"Bear in mind that the wonderful things you learn in your schools are the work of many generations, produced by enthusiastic effort and infinite labor in every country of the world. All this is put into your hands as your inheritance in order that you may receive it, honor it, add to it, and one day faithfully hand it to your children. Thus do we mortals achieve immortality in the permanent things which we create in common." - Albert Einstein

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Middle School: A United States Experience

My son is currently in his first year in Middle School. He reads both "Big Nate" and the "Diary of a Wimpy Kid". Anya Kamenetz in a recent article posted on NPR, "Switching To Middle School Can Be Hard On Kids, But There Are Ways To Make It Better", starts with a quote from the "Diary of the Wimpy Kid":
"I'll be famous one day, but for now I'm stuck in middle school with a bunch of morons."
There are countries in the world other than the United States that have middle school in basic education. The Philippines is not one of those countries. Even with its new K to 12 curriculum, there is no middle school. One may suggest that grades 7-10 are now junior high school and 11-12 are senior high school, yet that distinction still does not match the fact that in the United States, middle school and high school involve separate schools, separate set of teachers and administrators. Anyway, my son's experience with middle school is therefore my own first exposure to middle school as well. My son is really enjoying middle school but reading Kamenetz's article however makes me quite uncomfortable. Kamenetz writes:
"A large body of research suggests that students who go to middle school or junior high do worse academically, socially and emotionally, compared to the young teenagers who get to be the oldest students at schools with grades K-8.
A new paper in the Journal of Early Adolescence reinforces this message. The study found that starting a new school in either sixth or seventh grade hurts students' perceptions of their own reading ability and motivation to work hard in English language arts."
It is a good thing that Kamenetz does provide a link to the primary literature cited. It turns out what Kamenetz is saying is actually not supported by research. The following graph summarizes what recent research says about middle school and junior high school:

Above copied from
Elise Cappella, Kate Schwartz, Jennifer Hill, Ha Yeon Kim, and Edward Seidman. A National Sample of Eighth-Grade Students: The Impact of Middle Grade Schools on Academic and Psychosocial Competence. The Journal of Early Adolescence. First Published October 11, 2017 

This recent study published in the Journal of Early Adolescence takes into account both propensity and population weights to arrive at causal relationships between attending middle school, and social and learning outcomes. It is not comparing apples and oranges. What the authors have done is to compare students who have gone through middle school with those who have not only if these students carry the same characteristics such as socioeconomic status, learning trajectory in the elementary years, and other possible confounding factors. Only with this much more careful analysis, one can then zero in on the actual effects of middle school. And as a result, one arrives at the conclusion that the effects are almost negligible. The only area where a difference can be deemed significant is "reading self-concept". But even here, the effect size is small, -0.18 of a standard deviation.

However, there remains a flip-side to this issue. Middle school may not be as harmful as previous research suggests but the question of why there should be middle school still needs to be addressed. Middle school is supposed to help children grow through their most challenging adolescent years. Middle school should therefore improve both social and learning outcomes, but it does not. Why middle school does not achieve its objectives needs to be addressed. Of course, having K-8 schools requires much bigger space in one location as opposed to an elementary school that serves K-5 and a separate middle school that serves 6-8. Still, middle school is uniquely positioned to serve the needs of young adolescents. It should do better.


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