Why I Don’t Believe in Middle School

Students Would Be Better Off With Fewer School Transitions

I’d like to share a radical, potentially unpopular opinion:

Many people may think such a statement sounds crazy: Middle or junior high schools have been institutions in most American communities for decades. They may seem like essential stepping stones in students’ education. How could we organize schooling successfully without them?

Well, my lack of faith in middle schools stems first and foremost from personal experience. I spent 7th grade in an elementary school, and 8th grade in a high school. In my hometown, the school district has one standalone middle school serving 7th and 8th-grade students, and it happened to need major renovations (which were later extended due to contractor mistakes) during the years I would have attended it. The school district’s distribution of students was disrupted for years, from 2003–2007, and over those years they resorted to all sorts of solutions to provide space for students — squeezing them into other schools, and even renting space at the local mall. As a result, I never attended a middle school.

Bear in mind that I was still taught by the middle school’s teaching staff in 7th and 8th grade, and we had our own unique schedules that kept us apart (most of the time, at least) from the elementary school students when I was in 7th grade, and from the high school students when I was in 8th. It is arguable that I still had some level of “middle school experience.”

When all was said and done, however, I had no experience of ever attending a school building that was dedicated to only 7th and 8th graders — and I think I’m all the better for it! I experienced little to no downside staying in an elementary school environment in 7th grade, and I rejoiced at the opportunity to start attending my high school in 8th grade, even if I wasn’t in the same classes as the 9th-12th graders.

In my experience, my 7th grade year was a successful continuation of elementary school: My learning was largely based in a single classroom with a small group of peers, and only occasionally were my classmates and I bussed to other locations so we could take middle school electives from other teachers. Then in 8th grade, my classmates and I experienced an easy, guided transition into high school: We all got to know the environment most of us would stay in for five years, but our unique schedule distanced us from the potential stress and issues of interacting too much with the 9th-12th graders.

This is the kootéeyaa (called the Pathfinder totem pole) in front of the sole standalone middle school in my community. It’s a beautiful school, but I never attended it, and ideally, I don’t think it needs to exist.

Throughout the United States, students almost inevitably have to make at least one major transition in the type of school they attend during their K-12 educations. (There are very few K-12 schools in the country, although there are some, especially in small communities.) They have to shift to a new schedule, a new structure of interacting with teachers and peers, and new expectations — all of which can be major hurdles. The existence of middle schools, however, means students who attend them have to make at least two transitions—the transition from elementary to middle school, and then the transition from middle to high school. The way I see it, it’s far more preferable for students to have only one major transition between school environments, and to make that transition gradual by slightly modifying the structures of elementary and high schools for 6th, 7th, and 8th-grade students. To me, nothing seems more shocking and disruptive than attending a separate school for only two or three years that is set up in an entirely different manner than the schools you will attend before or after.

Of course, my perspective is personal and anecdotal, so I don’t blame you if you aren’t on board yet with the idea of getting rid of middle school. I’m not the only one making this argument, though: This short piece shares a number of different points advising the elimation of middle schools, and then this article describes a study published in 2010 by the Columbia School of Business that concluded “we find that moving students from elementary to middle school in 6th or 7th grade causes significant drops in academic achievement.” (The full study is here.) There appears to be noteworthy evidence that K-8 schools are safer bets for student success than 6–8, 7–8, or 7–9 middle or junior high schools.

It’s also worth looking at countries that have education systems proven to work well without middle schools. I won’t attempt to do a comprehensive overview of a large number of countries’ education systems, but Singapore and Finland are two countries often cited as producing impressive educational outcomes for their students, so I’ll use them as examples:

In Singapore, students attend kindergarten, followed by six years of primary school (equivalent to grades 1–6), and then four or five years of secondary school (equivalent to grades 7–11). There is only one major transition in school environments during the course of students’ education, between primary and secondary school. (Maybe that’s why they’re “primary” and “secondary,” and don’t need anything else between them!) You will also notice that there is one fewer grade of public schooling in Singapore than in the U.S., and students graduate ready for university or the workforce by age 16 or 17.

The Finnish system is quite different. Finland has “comprehensive schools” that students attend for nine years, followed by a choice of vocational or academic secondary school. Again, there is no such thing as middle school, and students only experience one major transition in school structure once they’ve started their formal education. In Finland, however, expectations for children’s schooling at different ages are seemingly pushed back compared to Singapore or the United States. Although almost all children do attend pre-school or kindergarten, compulsory public schooling doesn’t start until around age 7–8 (equivalent to 2nd grade in the U.S.) and when students make the transition to vocational or academic secondary schools after the equivalent of 10th grade, they are expected to spend at least three years there, so they don’t finish with their public schooling until they are 18 or 19 years old.

It’s clear that Singapore and Finland differ significantly in how they structure their schools, but neither of these educational powerhouses seems to believe that a third type of school needs to exist between primary and secondary schooling in order to facilitate some sort of intermediary transition through a particulary “volatile” stage in children’s lives: In Singapore, there is no issue with students ages 12–17 attending the same secondary school together, and in Finland, there is no problem with students ages 7–16 being in the same school environment. I can imagine the shock and horror some American parents and teachers might experience thinking about children of such disparate ages learning in the same place! Nevertheless, Singapore and Finland provide their children with better educations by a wide variety of measures, apparently without having to cordon off 12-14-year-olds in separate schools.

Finland—a beautiful country with a stellar education system that does not have middle schools

Now, I do need to make one point clear: While it is true that, ideally, I don’t believe middle schools should exist in the U.S. education system, by no means does that mean that I believe middle schools are the biggest problem holding back American students from the types of educational success seen in Singapore or Finland. My answer to the question, “Middle schools: yes or no?” is NO, but my answer to the question, “Should eliminating middle schools be a priority for U.S. public education?” would also be NO. This article is intended to prompt fun discussions, not serve as an earnest policy proposal.

I believe it is a conceptually sound argument that students should not go through the extra disruption and transition of attending a separate middle school for just two or three years of their education, and, as I mentioned previously, there are studies supporting the idea that these transitions reduce students’ achievement. However, on a practical level, it would be an enormous disruption to students’ education for most school districts across the country to change their systems now, rearranging buildings and reassigning students to create, for example, widespread K-8 schools. And, when all was said and done after such a restructuring, the benefits of the change might be very modest compared to many other cheaper, more effective, and more direct improvements that could be made to students’ learning environments.

In closing, I think I should mention that I may very well end up teaching at a middle school at some point in my career, and writing this article may even increase the likelihood that I will do so — just to satisfy cosmic irony or something like that. If I ever do teach at a middle school, I know I’ll do the best I can for my students, and I won’t use my doubts about the school structure to make any excuses. Nevertheless, I honestly believe that school structure can have a major impact on students’ experiences and learning. Never attending a middle school was a good experience for me, and I hear about far too many students who have a terrible time with the transitions middle schools create. I may not ever see them disappear in the United States, but I don’t believe middle schools should exist.

Do you believe in middle schools? Please leave a comment below with your thoughts!

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Peter Stanton

I’m a history teacher writing a book on the Tlingit 19th century. Waashdan Ḵwáan. Kichxháanx’ yéi xhat yatee. (American settler in Ketchikan) Tw: @peterstanton