A Vision for Experimental Middle Schools Today

The best schools are those that continue to experiment.

The term “middle school” is an unassuming part of the vernacular of our educational system. During the past 50 years, middle schools have come to represent what is now the typical organization of schools for grades 6–8.

But middle schools were not always the standard. In fact, the middle school model is actually an “experimental” model, begun in the 1960s, representing a break from the then-typical junior high school structure. This great experiment was developed in response to the clear need to address the unique needs of early adolescents during a period of dramatic social and political change.

Embracing strong content delivery, skill development, and a supportive social-emotional environment, middle schools were a shift toward fulfilling the progressive aims of education. The experimental label stuck. For example, the New York State Department of Education still considers middle schools to be “experimental organizations” (www.p12.nysed.gov/ciai/mle/exper.html).

Today, our culture is again changing at a rapid pace. With technological advances, constant social connectivity, and a changing college and career landscape, there is no more relevant organization to help young adolescents navigate these changes than a truly experimental middle school.

Whole-Child Education

Being a middle school is not about housing grades 6–8 in a single building; it is about addressing the unique developmental needs of young adolescents. Often this has been described as “whole-child” education.

Some in the field believe the emphasis on educating the whole child has been pushed by the wayside with the renewed emphasis on learning standards, data-driven instruction, and career and college readiness. However, these initiatives are at the heart of the mission of middle schools and a whole-child approach, and draw on the dual characteristics of high-quality, content-area-focused instruction and a richly supportive developmental environment for students.

Middle Schools Are the Core

The Common Core State Standards, at their foundation, represent what middle level education is about. With an emphasis on collaboration, creation, and synthesis, high-quality middle schools have been empowering students with opportunities to engage in deep learning represented by the Common Core State Standards.

Middle schools were founded on the concept of creating cross-curricular teams of teachers that have the ability to collaborate on projects and activities to help foster connections and reinforce skills across disciplines.

High-quality middle schools have long put project-based learning, reading and writing across content areas, and active learning at the heart of their instructional practice. The Common Core State Standards challenge us all to bring a renewed openness to this kind of experimentation in our instructional practice and require a willingness to put students in the driver’s seat of their education.

Data-Driven Instruction in the Middle

It goes beyond numbers. Data-driven instruction is informed instruction. It’s the use of high-quality formative and summative assessments that provide clear information to the teacher and the learner about their current progress toward instructional objectives or learning targets.

In middle schools, a whole-child perspective is facilitated with the power of technology tools that collect and analyze information about student progress. With this information, teams of teachers can have informed discussions that are based on data as opposed to solely on perceptions. Team meetings become focused on identifying patterns in learning preferences, student essay writing, and effective instructional interventions, and can result in a fully connected student experience.

Each day, teachers are finding new ways to empower young adolescents with more and better information about their progress. This is a game changer. Students at the middle level want to know how they are doing. They want to be successful and know what they need to do to achieve their goals. And in this instantaneous age, students want to know now. Middle level educators recognize this and, with the help of gradebook portals, are able to give students the opportunity to regularly monitor their own progress.

Career and College Readiness

Ensuring students are ready to pursue their college and career goals is critical at every level of schooling. However, it is in the middle level that students are best able to explore their interests through diverse coursework in many disciplines and engage in a variety of extracurricular activities.

Again, using a whole-child approach, middle schools have for generations ensured that students experience encores or specials that expose them to technology, family and consumer sciences, art, music, health, and other coursework that increases their awareness of academic fields of study and potential career options.

Today, high-quality middle schools offer character education activities, advanced high school credit courses taught by middle level educators, mentoring and advising for struggling students, and engaging 21st-century extracurricular activities like Google Hour of Code, social media clubs, and robotics competitions.

Middle Schools For Today

Never have the stakes been higher. Never have the needs been greater. Never has the need for truly experimental middle schools been clearer. Never have they been more relevant.

High standards, informed instruction and a focus on preparing young adolescents for their future college and career plans represent the best of what we do in the middle.