Middle School Blues: A Tough Transition

It's often presumed that the move from middle school to high school is the most challenging and difficult transition students face. Recent studies have shown, however, that the transition into middle school has far more potential to disrupt a student's education.

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The Middle School Conundrum

Middle schools, which typically begin with sixth or seventh grade and last until eighth or ninth grade, were originally designed in order to provide specialized education for adolescent students. It was believed that students in this age range would benefit from a school that created a bridge between elementary and high school. In theory, by better preparing students for high school in middle school, they are more likely to adapt quickly and less likely to drop out.

Two recent studies, though, refute that belief. Studies of both the New York City public school system and the Florida public school system suggest that students who attend middle school have a much harder time than their peers who attend a K-8 school prior to high school.

Students who will attend middle school outperform their K-8 peers in fifth grade in math and language arts. But that advantage disappears in sixth grade and, in fact, students in middle school fare much worse than their counterparts. The problem exacerbates over the years, with middle school students falling further and further behind their peers.

Behind the Misunderstanding

If middle schools can cause such a dramatic plunge in student performance, then why is the transition to high school so often targeted as a more significant problem? A major reason may be that while middle school students begin to struggle in sixth grade, they typically don't drop out of school until ninth or tenth grade.

This creates the perception that it's the move to high school that causes drop outs, the most obvious and irrefutable indicator of a struggling student. Yet it's students who attended middle school who drop out at a higher rate than students who attended a K-8 school. Only by comparing the paths of middle school and K-8 students is this pattern evident.

Key to Success

One key to helping students succeed in middle school is delaying the transition. The later students begin middle school, the better they perform. For example, a middle school that begins in seventh grade is preferable to one that begins in sixth grade. This is likely because students are more physically and emotionally mature as they grow older, making them better able to adapt to the new school.

Another avenue to success is providing individualized instruction and attention. In many school districts, middle schools can be larger in terms of class sizes and overall student populations than elementary schools. Students can feel lost in the mix and left to flounder without help. If administrators and teachers can attempt to make students feel welcome and secure, they may be able to improve performance and set students on a path for long-term academic success.

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