H. Jurgen Combs


There appears to be a considerable amount of research that supports the establishment of middle schools; however, frequently one hears the question: “Why establish a middle school now? We went through the traditional junior high and it educated us.” People tend to forget that society is always in a state of flux, and it is somewhat easy to see why people think schools should not change; in fact, schools are still functioning on the industrial model. Some (Achilles, 1990) believe that schools are a miniature of society. For instance, during the agricultural age, schools were like barns, one room buildings where everyone was educated. As industry became more important, schools changed; there was specialization, with teachers teaching only one subject, in 55-minute time blocks, with students moving from room to room, somewhat like an assembly line. Schools have changed little over the last forty to fifty years; yet during this same time span, society changed significantly. Our clients have changed much over the last several years; we have to be able to have the schools meet the needs of the students, rather than to have the students meet the pre-formed school program.  

Through a review of a number of articles, conferences, readings, talking to others, and working in schools for a number of years, this writer identified the following changes providing possible reasons for establishing a middle school, as opposed to keeping the traditional junior high:

  • More students than ever are staying in school, with the drop out rate having dropped nationally from about 40% in the 1940’s to about 20% in the late 1980’s.
  • More temptations at an earlier stage than in the past; for instance, young people are experimenting with drugs and other substances at an earlier age.
  • The age of puberty has been steadily declining which resulted in females being able to become mothers at a younger age.
  • The increasing number of single parent families has forced school to assume additional social responsibilities.
  • The increasing number of minorities, and growing elderly population, will force schools to do more, to do better, but with fewer resources.
  • The soon-to-come influx of crack babies will affect the way schools educate children.
  • There are more teenage parents with resultant premature babies with the accompanying medical problems.
  • There is more economic pressure to avoid having drop outs, and the resultant economic burden on society.
  • There is a need to educate children for an age of technology, not the industrial age.
  • There is increased pressure on schools and faculties to succeed with all students; this pressure has become more intense as the costs of education increase..

These changes suggest that the clients changed significantly over the last several years; not only have the needs of the students changed, but there have also been significant changes in the students’ communities and families. Advocates of a middle level program suggest that, while the students and their needs have changed, the traditional junior high has not changed to address these new needs. One could view this as a Leave it to Beaver school system trying to educate the child from the Simpson Family.

The advocates of a middle level program have long supported the middle school as the most appropriate way to educate young adolescents and have developed the following essential elements of a true middle school. (Lounsbury, 1982)

  1. Educators knowledgeable about and committed to the young adolescent.
  2. A balanced curriculum based on young adolescent needs; it must balance academic goals and other human development needs, where the instructional process are almost as important as the content itself.
  3. A range of organizational arrangements, in which we replace the fully departmentalized, ability grouped, seven period day as not compatible with what we know about young adolescent learning.
  4. Varied instructional strategies, which recognize that student achievement and learning do not proceed uniformly; instruction must meet the diverse levels of student readiness.
  5. A full exploratory program to address the short attention span of these students.
  6. A comprehensive counseling and advising are especially important because of the tremendous “concern over body development, desire for social acceptance, the seemingly inevitable conflict with adult norms and expectations, the desire to try out new ideas and beliefs, and the desire to experiment with a heightened intellectual ability...” (This we believe, 12)
  7. Continuous progress for students because of the fluctuations in rate and duration of growth and learning.
  8. Evaluation procedures compatible with the nature of the young adolescent, which help the student discover strengths and weaknesses, values, interests and personality.
  9. Cooperative planning which involves faculty, administration and specialists.
  10. Positive school climate, where the school evidences warmth, caring and respect.
  11. The middle school should help students relate the use of what is learned in the classes to their own lives, and then help them apply what they learn. Yet, it is our inability to categorize middle level youngsters by physical size and appearance which poses a major problem for identifying and dealing with their unique needs.

James Garvin, the director of the New England League of Middle Schools, reported on parental expectations from middle school. (Middle School Journal, 1987). Based on several thousand interviews, Garvin compiled the following as the most important aspects of a middle school for parents:

  • When my child goes to school, more than anything else I want to know that he/she is safe.
  • I want to be sure that my child knows at least one adult well enough to go to if support is needed.
  • I want to know that the school is concerned about helping my youngster develop constructive friendships.
  • I expect the school to provide my youngster with opportunities to get involved in activities.
  • When my youngster comes home from school, I want to know that he/she has had enough good experiences to want to return the next day.
  • I want to know that the middle school is teaching them what they will need to be prepared for high school.
  • I want teachers to keep me informed on his/her progress.
  • When I visit the school, I want to feel welcome.
  • I’d like to know that the schools making every effort to keep parents informed about what to expect from youngsters over these years.

Garvin’s findings support other research, such as was reported in Turning Points (1990), which showed that for the parents of middle school students, content is not as important as the affective domain in their children’s education. Garvin’s findings also stress the importance of continued and on-going communication between the school and the parent. Glatthorn & Spencer (1986) report that “During both the junior and senior high period, a group of adolescents of the same chronological age will usually have a range of at least six years in maturational age.” (22) The greatest differences generally occur between the ages twelve to fourteen for girls and between the ages of fourteen to sixteen for boys. For many students, the high-point of the differences between these adolescents occurs when they are in junior high. These differences are manifest in a variety of ways.

There are a assortment of differences in the cognitive levels of the middle level adolescents, with some students still at the concrete level while others have entered the formal-operations level, where logic can be applied to the solution of problems. (Glatthorn & Spencer, 1986) Additionally, according to Glatthorn and Spencer, there are differences in the psycho-social development of the young adolescent, as well as wide differences in the physical and moral development of the middle level adolescent.

One report stated that “Data from 130 exemplary schools show that changing to middle school organization positively affects student achievement and personal development, learning climate, faculty morale, staff development and parental and community involvement.” (George & Oldeker, 1986; 79). The article suggested that successful middle schools have very similar programs which are based on the recommendations found in the literature of middle level education. These programs, report George and Oldeker are “... distinctly different from those common to elementary and high schools.” (George & Oldeker, 85; 79)

Some community members may express concern that the middle school de-emphasizes academics; however, proponents of the middle school feel that if a child is not mentally capable of learning a concept, to expect the child to learn only produces frustration. College preparation needs to remain in the hands of high schools, since the middle level student is not intellectually ready to learn the concepts needed for college level work. While a child may look to be 16 years old, we cannot assume that the child can also think like a 16 year old. “In fact, very few middle level youngsters can be expected to perform consistently at the higher intellectual levels that normally develop when they are in high school. (Arth, 1985; p1)

George Melton, the Deputy Executive Director of the NASSP spoke at the Annual Convention in 1990. In his speech, called “Last Best Chance”, he made reference to the Carnegie Report Turning Points (1990); the report, claimed Melton, did not come up with anything new; what it did come up with was a lack of evidence of commitment to the goals - the scarcity of actual practices that demonstrate the commitments that we profess to possess.

Melton claims that the 1989 report showed apathetic students, routine procedures, irrelevant curriculum and fragmented instruction. “Every hurdle can be cleared,” said Melton, “except that of a lack of commitment or lack of belief.” At this time in our history, according to Melton, children appear to be a liability; for instance, the tax code treats children as a liability when preparing taxes. The US is rapidly becoming a nation of adults. “Educational quality deteriorates when children are held in low esteem - when children are seen as a liability,” according to Melton. (1990) As the number of single parent homes continues to increase, caring for children - both from a financial point of view and from availability of time - it becomes more difficult to raise children. The majority of US families have no children under eighteen years of age. Seventy percent of new home buyers need two incomes to make the mortgage payments.

Perhaps most importantly, we must avoid the ‘transmission of learned helplessness’. As Melton stated at the NASSP conference:

We teach them (children) to their ability and convince them that they can’t perform; we make them feel different, unwanted, unloved, and as they grow older, they carry with them this ‘learned helplessness’. They become not what they once thought they were but what we thought and told them they were. ... We must find a way in which each child can be successful, help him achieve success and learn that he or she is a person of worth. Specifically, Melton recommends:

  • Educators should pay more attention to the research on young adolescents; many of us ignore it at our own peril. For instance, tracking is simply not supported by the research, yet the majority of classed are grouped by “ability.”
  • We should reject the “farm system” where the farm team is controlled by the majors. We should not let curriculum, pedagogy, etc. be controlled by the high school or by college requirements.
  • Educators should practice what we claim to practice.
  • We should tell colleges of education that teachers must have specific preparation for working with middle level youngsters.
  • We should not be hesitant about including values, ethics, or citizenship education in the curriculum. It is important for youngsters to know that there is good and bad, and that it is indeed possible to learn the difference.

J. Howard Johnston has contributed much in the area of tracking; speaking at the NASSP convention in 1990, he advocated for a change in the system of grouping. Because of tracking, Johnston feels, a lot of kids have too few connections to school, which makes it easy for them to ‘check out’ when they reach the age of sixteen. Students don’t make demands on the system to meet their needs if they feel that they do not belong.

Johnston reported at the NASSP convention that his research indicated that the teacher adjusts his/her performance expectations based on the perceptions that the teacher has of the class’s ability. With higher achieving classes, the teacher asks more open ended questions, provides direct instruction and encourages student planning. When teachers are asked to describe lower level classes, teachers describe these students in terms of what they cannot do. Since group membership is very important, students in lower groups have to meet the expectations of the rest of the group members, which discourages achievement because this group does not value learning. “We program ourselves to make it virtually impossible to teach either group,” said Johnston.

David Hornbeck, a member of the Carnegie Commission who helped write Turning Points (1990) paints a rather scary picture, stating that 50% of all the students aged 10-15 are at risk; only 25% of the students in this country can think critically or solve problems. According to Hornbeck, what the young adolescent needs most are: a sense of belonging, intimacy, a sense of security, a feeling of success, and having adults who care. Teachers must be trained to understand the special needs of these young people. Because such a high percentage of these youngsters are at risk, this stage - young adolescence which ranges from approximately 10 to 15 years of age - is indeed the “... last best chance...” that these students have.

Among Hornbeck’s recommendations are the following:

  1. There should be schools within schools, with none of these smaller schools being more than 300 or 400 students.
  2. Schools must encourage a team organization and group planning.
  3. There should be small group advisories, with teachers and principals having the power to develop instructional strategies.
  4. The school should teach a core curriculum, with an emphasis on science, communication skills, math (including algebra for all). The content should emphasize depth not spread, with less emphasis on learning rote facts but more on learning main ideas. Current learning must be integrated into present learning. Subjects need to be connected with each other, with students learning problem solving skills.
  5. Education must change the way students are assessed. There should be less reliance on objective tests, with an emphasis on performance based assessments, such as writing samples or portfolios. Assessments should be used as a teaching tool.
  6. Health education must be part of the framework of instruction, probably within the area of human biology.
  7. Community service must be encouraged.
  8. Teachers have to be willing to teach differently, such as starting with questions, not answers, insisting on clear expression, concentrating on the collection and use of evidence, working cooperatively in groups, and not separating knowing from finding out.
  9. Teachers must be trained to understand, and be able to deal with, the developmental needs of the these youngsters, including meeting the requirement of having special certification.
  10. Schools should promote a healthy environment within the building, including no soda machines, no smoking and nutritious foods.
  11. Parents must be encouraged to become involved, and schools need to help parents better meet their obligations.

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last updated on 25 July 2008
H. Jurgen Combs