Assuring the Continued Success of the Middle School

By: John Lounsbury


We hope you enjoy this article, originally published as a chapter in AMLE's (previously NMSA) first book, The Middle School: A Look Ahead, published in 1977 and edited by Paul George. While the article remains relevant, and Dr. Lounsbury tells us it advances views he continues to hold, it is also remarkable how we are still grappling with the same issues. You'll see the use of "transescent" and "transescence," language that is no longer used in reference to middle grades students.

Education, like many other institutionalized activities, has a tendency to go around in circles. What is past is, indeed, prologue. The present sometimes turns out to be essentially like the past and progress can and often does come out of regression. The movement to reorganize education which began circa 1910 has been full circle. Much of what is happening in middle school education today closely resembles earlier developments in junior high school education as the cycle repeats itself. This may seem like a note of despair or an expression of fatalism, but it is only intended to be a bit of realism and a point of perspective. History does not always have to repeat itself.

The middle school must guard against becoming a victim of its apparent success; pleased with its position aboard the brassy bandwagon of the 70's. The more it becomes institutionalized, the greater the danger of its becoming petrified.

Even though the place of an intermediate institution in American education is now fairly secure, its nature is still under discussion. Securing a place in the education sun is not the primary task for the middle school. In the language of the transescent, it needs to "hang loose."

In the final analysis, the essence of the middle school movement does not lie in the particular organization plan it advocates. The organizational distinctiveness is so readily achievable that it is all too easy to let it become the main goal. The essence of middle school education is, and ought to be, its philosophy of teaching and learning. Here is the major arena for implementing those fundamental questions of education that have nagged thoughtful educators for many, many decades. It is, I believe, a major manifestation of what was called progressive education.

The middle school is not a new invention, and it ought not be mass produced as if it were an end in itself. Middle school education is, however, a means to an end. It is an exciting educational opportunity. The professional enthusiasm, commitment, and expertise that exist abundantly in the middle school movement should be exploited positively and fully. Our energies should not focus on the administrative reorganization and label switching but on instructional improvements; putting into practice more of what is known about teaching and learning. The locus of our major efforts in middle school education has to be on the student-teacher relationship, for that is the only place in education where there is really a pay-off.

The Overuse of the Class

The American educational system at the junior and senior high school levels has had only one major string on its organization-for-instruction violin; the string of a class, a group of 30 pupils assigned to a teacher for fifty minutes, with a responsibility to cover a particular body of knowledge. The vehicle of the class is the most overworked arrangement in education. Its excessive use is supported by long-standing tradition, widely held expectations and administrative manageability, but not by research evidence on its efficacy. The middle school must institute alternatives, even if only to prove that the existing pattern does have value.

Somehow, someway, the middle school has to open up institutionalized education, to make possible professional diagnosis that is followed by professional prescription. Regrettably, the present structure not only makes individual diagnosis difficult, but most often all but pointless. It is hard to escape the conclusion that schools generally have been either unable or unwilling to provide an education that is truly fitted to individual beings.

The traditional schedule, and its counterpart of the graded system, is convenient and acceptable in a system that, while it wouldn't want to admit it, is heavily committed to providing custodial care. In such a system it seems to make sense to catalog youngsters, label them, and treat them as members of some group. The educator's role often becomes heavily weighted toward that of a caretaker, concerned with bells and schedules, lockers and ledgers. Multiage grouping in athletics and band is readily accepted, but the academic program is held in lockstep.

We start out in the middle school with the greatest diversity that exists in the twelve grades of public education, and then we organize a school which is in direct conflict with this diversity. We organize kids into herds, based on chronological age and call them grades, then divide them into pens based on an arbitrary number and supposed likeness in one trait and call them classes. We then move the groups through an all too common curriculum. Indeed, at this level when young people exhibit their greatest diversity, we often present them with a more standardized and common program than at any other time in the educational process.

About the nature and needs of early adolescents there is no mystery. They are very open, making their thoughts and behaviors very evident, and "playing games" far less often than adults. They are normal. Sometimes we have even over-emphasized their distinctiveness and uniqueness, for on careful analysis no completely new traits appear during this period; none occur solely at this level. We are dealing with rapidly developing and expanding characteristics rather than unique ones. Too, so much of what is difficult or distinctive about early adolescence is culturally caused rather than innate.

Whether or not we adequately provide for the needs of middle school youngsters, we know they are growing physically, and need lots of exercise; some competition, but also some rest and quiet. They have a new intellectual prowess and need challenge rather than just repetition and drill. They need discussion, the opportunity to experiment, to sample. They are filled with emotions that lie close to the surface. They still need structure, but they also need opportunities for free expression in literature, poetry and art. They are, of course, highly conscious of their peers and their opinions.

The herculean task of providing education for all American youth has inevitably resulted in a heavy reliance on organizing a system built to accommodate masses. It was easy to slip into the pattern of the simple self-contained classroom at the elementary school level and the teacher-class-subject arrangement at the secondary level. Soon a general pattern emerged that became standard for secondary education. It could be expressed as a formula:

Ed. = 30s * 6p * 5d * 36w

If there was anything to be taught, fit it into the formula. Get thirty students, offer a class in one of six periods for five days a week and continue it for thirty-six weeks. Sometimes slight alterations, such as eighteen weeks of thirty-five pupils were accepted but by and large the one basic formula was and still is followed. The junior high school soon fell into this secondary pattern despite considerable experimentation with the core curriculum. Likewise there is danger that the intermediate unit, now usually called the middle school, will fall victim to the tradition and administrative simplicity of the subject-class arrangement.

The Key to Continued Success

The middle school movement will be a continuing success to the degree that it is able to break with the departmentalized, subject-centered curriculum that has been an albatross around the neck of intermediate education for decades. So long as our pattern of organization perpetuates the notion that all youngsters in the same class should learn the same material at the same time in the same way, the middle school will fail to achieve its goals. Groups, grades, and classes are administrative arrangements far more that they are the basis for appropriate instructional strategies for transescent youth. A class doesn't learn, it has no mind. A grade has little commonality other than a general chronological age, and groups are never really homogeneous. A teacher's lesson, no matter how well thought out and professionally presented, is seldom right for an entire class. The teacher-class system has led to a situation wherein teachers are so busy teaching "classes" that they don't have time to direct the education of youth. Procedures need to be developed that support the total development of individuals as well as supporting the acquisition of information. Means must be found to give affective education a firm place in the middle school.

America's middle school is still on the cutting edge. It has engendered much excitement, broad involvement, and considerable experimentation. It must now avoid the easy temptation to standardize; becoming set, and satisfied with grade level reorganization and a new label. Continued success depends upon continuing efforts to break the lock step of the teacher-subject-class arrangement.

Let all of us who have a real interest in the education of transescents make the most of the tremendous opportunity which the middle school movement presents. Let us keep our eyes on the diverse youth we serve. Let their needs take precedence over teachers' preferences based on obsolete subject-centered preparation programs. Let us have the courage of our deep convictions, willing to break with the safe, standard teacher-class-subject arrangement. For only as we turn classrooms into laboratories and convert teachers from "tellers" to directors of learning will the separate middle grade educational unit be justified and effective.


John Lounsbury, dean emeritus of the School of Education at Georgia College (now the John H. Lounsbury College of Education) in Milledgeville, Georgia, was the publications editor for AMLE (formerly National Middle School Association) and remains active in middle level education.

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