RAND Study Highlights Challenges Facing Middle Schools

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March 9, 2004

Middle school students in the United States feel less positive about learning conditions and report more physical and emotional problems at their schools than their peers in 11 other nations, according to a RAND Corporation study that highlights challenges facing American middle schools.

While there is little empirical evidence that separate middle schools are better for students than other grade configurations, there is evidence that the transitions the schools require compromise some students’ developmental and academic progress, the RAND Education study concludes.

"While many well-intended and reasoned reforms have been implemented in U.S. middle schools, we are not doing very well compared with the rest of the developed world," said Jaana Juvonen, a RAND psychologist and lead author of the report.

The RAND study provides the first international comparisons on student well-being and school climate of middle school age youth. The report compares students in American middle schools (which cover grades 6, 7 and 8 and serve primarily 12 to 14-year-old children) to students in the same age group in Belgium, Canada, the Czech Republic, England, Finland, Hungary, Israel, Latvia, Lithuania, Russia and the Slovak Republic.

U.S. middle school students report more social isolation than students the same age in all but three other nations studied, and are among those most likely to report that their schoolmates are not kind, helpful and accepting, the RAND study found. The American students are also more likely to report they don’t enjoy each other’s company.

American middle school students report more problems such as headaches, feeling low and nervousness than students in the same age group from other nations, except for their peers in Israel.

The report reviewing the state of American middle schools examines student achievement, learning conditions, teacher training, parental involvement, school leadership and reform efforts.

On top of the previously documented findings of American 8th grade students lagging behind students in other nations on science and math achievement, the study reports that test scores of U.S. middle school students in mathematics, science and reading have risen since the 1970s. However, reading scores have remained relatively steady since the 1980s.

Even with these gains, only about one-third of 8th grade students in the United States achieve proficiency in core subjects on achievement tests: 27 percent in mathematics, 32 percent in science and 33 percent in reading, the study found.

In contrast to Latino students, African American students have narrowed their achievement gap with white students. But in spite of these improvements, white students continue to outperform African Americans by a substantial margin, particularly in mathematics and science.

Titled “Focus on the Wonder Years: Challenges Facing the American Middle School,” the study was supported by the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation. The foundation, based in New York City, helps nonprofits that work with young people from low-income backgrounds strengthen their organizations so they can better serve larger numbers of youth.

Middle schools in the United States began to appear during the 1980s when educators endorsed a new school concept intended to reform the traditional junior high school, changing the grade configuration from grades 7-8 or 7-9 to grades 6-8. In addition, new organizational and instructional practices such as interdisciplinary team teaching were introduced in an effort to meet adolescents’ developmental needs.

The review found that team teaching concepts that are supposed to be an underpinning of middle schools are seldom fully implemented. The RAND researchers conclude that it is unreasonable to expect teachers to team teach and integrate subject matter content across disciplines when they often have not received training in collaborative teaching methods or any time in their daily schedules to plan for such collaboration.

In addition, the report found that many middle school teachers do not have a major, a minor or certification in the subjects they teach, particularly in the biological and physical sciences. Moreover, many middle school teachers do not have training in the development of adolescents.

Many middle school principals also are inadequately trained to navigate the unique challenges of middle schools. Often they must spend much of their time on student discipline, decreasing the ability to provide academic leadership, according to the study.

Although parents are often blamed for not being involved in the education of their children beyond elementary school years, most middle schools do too little to engage parents in the educational process, the RAND study found.

Juvonen and her colleagues warn that as educators focus on meeting strict new academic standards set by the federal No Child Left Behind Act, they might ignore the developmental and social needs of young adolescents. Recent research suggests that students do better in schools that foster personal support as well as emphasize academic rigor.

More than 9 million students are currently enrolled in public middle schools in the United States. Over the years, middle schools have been criticized by some and blamed for an increase in student behavior problems such as teen alienation, disengagement from school and low academic achievement.

RAND researchers analyzed a broad array of reports, surveys, and student testing results to prepare their comprehensive look at America’s middle schools. To develop a view of how U.S. middle school students compare internationally, RAND researchers analyzed results from international studies performed by the World Health Organization and other groups.

Other authors of the report are Vi-Nhuan Lee, Tessa Kaganoff, Catherine Augustine and Louay Constant of RAND Education.

RAND Education conducts research and analysis on a variety of topics, including school reform, educational assessment and accountability, and trends among teachers and teacher training.

A printed copy of “Focus on the Wonder Years: Challenges Facing the American Middle School,” (ISBN: 0-8330-3390-5) can be ordered from RAND's Distribution Services (order@rand.org or call toll-free 877-584-8642).


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