America should do away with middle schools, which are educational wastelands. We need to cut the middle out of middle schools, either by combining them with the guidance and nurturing that children find in elementary school, or with the focus on adult success that we expect from our high schools.
For much as half of middle schools across the country, national statistics show substantial performance gaps, especially in math and reading achievement, between middle school and high school. It’s time to admit that middle school models do not work—instead, they are places where academics stall and languish.
From my experience as an educator for 28 years with the New York City Department of Education, middle schools are rife with academic dysfunction that causes irreparable harm to children in later years, when performance really counts. One challenge is the ill-prepared teacher. Chancellors and school systems have not focused enough on the fact that one can be a great teacher of elementary school, a star high school teacher, but still not be prepared to teach middle school. Too often in middle school the teachers have never received real professional development training to help students succeed in high school. And, more importantly, there is little to no time for teachers to focus on establishing strong relationships with their students, which has a tremendous impact on how students perform in the classroom, particularly for boys. A teacher’s ability to relate to his or her students is not icing on the cake of serious academics—I believe it is the whole cake.
Academic challenges coupled with a student’s emotional development are a recipe for failure. In middle school, hormones rage: kids show up in the principal’s office and burst into tears without knowing why. Peer pressure, more than any other time in students’ lives—pressure directly from classmates and friends or indirectly through pop culture and social media—can be overwhelming. For many students, their only goal is to feel included and accepted by their peers.
In these formative years, communication from peers can drown out the wiser voices of parents, teachers and mentors, trapping our young people—and especially our boys—in an echo chamber of voices as inexperienced and impulsive as their own. Students struggling academically may decide to give up, while the bright but under-unchallenged may conclude they don’t really need to learn how to study, because middle school seems to prove that they’re smart enough to wing it.
A 2012 Harvard University study of middle schools found that, compared to K-8 or K-12 schools, middle school students scored significantly lower on achievement tests – losses amounting to as much as four to seven months of learning. The research found that students who make school transitions at grade 7, a typical point of transfer from elementary school to high school, often experience real drops in achievement in math and reading. Likewise, students making the transition in sixth grade experience similar drops in reading and math achievement.
And when you factor in the massive costs to operate these generally stand-alone schools—from tax dollars, union contracts, etc.—there is a considerable financial benefit to eliminating middle schools. In fact, the public school costs for middle school can be as high as the most expensive private schools in the country.
Middle schools that do work have key factors in common: they set measurable goals on standardized tests across all grades, subjects and proficiency levels. They correlate an evaluation of teachers and principals with student performances. And they communicate to parents and students their mutual responsibility for academic success. The best performing middle schools place great emphasis on “future-focus”—on rigorous high-school curriculum.
So why not abolish middle schools altogether?
I know the benefits first-hand. When I was a high-school principal, it became clear to me that despite the extraordinary talent and commitment of our teachers and staff, four years of high school was simply not enough time to help students, particularly young men of color, succeed. We have to start with students earlier—giving more time to develop the skills and foster the character students need to succeed later in life. Think about it: The longer the runway, the more time the pilot has to get the airplane and all its baggage off the ground.
At the Eagle Academy, a network of public schools specializing in at-risk youth that I administer as CEO, we link middle school to high school to give teachers extra time to get to know our students and what they would need, individually, to succeed in high school. The process begins with our "summer bridge" program, three weeks in the summer before sixth grade, to introduce students to our school culture and make sure they were ready on the first day in the fall. We have extended school days where we combine rigorous academics with compelling extra-curricular activities to give students encounters with teachers who are as much their coaches as their champions. And we encourage parent-student “contracts,” for class attendance, homework submission and even extra-curriculum activities.
Today, in most middle schools, students have no tangible connection to past academic years or future performance goals. Dissolving middle schools, such as sending pre-teen students directly to high school, is going to take a large-scale effort. But it is our most important challenge to make a profound difference in the education of our youth, and therefore essential to our country’s future.
David Banks is the President of the Eagle Academy Foundation for Young Men, which operates five public schools in the New York-New Jersey area. Banks, who has spent nearly three decades as an educator, has a book on education reform coming out in September entitled “Soar”.