First, I think it should be common sense that a student who spends 8 years in a school building then makes one transition to their final leg of education would have less trepidation compared to those who jump to a new school for three years and then are thrust into high school. Just looking at the philosophical foundations of education and the overriding personality of teachers throughout K-8 education would convince me that this longitudinal study is confoundedly common sense and a waste of, what I am sure was, public grant dollars.
What would have made actual sense was to give the following data concerning the schools in question:
1. A comparison of the philosophical foundations of the K-8 buildings and Middle Schools that were used in the research.
2. The socioeconomic of the districts in question
3. Use a state other than Florida
In order of appearance...You can quickly find on the AMLE website their guiding principles of middle school education. I could not find a similar organization that oversees the philosophical foundations of K-8 education. The assumption, I suppose is that K-8 schools use the same educational philosophies to guide their methodologies when teaching grades 6-8. If that is the case, then the type of environment that students receive their 6-8 education is moot, and we can focus simply on the physiological ideas at work concerning transitions in life and the cognitive impact of those changes. I will return to this idea in a second. If there is a change in teaching philosophy within K-8 buildings, then that philosophy could be part of the issue. This specific article and the research it presents does not lead to that conclusion. Back to my first point. The article continues by breaking the math score down for the general population and then for subgroups. It makes sure to point out that testing scores for African Americans takes a sharp hit when students arrive at a middle school. The article quickly jumps to the proposed idea that the reason for the lack of achievement in middle schools is "“kids tend to say they feel safer [in K-8], so there is less of a Lord of the Flies environment” at a critical stage when they are “navigating through social currents". As a middle school teacher I understand this argument. Middle School is the time of puberty mixed with high-demands concerning educational input and output. To say that students would feel safer in a K-8 building should be common sense. If students transition into the 6-8 years in the same building they have spent K-5, of course that eliminates the factor of change.
Where my real problem is with this article is that it implies, with such great quotes as "...our evidence indicates that effective school practices are more common in K–8 schools than in middle schools and that the transition to middle school itself is detrimental for students and should be eliminated wherever possible", that K-8 is the answer. The article does not however, question the feasibility of a K-6 and a 7-12 transition for students. It relies only on the two current educational models and then picks the one that the data supposedly says is better. Here's an idea, purpose an entirely new school structure, put it into practice for fifteen years and then look at the data. I'm sick of reading worthless research that pokes at the larger problem, then offers a practical fix, that really doesn't fix the problem of our educational system. The article further completely ignores the psychology of change on a person. It is well documented that the emotional toll change takes on a person is similar to the bereavement process. In an adult, lets say teachers given a new set of standards to teach, it is easy to put measures in place that address this change and the emotional toll it will have. I am confused why the article does not offer the idea of saving middle schools, but concentrating more on a students emotional ability to deal with the change related to attending a middle school. By eliminating the transition to middle school the article is saying that we should eliminate the opportunity students have to assess change early in their lives, create coping skills for change and do it with trained counselors and teachers whom are their to help them through that change. We are shielding our students from change.
In this day and age that is extremely dangerous. Most other research also points out the disturbing fact that today's college-aged students will have 10-14 jobs in their lifetime. Will education fail our students in one more way by us shielding them from change early in life just so they can attempt to cope with it later in life when they are also coping with the myriad of other changes that entering the workforce and being an adult brings about? Maybe it is just my bias as a middle school teacher, but I really don't see the point in such a study if all methods of correcting the "problem of middle school" are not addressed.
I am offended that the only data used in this article comes from Florida. Last time I checked, Florida is only 1/50 of our states and they are not known for having overly-successful school districts. The article does nothing in the way of describing the school districts where the data was collected. nor are any indications given that the research is ongoing in other populations throughout the United States.
This article starts with a statement from the researcher, assistant professor Martin West, talking about the "shock" of entering middle school. If this research was sparked by his personal tragedy of going into middle school, then I have to wonder if his conclusions are biased to the idea that he wants to establish a connection between his discomfort and the general feeling of other students making the same transition. There is a certain amount of therapy in the understanding that others feel the same as you. This is purely speculation on my part. Since West is an associate professor at Harvard, I can assume he is in his late twenties. School was a bit different sixteen years ago. Even his research which is probably 3-5 years old is rapidly falling behind the paradigm shift of education. I firmly believe that educating children based on age first is stupid. The answer is in the educational system, not what grade levels are in what buildings. A quick survey of my 7th grade students yielded not a single student who felt "shock" when they entered middle school.
Perhaps the problem lies in the peer group of those students changing schools. Most districts have more elementary schools than middle schools. Busing, overcrowding and other issues have an effect on who students go to school with in elementary schools versus middle school. In a K-8 district, students would only (possibly) change peer groups once as they enter high school. This could be seen as a negative of a K-8 building. Should students only be exposed to the same peers for over half of their education? Perhaps the heterogeneous shift of peers in middle school is helpful to children that must internalize the idea of working with different people throughout their lives?
In closing, one must remember the Eureka Phenomena. Rather, the steps leading up to the Eureka Phenomena. Frustration is an important part of problem-solving and personal growth. The sooner we learn to deal with frustrations and fears in learning, the better a learner we will become. So I say bring on middle school! Let's change buildings and change classes and change peer groups. Let's jump online and learn in other classrooms, in other countries and with other age groups. Let's sit down as teachers and students and discuss our fears and our problems. Let's find solutions together to make middle school what it could and should be.
I would love to hear your thoughts, leave a comment.