Being a 13-Year-Old Is Hard

A few weeks ago Slate published an article titled, “Why Does My Kid Freak Out?” The piece explains how the wild tantrums toddlers throw are actually completely rational reactions given what they’re going through.

2-year-olds are also going through a hellish personal crisis: They have just learned how to walk and use tools, so they really want to explore the world; at the same time, they are terrified of what that world contains and constantly fearful that their parents, whom they love and trust to a terrifying degree, will suddenly abandon them. Oh, and those same parents? They’re suddenly barking “no” all the time, seemingly just for fun. What the hell?

It’s no coincidence that kids start having tantrums around the time that parents start enforcing rules. When you say no, sweetie, you can’t have that butcher knife, your 20-month-old has no idea that you are depriving her of this awesomely shiny contraption for her own safety. “Since it’s the parent, whom they rely on for everything, who is taking it away, it’s perceived as a withdrawal of love, essentially,” says Alicia Lieberman, a professor of Infant Mental Health at the University of California-San Francisco.

On some level, I think that middle school students go through a similar crisis. When kids enter adolescence there is a sudden and rapid rise in the importance of the social hierarchy, yet positions in that hierarchy continue to be based on physical appearance, material possessions, and a host of other things that are outside the control of most teenagers. Even worse, the personal characteristics parents have been stressing — qualities like kindness and intelligence that are prized in the adult world — often seem to not matter at all.

This is the context for the research Collin Hitt cites while sensibly suggesting that Chicago close its middle schools before shuttering elementary schools.

Middle schools became prominent in the 1960s and 70s. There was little academic justification for creating them; most of the middle school pedagogy found today was developed after middle schools were built. There wasn’t much anxiety about comingling adolescents and younger children; that was a post hoc justification. Districts simply built middle schools to house sixth through eighth graders from elementary schools that, after the Baby Boom, were actually overfull. Recent research shows that this was a huge unforced error. Districts should have just built more K-8 schools. For students, the transition from elementary to middle schools has negative, long-term impacts.

A pioneering study of middle schools was published in 2010 by Columbia University researchers Jonah Rockoff and Benjamin Lockwood. They compared New York City students at middle schools and K-8 elementary schools. They found that middle schools had a large negative impact on students test scores. Almost all of the learning losses were suffered by disadvantaged students with lower incoming test scores.

Harvard researchers Marty West and Gino Schwerdt have used the same methods to examine Florida middle schools. They found practically identical, negative effects in urban areas like Miami…

Changing schools can be an anxiety-inducing process, particularly in places where students have a range of choices that necessitate applications and real decisions (e.g. New York City). Given that middle schoolers have enough on their mind, replacing middle schools with K-8 schools seems like a good decision. This ought to be particularly true in Chicago, where elementary schools are now closing while middle schools remain open.

The district should stop feeding students into half-empty middle schools. Instead, it should allow kids to stay at their current elementary schools by simply adding an older grade to the school. As elementary schools add one grade per year, they’d eventually become K-8 schools — they certainly have the space to do so. Middle schools would shrink in size and staffing levels, since they’d have no more incoming classes.* Eventually, the middle schools would have no more students left, since all of their present students will graduate to high school. In a couple short years, most underused middle schools could be closed.

Under this scheme, no student would be forced to leave her current school. The district could close a large number of underused buildings. And student performance would improve.

When it comes to middle schools, research and common sense point to the same conclusion. Middle schools have a negative impact on students, an impact that grows stronger when they’re kept open at the expense of elementary or K-8 schools.


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