New York Leaps into the Middle School Trap

What was so odd about Dennis Walcott’s announcement that New York City was opening 50 new middle schools is that the most recent research suggesting that a middle school  grade configuration (generally, 6—8) is probably not the way to go was done in his city.  In last year’s fall issue of Education Next Columbia Business School researchers Jonah Rockoff and Benjamin Lockwood reported their findings from a review of almost ten years of data for Gotham school children who were in grades 3 though 8, in all different school grade configurations, and concluded rather ominously:

In the specific year when students move to a middle school (or to a junior high), their academic achievement, as measured by standardized tests, falls substantially in both math and English relative to that of their counterparts who continue to attend a K–8 elementary school. What’s more, their achievement continues to decline throughout middle school. This negative effect persists at least through 8th grade, the highest grade for which we could obtain test scores.

I found other research that supports the Rockoff and Lockwood findings — that grade configuration matters –  in my report for Education Next earlier this year.  I traced the history of the modern middle school movement, known as “middle schoolism,” which was born with a Cornell University speech by educator William Alexander in 1963.  It is a movement that came of age in an era in which the psychological society teamed up with the sociological one and together marched into into our schools, making a beeline for what was considered the most troublesome though forgotten age group, 11 to 14. The best way of treating those children (instead of teaching them?), many educators of the time believed, was separating them into emotional and behavioral holding pens while their horomones adjusted to maturity. (It didn’t help that academics was taking a nose-dive in all our schools.)

“I don’t know if it was deliberate or not,” Trish Williams, executive director of EdSource, a California nonprofit, told me last winter, “but I know that when my kids were in middle school, one of the best in California, one of the teachers told me that her job was to just hold them and keep them safe until they get through puberty. So there has been a philosophy in middle school which deemphasized academic outcomes….”

As Cheri Pearson Yecke documented with her 2005 study for the Thomas Fordham Institute, Mayhem in the Middle, middle school was “where academic achievement goes to die.”

While there is more emphasis on academics at all grade levels today and evidence that the middle school burden can be overcome (Williams and colleagues showed in a major 2010 study, called “Gaining Ground in the Middle Grades: Why Some Schools Do Better,” that an intense focus on academics can work), it is odd that Walcott would favor reforming middle schools instead of doing what the research suggests is better and easier — creating smaller, “elemiddle” (K–8) schools  – and what the trends are showing is happening all over the country  – as David Hough, managing editor of the Middle Grades Research Journal,  told me, “the trend is definitely away from stand-alone middle schools.”

Walcott promised to borrow instructional methods from successful middle school charters with this initiative, but even charter organizations like KIPP, which began by serving middle school kids, are having second thoughts about the challenges such isolation from other children create, and has been building “clusters” of schools that include early grades and high schoolers.  Indeed, it is one thing for the new chancellor of the nation’s largest school system to dial back the heated rhetoric that marked much of the Joel Klein reform era, but let’s hope Walcott doesn’t set the pedagogical time machine arrow to the 60s and 70s.

–Peter Meyer

This post also appears on Flypaper.

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