The Fate of Middle Schooling

Whether middle schools survive as a movement depends on an effective response to orthodox thinking and other challenges by RONALD D. WILLIAMSON and J. HOWARD JOHNSTON

There's a price to be paid for success. The success of middle school education over the last three decades has prompted many educators to assume that all is well, success is assured, challenges few.


Nothing could be further from the truth. Indeed, success may have created an environment in which the continued viability of the middle-level phenomena is threatened.

While challenges from outside are serious and must be addressed, by far some of the most potentially damaging threats may arise from among the most vocal advocates of middle school education itself. Often, proponents have abandoned the movement's responsiveness to student and community needs and individual differences in order to embrace a rigid orthodoxy about what constitutes a "true" middle level school. This results in many middle schools measuring their success by adherence to a checklist of characteristics rather than by creative and innovative approaches to early adolescent education.

Curricular and instructional change is reflected in superficial adjustments to program and implementation of special interdisciplinary units rather than the use of authentic, engaging, integrated curricular activities. Many middle schools isolate themselves from colleagues in elementary or high schools, assuming the mantle of sole advocate for or guardian of adolescents rather than members of a system that serves students, parents and communities, grades K-12.

The future of middle school education requires a response to contemporary challenges, not simple repetition of initiatives that were innovative a generation ago. Adopting a position of benign neglect only creates conditions that further erode public support for middle schools.

Orthodox Thinking
Orthodoxy is defined as "conforming to an established dogma." Such a dogma has arisen around middle schools and is reflected in lists of middle school characteristics, comparisons of middle schools to junior high schools and identification of the characteristics of genuine middle schools. Purveyors of the orthodoxy suggest simple and easy transitions to a new school model. Nowhere is middle school education more vulnerable to legitimate challenges than around its rigid adherence to orthodoxy.

Sadly, hundreds of middle-level faculties have adopted the orthodoxy. They measure their success around the existence of teams, advisory programs, interdisciplinary units, block schedules, intramural programs and other features. Missing is the commitment and the passion to serve early adolescent learners--to examine any alternative, embrace any initiative on behalf of student success. In many instances, program characteristics have become primary, and student success has assumed a secondary role.

For many schools, meeting student needs meant developing a standard profile of a middle-level student--the young adolescent--and designing programs that responded to that profile. While the profile often was based on contemporary research and scholarship of long-standing veracity, such an approach to educational planning is seriously flawed in one major way: It assumes the profile of the young adolescent is, indeed, the client the school is serving. That is a dangerous assumption in an educational environment in which student diversity is growing to staggering dimensions.

Becoming a middle school often meant changing the organization and structure of the schools. In many cases sixth graders joined the school and 9th graders moved to the high school. Teams were organized and schedules changed.

Other schools changed curriculum and modified teaching practice. Teams were required to have two or three interdisciplinary units each year. Grouping was abolished, exploratory courses begun and grading practices sometimes modified.

While, on their face, such practices may be desirable, the rationale for their adoption often has been faulty. Teachers and principals have adopted practices because of their prevalence in the literature, not because they address the needs of students in a particular school. Sometimes practices such as grouping were abandoned and staff were not provided training, materials or preparation to address the needs of students in a heterogeneous setting. Teachers felt less effective, and because they often were unable to articulate strong reasons for the changes, parents lost confidence in the school’s ability to serve their children effectively.

Parents, community members and even teachers and principals raise legitimate questions about such practices. Schools have tinkered with changes in curriculum, instruction and assessment while neglecting to thoughtfully discuss the reasons for altering practice so significantly.

Seamless Experiences
Because school systems function as one large organization, changing one element--the middle school--affects every other component. Middle schools must advocate forcefully for the educational needs of early adolescents but must address the legitimate transition and articulation needs between levels. Those who work in school systems must develop an understanding of their system from the perspective of clients and customers--their students and parents. They must work with one another to provide a seamless experience as students move from school to school within a system.

A suburban Philadelphia school district was recently rocked by a board of education decision to prohibit the use of heterogeneous grouping and cooperative learning. The action, taken without broad discussion and dialogue, provoked heated debate and prompted one middle-level educator to tell the local newspaper, "That does it for middle school. I guess it's just back to junior high."

While such board action is troublesome, the reaction reflects a major challenge to middle school educators. When parent advocacy groups, governing boards, new superintendents and others challenge our practices, many educators quickly and inappropriately assume that the entire effort to serve young adolescents must be abandoned.

If middle school educators abandon their programs in the face of reduced resources, then where is the commitment? If middle school educators abandon their programs when organizational and structural elements are compromised, then where is the vision? If middle school educators abandon their programs in the face of legitimate questions and concerns, then where is the forceful advocacy for serving early adolescent learners?

Middle school educators must be prepared to accept such challenges--to articulate the rationale for programs and not just recite lists of characteristics. They must respond to the changing needs of students and their communities and not simply adhere to well-worn clichés about the importance of stated characteristics. They must embrace accountability for student success and not just defend the status quo in light of obvious shortcomings.

Confronting Challenges
Enduring reform efforts are those that grow, evolve, change, question, examine, and abandon practices that are not successful. As middle school education matures, it too must change. Several opportunities present themselves.

  • Abandon orthodoxy. Middle school educators must remain committed to the education of the early adolescent learner. Maintaining this commitment requires the examination of every facet of middle-level programs.

    Teaming may not be appropriate in all schools. If it isn’t, what other structures can be implemented to provide a supportive environment for students? Advisory programs frequently don't work. If not, what other arrangements can be developed to provide positive adult-student relationships? Heterogeneous grouping may mean that some students, high and low achievers, are not well served. If not, what options exist for addressing the needs of those students, including grouping and regrouping?

    Every practice must be reviewed and maintained only when it successfully and demonstrably addresses the needs of students in the local setting.

    No single perfect middle school model exists. Educators must assert their commitment to respond to students and their communities, explore a range of program options and select, implement and modify as appropriate those that are most suitable in the local setting.

  • Embrace choice. Schools need to reject the notion that "one size fits all." Students and parents must be given options within public schools.

    The notion that one middle school approach is appropriate for all students is obsolete. Schools must continue the quest for the one right approach for each student with the understanding that no one right way works for all students.

    Some schools and districts have begun to expand options. A school in central Michigan operates a traditional departmental-based program in one wing of the school and a team-based program in another. In another Midwestern district, an alternative middle school option exists for all students. It is so popular that parents and students camp out for days in order to be in line when applications are accepted. Both schools have fine programs, but what matters for parents and students are the options they have regarding school setting.

    Why bother giving choices? Both empirical evidence and the experiences in almost any district that has tried it demonstrates that student and parent choice leads to stronger commitments to the school and its program. When someone chooses to participate in a program or activity, they do so with more alacrity than when they are forced to participate. It is the single most effective way of coping with dissent within a system.

  • Accept accountability. Middle school educators also must become comfortable with accountability for their program's success. Parents and governing boards should not be expected to accept our word on the program's merits. It is imperative that schools step forward, accept the need to provide evidence of effectiveness and engage parents and staff in dialogue about program successes as well as shortcomings.

    In order to be more accountable, middle school educators should be prepared to answer the question, "What will we accept as evidence that our program is successful?" Working with parents and others to establish clear indicators of success is essential. Following agreement on the indicators, schools must routinely gather data, disseminate it broadly and engage in frank and reflective discussions about its implications.

    The importance of accountability cannot be understated. To ignore the issue is to allow others to define our success. To pretend that all is well when we know it isn’t is to invite harsh scrutiny. On the other hand, to work collaboratively with parents and governing bodies to examine practice, plan for program refinement and abandon those practices that don't work builds lasting relationships and assures greater support for our initiatives.

  • Appreciate diversity. Many middle school educators are quick to acknowledge that students learn at different rates, have different interests and come to school from varied backgrounds and experiences. Too often, schools fail to move beyond this acknowledgment.

    Middle schools must accept diversity--in ethnicity, gender, culture, handicapping condition and ability--and act on that diversity. Programs and practices must reflect diverse learning approaches, incorporate examples and materials from a range of cultures and backgrounds, provide options for learning activities and respect the strengths of such diversity.

  • Discuss achievement. Some suggest that middle schools can be either supportive and caring places or high achieving, but never both. Such thinking must be challenged because it suggests that the mission of the school is uni-dimensional, while in reality achieving schools should be caring and caring schools should be achieving.

    Many middle school educators are reluctant to talk about student achievement. Their reluctance frequently is prompted by apprehension about the outcome of discussions about grouping, course content or other sensitive elements of the school's program. Many middle school educators are fearful that if direct links between program characteristics and achievement cannot be made, the program’s future will be in jeopardy.

    This reluctance has left a vacuum that often is filled by those who advocate placing the sole focus on high levels of achievement, particularly for the highest- achieving students, or measuring success solely on the basis of standardized test scores.

    Middle schools must become more comfortable talking about achievement. They must recognize that by acknowledging the diverse learning styles and needs of students, they are obligated to provide for those needs. High-achieving, as well as low-achieving students, deserve our best.

    However, the achievement issue runs deeper. Middle schools must come to understand that the strongest rationale for their programs lies in high levels of success for all students. All other rationales pale by comparison.

  • Modify curricular and instructional practice. Increasingly, curriculum is becoming a matter of local concern and deliberation. As schools offer more choices, students, parents and educators must assess the curriculum options for their children and communities. Just as middle schools must begin to explore the feasibility of alternative organizational patterns within the same school or district, they also must examine alternative curricula.

    For example, if a significant number of students in one school have such poor reading skills they are doomed to fail in any course requiring reading and understanding, it is senseless to put them in those courses just because the curriculum requires it. In one such school, seriously disabled readers were told, in essence, "You can’t read very well? No problem. We’ll teach you to read, then get you caught up in everything else." The result was a very intense intervention that targeted reading skills for these sixth graders. Then, as their skills improved, they moved into other, regular classes and were provided with support and tutorial help to stay caught up.

    In another school, the mathematics program revolves around a single goal: successful completion of algebra for every 8th grader. In the first year of implementation, the faculty determined that all mathematics instruction in grades 6 and 7 would focus on preparing students to learn algebra by grade 8. Even students with poor arithmetic skills were included on the assumption that five years of arithmetic instruction hadn’t worked for them, so an additional one probably wouldn’t either.

    By engaging them in quantitative reasoning and analysis rather than the continued practice of a skill they had not learned, the teachers hoped to build higher-level mathematics skills for all students. Computer software, tutorial groups and both large- and small-group instruction were planned for all students.

    Will it work for every student? Probably not. However, rather than repeating a program that denied algebra instruction to a significant portion of the population, the school, based on local needs and local conditions, made a major change in its curriculum. The move represented a broad consensus among the teachers and the community, so everyone is heavily invested in its success.

    The successful middle-level school will be one that has the courage to reject curriculum and instructional approaches that are not successful and replace them with innovative and challenging alternatives. To strengthen the likelihood of success, these alternatives need to be developed collaboratively with parents, educators and community members. They cannot fly directly in the face of community expectations for the schools.

  • Build bridges. Educators at many middle schools have isolated themselves from colleagues in other schools. Indeed, much of the middle school movement’s early efforts was devoted to establishing the middle-level school as a distinct and unique institution, focused exclusively on the needs of young adolescents.

    While young adolescents continue to deserve such special attention, it may not be appropriate for the institution and its practices to be defended with such vigor any longer. To serve students more effectively, middle school educators must reach out to elementary and high school teachers both to understand their practice, and to share information and promote understanding of middle schools.

    Beyond outreach within the system, middle school educators must build bridges to the greater community. Parents graduate from middle schools along with their children. Schools continuously must assist parents in the transition from elementary to middle school and from middle to high school.

    Inviting, caring schools encourage parent participation, provide regular opportunities for interaction and schedule activities and events at times convenient to parents. Many schools involve senior citizens and other community members routinely in school activities. Some make community members a part of school governance bodies. Such activities build bridges of support that enable the school to serve its students more effectively.

  • A New Reality
    The greatest challenge to middle school education lies not in confronting outside forces but in looking inward and examining our own practice. Rigid adherence to the status quo, complacency regarding the effectiveness of practice and failure to modify curricular and instructional programs are the movement’s major challenges.

    The capacity to respond to these challenges lies within middle school educators. Their success will come from challenging orthodoxy, deviating from standard practice, exploring new and creative solutions and embracing continued change. To do less will doom the middle school to the fate of the junior high. When the latter had difficulty adapting to a new reality, a new institution grew up to replace it.

    Ronald Williamson is an assistant professor of educational leadership and cultural foundations at University of North Carolina at Greensboro, P.O. Box 26171, Greensboro, N.C. 27402-6171. E-mail: williamsonr@uncg.edu. Howard Johnston is a professor of education at University of South Florida.