Can we make middle school less awful?

How Can We Make Middle School Less Awful? ask Joshua Glenn and Elizabeth Foy Larsen on Slate. They call for giving  “as much attention to emotions and values” as to academics.

Every morning, the sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-graders at Paul Cuffee Middle School in Providence, R.I. join together in what’s called a Circle of Power and Respect. In this “CPR,” they discuss anything from an upcoming science project to how to get boys to stop purposefully clogging the toilets.

Students write a social contract for the school.  Here’s this year’s version:

1. Respect the environment, yourself, and the community.
2. Cooperate: Teamwork makes the dream work.
3. Support each other even when the odds are against us.
4. Be yourself, do what you love, and try!
5. Be resilient: Fall 7 times, stand up 8.

When students behave badly, Principal Nancy Cresser asks which part of the contract they’ve broken.

“They know exactly which ones they’ve violated and they figure out how to fix it,” she says. Instead of storming off or pouting about the unfairness of the rules, Cresser says that Paul Cuffee students are OK with being held accountable. They’re the ones who created the rules, after all. So the students in question come up with a plan to fix what happened.

Creating a safe, supportive school pays off academically, write Glenn and Larsen. Although most students come from low-income families, Cuffee outscores a wealthier school across town in reading and math.

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  1. The middle school model, implemented in our suburb in the early 90s (despite huge community vote to keep it as a 7-8 JHS), moved the focus from academics to emotions. My older kids attended it as a JHS and my younger ones as a 6-7-8 MS, which had all the artsy-crafty stuff from ES (which my older ones were overjoyed to leave), plus a focus on the touchy-feely that overshadowed the academics. NEST (nurture, encourage, support, trust IIRC) every day; “let’s all talk about our feelings!” Torture! The whole program worked to exacerbate the worst aspects of early adolescence. Those who dominated the “popular” cliques – male and female – now had a platform and wider influence. Thank heaven my kids were serious athletes and could thereby ignore the social cliques. I’m cynical enough to think this stuff is another excuse to place less emphasis on academics.

  2. tim-10-ber says:

    One way to fix middle school is to eliminate it…it tends not to work, kids are treated like things to be feared vs being given leadership opportunities, mentoring, tutoring, opportunities in a K-8 school. The K-8 system works…it is the adults that have the issues and the students sense the fear…

  3. Is this a joke? Middle school is all about emotions and values. That’s what makes it such a horror show.

  4. I should have included the fact that I have read/heard MANY complaints from parents (and some teachers), who say that groupwork for “academic” subjects has the same negatives; the most popular/socially adept now have another venue to dominate – and, in some cases, to bully. Quiet/introverted kids, less socially adept kids (particularly ASD), spec ed and academically weaker kids are particularly at risk – in both social and academic situations. Awful idea.

  5. Foobarista says:

    Gak! I remember middle-school as where emotions and other non-academic nonsense basically ruined everything. I hated it intensely, and didn’t really figure out school again until my junior year at HS.

    Let a hundred hormones bloom! Not.

  6. George Larson says:

    Why did K-8 change to K-6 and JHS? What problem was being fixed? Did it fix anything? Did MS fix anything?

  7. Stacy in NJ says:

    No, it’s not possible. In my limited observation, 12 and 13 year old children – girls in particular – are horrible human beings – with very rare exceptions.

    • tim-10-ber says:

      Don’t disagree but a lot of this is directly tied to lack of parenting, peer pressure and government schools not enforcing discipline policies…

    • Crimson Wife says:

      Seriously! Young adolescent girls are wacked out on hormones so it’s like they have mega-PMS for a good 1.5-2 years.

    • This. This ten thousand times. I loathed seventh grade because of the other kids (not just girls; some of the boys were every bit as awful).

  8. The only way to make middle school better is to do away with it. Go back to the K-8 model, or if that can’t be done, go with a K-6 and then a 7-8 junior high. The focus of junior high should be academics, not emotions. The focus on emotions in lieu of academics is what makes middle school so dreadful.

  9. I agree with all the fans of K-8. It lets middle-school-aged kids learn how to be leaders and role models for the littler kids and to think about someone other than themselves.

  10. Bostonian says:

    I also oppose the middle school philosophy. Some educators may think “we can’t teach them academic subjects until we deal with their emotional problems”. The truth may be that if we focus the minds of young teens on academic work, during school, that will give them some respite from the turmoil of puberty.

  11. lightly seasoned says:

    I went to a straight-up academic junior high back in the old days. It sucked in all the same ways middle school now sucks, except we did content. That might be all you can ask for.

    • Deirdre Mundy says:

      I went to a Intermediate School (7/8) magnet program. It was not my happiest time, but it was not as bad as 6th grade! The ‘popular’ magnet girls mostly ignored the rest of us, and I had 4 or 5 friends! I think there’s a lot to be said for ‘special’ programs for the socially inept and delayed. Not being a target is equivalent to heaven, at that age.

  12. twitter_siobhancurious says:

    I just put out an open call for posts about improving “school society,” ( ) so this is very timely. I also just recently listened again to This American Life’s podcast “Middle School,” ( ) which exposes the horrid reality of middle school beautifully. Thanks for this!

  13. Actually, when I attended public school, it was Elementary (grades 1-5), then I changed locations, and all sixth graders were sent to ‘6th grade centers’ as part of a desegregation issue decided by a bunch of numbnuts who collectively didn’t have the IQ of a houseplant between all of them (including a federal judge/circuit court of appeals).

    Middle school for me was 7-8 grades (or in some of the schools, grades 7-9), but I don’t look back at it with a great deal of fun, except for my math and science teacher(s) who were pretty hot back then :-).

    It would appear that two models exist these days, K-8, then high school, or K-6, 7-9, 10-12, but I could be wrong, it’s been many years since I was in public school.

    • Genevieve says:

      I would guess there are more models than that.
      In my area there is K-5, 6-8, 9-12. K-6, 7-8,9, 10-12. K-5, 6-8, 9, 10-12. K-5, 6-7, 8-9 and 10-12. There are also a few districts with broken up elementary schools (K-2, 3-5 or a separate fifth grade building, or other weird configurations). I think this is mostly for space reasons.

  14. At the extremes, we can either cater to middle school girls’ desires to make their school experience all emotions, all the time; or we can keep them so busy that they get to stop obsessing about their emotions. I think it’s better to go with the second. At the same time, it is good to get buy-in for reasonable school rules, and to have good guidance counselors/social workers on staff to deal with tension and stress that come from actual dyusfunction at home or true emotional illness.

    • And it occurs to me that there’s a tie-in between this story and the one about men not showing up in college. If middle school seems mickey-mouse to boys (and emphasis on emotions is one thing that often seems trivial to boys) that would certainly distance them from school starting at the age of 11.

  15. Starting in kindergarten, I think schools are far less friendly to boys than they were when my kids (26-38) were in school, and vastly less than they were when I was in school in the 50s. Not only did every boy in my school have a pocket knife, but so did many of the girls (I still have my Hopalong Cassidy model); whittling was a common recess activity – along with Red Rover and lots of other games now outlawed. We read Robinson Crusoe, Swiss Family Robinson, Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, war stories, Jack London books and The Ransom of Red Chief. My kids read none of them in school, but Judy Blume books were commonly assigned (my kids DESPISED “Are You There, God”) In my day, writing personal stories was limited to the classic first-day assignment; What I Did Over Summer Vacation. Kids who wanted to journal did it on their own time; it was called a diary. Self-esteem and self-expression were not part of the environment but self-control was an absolute virtue. We certainly had emotions, but were expected to control them, not share them. Boys would be better off if we returned to that view and lots of girls would be happier, too. Many teachers, especially at ES-MS levels, seem to see boys as defective girls. ADD/ADHD exist, but not in anything like the percentage we see on medication; schools simply refuse to let boys be boys and accommodate their needs into the curriculum, instructional practices (groupwork is very unfriendly to boys) and school policies.

  16. Elizabeth says:

    With exception of a few teachers, I found that the majority of MS teachers seem to be in thrall of the mean/popular girl clique, and hence reinforce it.

    • I think that groupwork also inherently reinforces it; control of the group goes to the popular/socially adept and thereby reinforces the social hierarchy. It also allows shunning or bullying of the least capable and/or socially adept. Working independently, such kids could at least be ignored, which many would consider a great improvement.

      I think that many women teachers, particularly in ES, loved to play school as kids; hence their preference of the “play” aspects (artsy-crafty, touchy-feely) over the academic aspects. Perhaps MS teachers were in the popular clique in MS/HS and identify with that group; certainly ES-MS teachers were “good at school.”