Mending the Middle School Bridge

January 14, 2019

Children in their early teens often stretch boundaries, which can contribute to toxic school environments.  As a result, middle schools sometimes evoke memories of awkwardness, bullies, and exclusion.  Some educators feel that this is an inevitable symptom of the age and therefore finding ways to avoid it are futile.

I disagree. 

Traditional middle school structures contain some educational advantages, but they also magnify the behavior for which they are notorious.  Most students would benefit much more from a transitional structure that bridges primary and high school designs.  Middle schools with two or fewer rotations/day lead to less disciplinary problems, more instructional time, and happier students.

Most junior high behavioral challenges emanate from structural breakdowns, specifically when students pass from class to class or are preparing to do so.  Anxious students are more likely to fight and/or disrespect teachers.  Fewer transitions lead to greater supervision, a more settled student body, and less disruptive behavior.  It also provides more instructional time.

Many middle school teachers aim to enrich student learning through guest speakers and/or field trips.  Although these experiences are good for children’s educational journey and morale, they often replace Math and Language Arts - subjects that are foundational to succeed in all disciplines.  Fewer rotations provide teachers with more flexible schedules, ensuring that all students receive daily Math and Language Arts instruction.  Through the accumulation of assemblies, special celebrations, field trips, fire drills, etc. students who pass to five or six classes/day, miss between 20 and 30 core instructional hours/year.  Strong students are able to thrive in this structure, but most students do not.  At best, the majority of students fall short of their academic potential.  At worst, they struggle academically while feeling more and more disconnected from their teachers and peers.

Early teens crave a sense of independence and belonging.  Although traditional middle schools provide the former, they often do so at the expense of the latter.  Children who pass from class to class a half-dozen or more times daily, are rarely monitored by a single adult.  Teachers, in turn, have less ownership of their students, who lack the time and trust needed to build relationships with them.  With nobody to share their successes and anxieties, children who struggle with bullies and/or self-image often perpetuate these cycles on more vulnerable classmates.

It doesn’t need to be this way.

Middle school structures should be designed to foster exemplary academic learning, but also social/emotional growth.  The best way to do this is dividing 50-student cohorts into two classes and assigning them two teachers - one for Language Arts and Social Studies, and a second for Math and Science.  On days with an interrupted schedule, each teacher prioritizes Language Arts and Math, respectively.  In the process, children feel a better sense of classroom community, because they’re interacting with fewer peers and adults.  This leads to happier students and superior learning, making early teens better prepared for the academic and social rigor of high school.