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Do Minds Really Go Numb In Middle School?


Q. Most middle schools run from sixth through eighth grades, and a lot of parents say they are a wasteland academically. I've heard middle-school educators say that it is pointless to shoot for high academics because the kids are too addlebrained at that age to concentrate on school, and the best they can do is keep kids in a "holding pattern" 'til they are out of those awful middle-school years. That doesn't sound right to me. Are middle schools supported by the evidence, or a bad idea?


There have been lots of theories about what happens to the brains of children who transition into adolescence. Not all of them were within the realm of sanity, but they still had an impact, unfortunately. For instance, one such issue was "brain periodization" or the "Plateau of Learning" theory. This was the idea that children's brains virtually stop growing from 12 to 14 years of age, and complex teachings could damage their brains.

That theory gave middle school advocates scientific support to lighten the academic workload at the middle school level, which happened in the 1980s.

The actually has since been thoroughly disproved, but significant numbers of middle school teachers and administrators still believe it to be true, since they learned it in their college of education some years ago.


Perhaps the best way to combat that "urban myth" would be to compare the test scores of middle-school age kids who attend traditional, K-8 schools where the anti-academic focus has not taken hold, to those middle schools that have chosen the "affective," or behavioral, route instead of academics. The K-8 kids always out-do the middle-school kids, both during those years, and later on in high school and college.


Policymakers and parents also should consider that it is easier to fill vacancies in the middle grades of a K-8 school than in a middle school. The population of parents who are filling vacancies are usually those who are moving in to an area from outside, rather than those who have lived in that area all along. That indicates that in a free-market situation, when parents have a choice, they prefer a K-8 setting.


Proponents of K-8 schools also say their schools are safer than middle schools because older children with younger family members attending the same school take on the part of protector, tutor, and role model. That goes for before- and after-school hours, when safety hazards are at an all-time high, and many "tweens" are being tempted to engage in high-risk, anti-social behaviors involving sex, drugs and alcohol. In a middle school, the same children must posture for a reputation, which often leads to the disruption associated with larger middle schools.


Also, they contend, parental involvement is greater in K-8 schools because parents remain connected to one school longer and are more likely to have more than one family member enrolled in the school at the same time.


Meanwhile, the school may be more fulfilling for staff, because they are able to see their influence as the students grow from small children into young adults under their supervision.


Homework: See "The Great K-8 Debate" on


By Susan Darst Williams Ages & Stages 141 2008



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