, and peer pressure at the same time they are going through puberty.
The 6-8 grade grouping does not help, either. Evidence suggests that sixth – eighth graders perform better in K-8 schools. Part may be the emotional benefits of being a senior member of the organization. Being known well by teachers in a more “homeroom centered” environment has advantages. Even looking at the numbers explains why middle schools produce lackluster results. In a K–8 school, there may be 900 kids across nine grades. Perhaps one out of every ten 6th to 8th grader requires extra attention. So you have 30 higher-needs students in the school. Now, imagine a middle school with 900 kids but only three grades, 300 per grade. There are 90 adolescents requiring extra attention in the school instead of 30.
While there is a national trend to return to K-8 grade grouping, the majority of schools are still organized with a separate grade 6-8 building. For parents seeking best middle schools, look for programs that optimize both for academic results and for the best support for the maturing adolescent.
In the case of best public schools, there may still be an alarming dip in student scores between elementary and middle school. Ask the middle school staff to explain this. Why do they think this is happening and what are they doing to ameliorate? Good middle schools will attract teachers that specifically want to teach this age-group. Finally, best middle schools will have a curriculum that is built from the ground up for early teen learners. (This is very different from a school “adapting” high school curriculum for middle school students).
Characteristics of good middle schools
To carefully evaluate top secondary schools, consider both the academic/structural and personal/effective programming offered. Both aspects are critical to set middle schoolers up for success. Effective middle schools create a shared, school-wide intense focus on the improvement of student outcomes.
- Set measurable goals on standards based tests
- Create a school mission that is future oriented
- Use curricula designed to prepare students to success in a rigorous high school curriculum
- Include improvement of student outcomes as part of the evaluation of the administration and teachers
- Parents are compelled to share responsibility for student learning
- Foster reflective thinking, hone collaborative skills, and relate academics to real-life tasks
- Offer a variety of extracurricular clubs and activities like ceramics, jazz band, lacrosse, or maker space
- Have low teacher turnover
- Demonstrate record of placement in top secondary schools
Examples of best middle schools
- Northstar Middle School, Kirkland, WA
- Middlesex Middle School, Darien, CT
- Hobson School, Hobson, MT
- Prairie Star Middle School, Leawood, KS
- Twin Groves Middle School, Buffalo Grove, IL
- Elkhorn Elementary School, Stockton, CA