Middle School Struggles

Tue May 3, 2016


Ever since middle schools became popular, there have been rising concerns that they successfully strike a balance between two seemingly competing interests: education and psychological development. According to 2005 research from Kelly Bedard and Chau Do, “moving 6th graders to middle school resulted in a 1 to 3 percent decline in on-time high-school graduation rates.” This doesn’t mean it’s impossible for middle school staff to help their students. Rather middle schools must recognize and embrace the sometimes overpowering emotional and physical changes happening to middle schoolers that affect the development of effective programs, class structure, and even school structures.

Middle schoolers logically have the most difficult time staying focused of any age group. Their body undergoes many physical and hormonal changes that can distract them from their studies. These growth changes also mean that middle school students are simply hungrier than other age groups, so basic meal times might not keep them full throughout their school day (Knowles, Brown 2000). This increased hunger can be a great distraction from classwork.

Emotional and intellectual changes, while not as outwardly obvious, are also changing the ways students learn in middle school. During this time they go from concrete operational learning to formal operational learning  (Knowles, Brown 2000). Therefore, when teaching more abstract topics, teachers can help their students by using physical objects to make learning more hands-on.

With all of these changes occurring within their bodies and minds, middle schoolers need programs to keep them engaged and interested in their futures. Job shadow opportunities, career days, and field trips are just a few of the ways to keep these students engaged and motivated to keep learning (Rogers 1995). One example of a middle school that has achieved student engagement and success is St. Therese Chinese Catholic School.

In an interview with Cambridge, principal Phyllis Cavallone described the numerous tactics and programs St. Therese offers to help students not only get into their first choice of Chicago high schools but be successful once they leave middle school. St. Therese uses basic skills prep at three levels, sometimes dedicating entire class periods to it. They prep for Aspire, and even the ACT. They use online and print materials so students aren’t looking at a screen for too long, but are still using technology. Their students consistently score 100% on most of the Aspire requirements. Cavallone also recognizes middle schoolers learn in unique ways and therefore delivers a very tough, diversified college readiness curriculum that meets the needs of all of her learners.

Another challenge middle schoolers will face is standardized exams. Some of the standardized exams that middle schoolers will take have been changing recently, so without proper preparation for teachers and students, students can be left feeling unprepared and nervous. For example, the new Aspire assesses ability in five subject areas: English, math, reading, science, and writing. The old Explore and Plan did not test students on writing, so now students must be prepared for this new subtest. Other changes include the availability of online testing and the use of the exam in grades 3-10 instead of 8-10. This helps track longitudinal learning. ACT, Inc. has a great resource outlining more changes here .

Although middle school students experience stressful changes to themselves and their standardized exams, there is a lot a school can do to make the classroom less stressful. One solution (that can be difficult to achieve) is to make schools that cater to K-8 or 6-12th graders. This can remove a stressful transition from students’ lives. When that isn’t possible, decreasing classroom size so students can bond with their teachers and ask more questions helps them feel safer in their learning environment (Gootman 2007). Overall, taking the changes middle schoolers are going through into account when planning prep materials, motivational programs, and class structures can help make any middle school’s students successful.

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 Rogers, Anne M. "Learning from Experience: A Cross-Case Comparison of School-to-Work Transition Reform Initiatives." ERIC Institute of Education Sciences. October 1995. Accessed April 19, 2016. http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED404469.pdf.

 "Comparison of ACT Explore® and ACT Plan® to ACT Aspire®." ACT. http://www.act.org/content/dam/act/unsecured/documents/Comparison.pdf.

 Gootman, Elissa. "Taking Middle Schoolers Out of the Middle." The New York Times. January 22, 2007. Accessed April 19, 2016. http://www.nytimes.com/2007/01/22/education/22middle.html?_r=0.

 Knowles, Trudy, and Dave F. Brown. "What Every Middle School Teacher Should Know ... - Heinemann." Heinemann. 2000. Accessed April 19, 2016. https://www.heinemann.com/shared/onlineresources/e00266/chapter2.pdf.


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