Study Finds Middle School Really Does Hurt

In the education community, much attention is given to the importance of the transition from middle school to high school, but new studies show that the transition from elementary school to middle school can be much more important – and dangerous. The most recent of these studies, which followed data for more than 450,000 public school students, offers some harrowing news:

  • Students who finish elementary school in 5th grade and move to middle school experience a significant decline in math and English language scores that continues into high school.
  • Even though middle school students enter 6th grade doing better than their K-8 counterparts, that advantage is reversed by 10th grade.
  • Students who attended middle schools were 18 percent more likely to drop out of high school than K-8 students.
  • High school absenteeism is higher for middle school students than K-8 students.

While students transitioning from middle school to high school did show an initial dip in achievement, that decline was short-lived and less dramatic than that seen in the transition from elementary school to middle school – so it would seem that we’ve been focusing on the wrong transition all along!

While the evidence very clearly shows that students who experience a K-8 education outperform students who transition from elementary to middle school, experts haven’t yet figured out why the traditional 6th-8th grade middle school experience seems to have such a negative impact on student performance. Studies have ruled out such factors as per-pupil expenditure and student-teacher ratios, since these factors remain fairly steady from elementary school to middle school, but the question remains: Why does middle school hurt students?

While the researches couldn’t find a definitive answer, there are plenty of theories to choose from. The leading theory is that students of this age are particularly vulnerable to the difficulties imposed by a dramatic school transition. Developmental psychologists have shown that students at the onset of puberty exhibit negativity, low self-esteem, and an inability to judge the consequences of their actions; combine these developmental hurdles with changing schools and you have a recipe for trouble. After all, transitioning from elementary to middle school involves a number of big changes: a larger student body, breaking up immediate peer groups, and greater student diversity.

In order to help counteract these problems, it is important to ensure that your child develops a strong foundation in basic skills as well as a strong sense of self-esteem. Unfortunately, most public elementary schools tend to err on the side of self-esteem, handing out gold stickers and participation trophies regardless of academic performance. Thus it falls to the parents to find the right balance between academic excellence and self-confidence.

Yet although the parents must bear the brunt of the burden, schools must also play their part. Knowing your school’s strengths and weaknesses can help because some schools are better at mitigating these problems than others. For example, a California study showed that some middle schools were better able to help their students through the transition than others. Examples of practices which help students better adjust to middle school include going on class visits to the middle school while in the 5th grade and encouraging communication between 5th and 6th grade teachers.

But perhaps the ideal solution would be to eliminate middle school altogether. Neither the middle school nor the junior high school model has been popular among private schools, which taught only 2% of their 6th and 7th grade students in such schools in 2007, and the benefits of a private school education have been well documented over the years – maybe the private schools had it right all along. While public school 6th graders are simply trying to keep up while adjusting to a new school, private school 6th graders are preparing for entrance exams to the nation’s most elite high schools. These tests – among them the SSAT, ISEE, Catholic High School Entrance Exams (HSPT, COOP, or TACHS), and specialized school-specific tests such as New York’s Specialized High School Admission Test (SHSAT) or Thomas Jefferson High School’s Admission Test – tend to be very similar to the SAT exams that students will eventually take to earn admission to college. In other words, while public school 6th and 7th graders struggle, private school students of the same age are already getting ready to get into college. Imagine what our public school students could do if they were afforded the same non-middle school advantage that private school students have?

Since restructuring your child’s school configuration probably isn’t within your realm of influence, the question becomes, “How can I help my child make the transition without falling behind?” As your child moves from elementary school to middle school, it is important that you provide the support necessary for him to succeed (even if your sullen pre-teen claims he doesn’t want help). Some tips to get your child through this sticky situation:

  • Ensure a strong foundation in the basics and a healthy sense of self-esteem – these are vital in helping your child weather the transition from elementary to middle school
  • Retain as many daily routines as possible – the same lunches, for example
  • Help your child stay connected to his old friends while he makes new friends – volunteer to drive him to a friend’s house, or encourage him to stay in touch via the internet
  • Communicate early and often with your child’s new teachers – help them get to know your child’s strengths and weaknesses so that they can join the effort to ease the transition
  • Stay on top of grades and schoolwork – don’t just take your child’s word for it if he claims not to have homework; monitor assignment books and routinely check your child’s grades
  • Be proactive – if your newly minted middle school student shows signs of slipping in his academic performance, don’t hesitate to seek outside help; an outside tutor can help to reverse the slide, especially if you seek help early on!

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Filed under C2 Tips, Education News, Middle School

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