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Fixing the Middle Mess

In a recent entry from her Answer Sheet blog on the Washington Post website, Valerie Strauss contemplates How to fix the mess we call middle school. As anyone who’s taught students in that age group knows, the mess ain’t pretty.

In my school experience, I’ve attended a “middle” school that included grades 5 through 8 and taught in a “junior” high with 9th graders. In our district, three of the 24 middle schools start with 6th grade instead of 7. It seems as if the concept has largely be shaped by a combination of experimentation, sketchy research, and speculation, and the mess is not limited to the US.

Cutting through the international jumble of approaches to organizing schools for the “middle” years, Strauss offers some pretty simple suggestions for fixing the problem.

The answer: blowing up middle school as we know it and turning at least some of it into a “boot camp for life.”

Enough with “academic rigor.” Stop testing kids ad nauseam.

We need to create middle-school education environments that would allow kids to learn skills in unconventional ways and that would give them far more time to engage in physical activity outside the classroom. It is a perfect time to help kids learn the value of manual labor while they learn to use their brain.

As Strauss concludes,

The sustained experimentation with middle school-age students has continued because schools have failed to meet the emotional and academic needs of adolescents.

Changing the grade configuration isn’t going to do it. More tests and a mountain-range of data won’t do it either. We need real reform.

Exactly! Although layering on more test prep is so much easier and cheaper than actually addressing the problem.


  1. Chris Toy

    I think the key phrase here is “as we know it”. The real problem may be that there are too many named middle schools that are simply not doing middle school as it should be done according to the research. So it becomes more about doing middle school right, and not an issue of reform.

  2. Doug Johnson

    “Middle school” grades are more or less determined by school building facilities capacities in most districts.


  3. Gerry

    Part of the issue with this age group deals with the adage “today’s ten year old is yesterday’s fifteen year old.” They know more and have experienced more than their predecessors. A fifth grade teacher now deals with issues which used to be seen in 8th grade.
    Also, I’m a firm believer that the teachers of this age group need to be trained as middle grades teachers. Allowing high school or even worse elementary teachers to teach these students is not effective in the long run because of their special needs.

  4. Teresa

    My district just completed a re-configuration of grades levels. We changed from a middle school (grades 6-7), junior high school (grades 8-9), and high school (grades 10-12) to two middle schools (grades 6-8) and one high school (grades 9 – 12). The issue with middle schools is the students are in a constant state of transition. Having the same expectations and policies for 11 yr olds as for 14 year olds is unrealistic. Middle schools should be designed to have 2 schools within one. 6th graders need more “hand holding” to transition from the elementary expectations, while the 8th graders need more independence and responsibility in order to prepare them for the expectations of high school.

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