The latest science tells us why now and even how to do it
Many people have ambivalent to negative memories of their own middle school years, although there are exceptions. One of the authors of this article was in an “experimental cluster” within a traditional junior high, as it was called then. Her experience was one of hands-on and cross-subject learning, open classrooms, teachers who emphasized critical thinking, and a warm and caring climate that resulted in lifelong friendships and a belief in the power of supportive teachers. Were there classes in which she was not completely engaged? Sure. Did she ever have detention? Yep. Did the most embarrassing moments of her life occur in the junior high cafeteria? Most certainly. But the overall experience was one that met her where she was and kept her moving upward.
So why isn’t this the middle school experience shared by all students? And why is our collective narrative about middle school and the portrayals of young adolescents in the media and entertainment often so negative?
Some argue that middle school is what it is because of the developmental changes that young people experience during early adolescence. Indeed, the science tells us that young adolescents are consumed by a barrage of physical changes; the challenge of navigating more complex, evolving relationships and social dynamics; and the rite of human passage that we all experience that is finding our place in the world. As a result, working with young adolescents can be both invigorating and challenging.
But what if part of that challenge comes from trying to fit youth into structures and ways of learning that are misaligned with the developmental stages of early adolescence? Could the overall middle school experience be better designed to fit the truly unique needs of young adolescents in a way that not only minimizes the risks of disengagement, but also maximizes the opportunity of self-discovery during this pivotal time?
The answer is yes, but only if as a nation we are paying a lot more attention to middle school than we do now. One of our partners in the “remaking middle school” effort, the New York Life Foundation, recognized the need to support this issue in 2014 and has awarded more than $41 million in grants to this specific focus area. Altria, another partner in the work, has invested in a number of efforts focused on positive youth development, including national, evidence-based programming and support of the Youth-Nex Center and its initiatives to guide efforts to remake middle school. Unfortunately, we see most of the attention and investment in education at either end of the continuum—early childhood education and early literacy on one end, and high school graduation and college and career readiness on the other.
What the Research Says
A case in point: The Alliance for Excellent Education’s “Missing Middle” report shows that while federal spending in the periods from birth through fifth grade and then in post-secondary education amounts to $36 billion and $33 billion respectively, spending for middle school clocks in at just under $6 billion. (https://mk0all4edorgjxiy8xf9.kinstacdn.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/MissingMiddle-2019_FINAL.pdf). Indications are that private philanthropy fits a similar pattern. The most recent “Trends in Education Philanthropy” report from Grantmakers for Education finds that private foundations are moving further away from the middle, instead seeking more opportunities outside the K-12 system (https://edfunders.org/trends2018-19).
This gap in attention to the middle grades is important to remedy. Adolescence, and particularly early adolescence, is now commonly thought of as a second “critical period” for brain development. The adolescent brain is changing rapidly and is highly responsive to influence from the environment. So much so that the recent National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Mathematics report, “The Promise of Adolescence: Realizing Opportunity for All Youth”, called adolescence the “age of opportunity.” Investing in creating developmentally supportive middle grades experiences, therefore, is both cost effective and consequential.
Indeed, decades of research demonstrates that early adolescence is an extraordinary opportunity for long-lasting positive learning and development, if approached at the right time and in the right way. The great challenge is that multiple data sources also show that middle schools today, by and large, appear out of sync with the needs and interests of the middle schoolers who attend them.
Gallup’s Student Poll (https://www.gallup.com/topic/gallup_student_poll.aspx) has consistently shown that while health and well-being measures remain relatively steady in the middle school years, student engagement in school drops markedly. The Opportunity Myth (https://opportunitymyth.tntp.org/) report from TNTP, Inc. highlights how declines in student engagement with classroom instruction begin as early as third grade—and precipitously drop between fifth and ninth grades. This is worrisome, as research from the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University (http://new.every1graduates.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/03/on_track_for_success.pdf) highlights that attendance and grades during the middle school years are highly predictive of students graduating high school on time. Indeed, the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research (https://consortium.uchicago.edu/publications/free-fail-or-track-college) has shown that as Chicago students transition into high school, they lose roughly half a grade in GPA in ninth grade and their unexcused absences triple.
If there was a clearer agenda for middle school, perhaps there would be more specific areas in which to invest. The last notable large-scale national push to support the middle school space, the Turning Points initiative, goes back nearly 30 years. A good deal of the evidence base and major pillars of that previous effort remain relevant today, especially regarding developmentally focused content, pedagogy, and learning environments. But the overall landscape of education has shifted since those efforts began in the early 1990s. The waves of standards and testing, social-emotional learning, equity and restorative justice, and high school choice, to name a few, greatly affect the way we approach the learning and development of young adolescents.
Remaking Middle School Summit
Roughly one year ago, a growing alliance of education and youth development-focused organizations that have a stake in early adolescence embarked on an effort to reimagine the middle school years, convening at the Remaking Middle School Summit, hosted at Gallup in Washington. With the collective support of the New York Life Foundation, Altria, the Association for Middle Level Education, and the University of Virginia Curry School of Education Youth-Nex Center, a renewed dialogue has begun around, first, what young adolescents need, and, second, the broad set of learning and development opportunities in school and out of school tailored to this unique part of life.
Following the Summit, the founding partners launched a series of “design teams,” groups of researchers, practitioners, and policy experts to tackle big issues and opportunities that can lead to new innovations and a set of strategies to remake middle school. The partners are also conducting a “listening tour” to hear from youth, practitioners, and families from across the country about their experiences to ensure design ideas truly reflect the needs of those closest to the middle school years.
Areas of Focus
What we heard from youth and adults in the field and principles the design team members have embedded in and used to guide their work include the following:
- Designing the middle school years around the developmental needs of young adolescents, which involve identity formation, agency, self-discovery, and relationships. There should be inquiry-based lessons, experiential learning, and opportunities to elevate youth voice and leadership.
- Integrating equity and inclusion at every turn. This is especially potent in such a formative developmental time for youth. Young adolescents are actively defining themselves within their social context and, in the process, exploring who they are, who they want to be, and where they fit in.
- Assessing how students enter and exit middle school, amid a series of transitions that serve as the most vulnerable points in a child’s educational experience. We can de-mystify those transition points and create soft landings when students get there, providing opportunities for small group learning that also promote connectedness.
- Considering how to truly support our middle school teachers. Few states have research-informed license requirements for emerging middle school teachers, which leaves those educators without the adequate, specialized training needed to work with young adolescents. We need to then structure and elevate developmentally-focused preparation requirements and ongoing professional learning for teachers, administrators, and after-school staff.
- Better engaging parents and families at all points in the education continuum. This includes a concerted effort to ensure they can navigate the changes in their relationships with their children—and best support them as they experience these significant transitions in school and in their lives.
- Creating a common framework for asset-based messaging, and in doing so, completely revamping the “brand” for middle school.
These areas of focus represent a good start toward a new agenda for middle school. And the good news is that some of the best teachers, schools, out-of-school programs, and advocates for young adolescents already do many or all of these things.
But we must also acknowledge that as a whole, the data showing significant declines in student outcomes in middle school are real. And the field has not yet established the common set of objectives and goals or attracted substantial funding to turn this situation around at a large scale.
Building a Coalition
That is why now is the time to build a broad-based coalition to reimagine the middle school experience. We can learn from other successful collective efforts, like the Campaign for Grade Level Reading, Building a Grad Nation, and the ASPEN Institute’s National Commission on Social, Emotional and Academic Development and others, to help us determine the best ways to focus attention and investment to move the needle on outcomes.
Such coalitions are notoriously hard to build and even harder to sustain. Yet, there is a growing consensus that young adolescents are a special case for which a coalition is needed. So, let’s reframe the middle school years and make a new library of stories about young people of this age that showcase them increasingly owning their learning, being leaders, and charting a path to become socially inclusive, economically independent, and civically engaged young adults. Let’s band together and build a new national agenda for middle school.