Recognizing Education’s Middle School Syndrome

“Many [students] make that decision to drop out–either consciously or unconsciously–during those middle grades years.” — Deborah Kasak

Listening to several middle school experts describe their experiences during a recent panel discussion at the Department of Education left me scratching my head and wondering why–more than 30 years into the middle school movement–middle schools still seem like the neglected middle children of education.

Robert Balfanz spoke on a panel May 12 at a Department of Education Policy Briefing, “Putting Middle Grades Students on the Graduation Path,” along with Deborah Kasak of the National Forum to Accelerate Middle Grades Reform, and Principal John Miller and teacher Tara Kidwell, of Stonewall Middle School.

Dr. Robert Balfanz, noted researcher from Johns Hopkins University, described in detail not only the number of students that schools lose during the middle years, but also the early warning signs that a young adolescent is veering off the path leading to graduation. The middle grades may be the most important years in a child’s education, the “most fertile years,” according to Balfanz. It is during this time that students ask and answer for themselves, “Is schooling for me?” Because of this, Balfanz urged the audience to understand that the middle grades are the one place where educators “really have a chance to reform outcomes.”

To change the trajectory, however, Balfanz made a strong case that educators need to be much more intentional about how we serve our early adolescents, paying attention to what he described as the ABCs:  chronic absenteeism, behavioral problems, and low course grades in middle school. According to his June 2009 middle school policy and practice brief, the earlier students develop off-track indicators, the lower their graduation odds appear to be.

Of course, as a former teacher of eighth-grade language arts, I know that the middle grades are crucial, a time when students often turn off to school permanently. Yet I found myself as astonished as the rest of the room to learn from Balfanz that, to date, there do not appear to be clearly articulated standards of practice for the middle grades.

John Miller testified that high expectations are a key to turning around low-performing schools. “Students will rise to a teacher’s high expectations if the teacher believes they can achieve them,” he said.

Balfanz, John Miller (principal of Stonewall Middle School in Manassas, Va.) and Deborah Kasak (from the National Forum to Accelerate Middle Grades Reform)  made a number of insightful recommendations to move policymakers, educational leaders, and teachers in the right direction, including tracking chronic absenteeism in middle school, computing graduation rates of seventh and eighth graders, paying greater attention to suspensions for sustained mild misbehavior, keeping track of students’ grades, and developing articulated standards of practice for middle schools so that they become the baseline for operating and measuring middle school performance.

We know this stuff, I couldn’t help thinking, but we really are not paying attention.

Laurie Calvert

Laurie Calvert is a Teaching Ambassador Fellow on loan from Buncombe County Schools in North Carolina.

Read Robert Balfanz’s 2009 policy brief, Putting Middle Grades Students on the Graduation Path.

Check out the Schools to Watch Criteria for high-performing middle schools.

Connect with the National Forum to Accelerate Middle-Grades Reform and the National Middle School Association (NMSA).


  1. I want to start by echoing the sentiment of the previous posts that stress the importance of reading on middle school success. As a middle school math teacher for the past six years, I have seen numerous students struggle with word problems that are well within their reach mathematically, but they simply cannot understand what the question is asking of them because they are poor readers. This problem becomes especially pronounced at the middle school level as students move from more concrete mathematical content into the abstract fields of algebra and geometry. Many students adopt the persona of a “good math student” in elementary school only to see their confidence shaken as concepts become more abstract and the mathematical content becomes more intertwined with language.

    Another factor in the middle school gap that I think is often overlooked is the seemingly mundane transition that students make from elementary school classrooms into middle school. In most schools around the country, students have one “common branch” teacher who teaches every topic, every day. Students develop a certain security in having the same teacher all year long, and they know that whatever issues they may have, they can bring them to “Ms Smith”. Ms Smith knows what “Jamie’s” strengths and weaknesses are because she sees Jamie all day every day. She knows that Jamie doesn’t like to sit in the back and Jamie knows just how Ms. Smith likes his work to be done. Perhaps equally important, Jamie’s mother and father have a single point of contact that they can call to ask about Jamie’s progress.

    When Jamie gets to middle school, he will go from one teacher – one set of expectations and one way of doing things – to four or five or six different teachers, each with their own set of expectations and challenges. Now Jamie’s mother has six different teachers to stay in contact with and things start to fall through the cracks. In my opinion, we don’t pay nearly enough attention to helping students and parents make the transition into middle school with practical techniques in organization and managing expectations. All of this is piled on top of the already stressful cocktail of hormones and peer pressure that is par for the course in middle school.

  2. I would like to agee with what Eleanore said. Being a middle school paraprofessional, and seeing the middle crisis on a day to day basis; poor readers are the students that drop out of high school. From my observation, by sixth grade students have already decided if they are a “failure” or not. Many have this internalized feeling or prenotion of failure. They also believe that they will fail at everything else in life, including High school, so they go through middle school with a “why-try” attitude, and it reflects in our Annual Progress Index yearly. Non-readers in middle school are under a lot of pressure, because most of their day consists of reading academic content for information. It’s like asking your barber to do brain surgery, they will listen to your story (lecture) but they are not equip to provide the services(grades). So once again they(the student) have failed. Middle School non-readers are under a great amount of pressure, and eventually they drop out of school all together. I have been lucky to work with amazing individuals, and they recognized the issue. They have incorprated Remedial Reading Centers on middle campuses. Once the student have spent six months in the Reading Center they go back to class and are able to sucessfully work on grade level standards. I want to end this post by saying that not only second language learners struggle with reading it is an universal issue. Many of our students lack the ability to make connections with the content that they read, students lack reading skills and strategies to comprehend academic instruction. I want to say that the struggle continues, but we (educators) are working hard to improve the situation. Parents read to your kids, kids read to your parents, and talk about it!

  3. Stonewall Middle School hasn’t made AYP in three years, so I am uncertain as to why this school would serve on this panel. There are many high performing middle schools in the area, Stonewall Middle School is not one of them. High performing schools like Pennington and Porter are much better examples, as is Gainesville, Benton, and Marstellar.

    • I disagree with your stance on Stonewall Middle School (SMS) and understand why they were chosen for this panel. This school is a high performer. I would credit this to the staff at SMS. National studies, rankings, and various polls are very subjective. I selected Stonewall Middle School over all the schools you mentioned specifically because Mr. Miller and his staff pay very close attention to the students and their performance. All three of my kids have attended this school and if I had others, they too would attend. When looking at performance. One has to look beyond grades, and consider absenteeism, student behavior, teacher dedication and parent involvement which are all critical to the success of the students. I know hundreds of the students at SMS. The students come from very diverse backgrounds and face many challenges in their daily life. This school’s environment helps them remain interested in school. Mr. Miller, Mrs. Kidwell, and the entire staff at SMS do an excellent job and I am proud to have my kids at this school.

    • Stephanie: the schools you cite are indeed good ones—in fact all but one -are Schools to Watch as is Stonewall. AYP is only one small measure odd a good school. This year Stonewall missed AYP on a handful of criteria usually by ONE student. Schools to Watch select schools on the basis of a trajectory of success for which the school has a plan and commitment to achievement for all students. Stonewall has seen huge growth and progress in test scores at all levels while maintaining a supportive environment for students and families. In addition STW schools are Socially Equitable striving to see each student has a chance to grow and strive for excellence. I would suggest you visit the school so you too can be proud of one more school on the list you offer and be proud that each is excellent in it’s own way for it’s own students.

  4. When we look at the educational history of the middle school student’s reading and language arts grades, we can predict with a good amount of certainty whether he or she will become a school dropout. Research study after research study indicates clearly that the disparity between the lower SES students and middle-class ones increase as the children progress through elementary school and enter middle school. When one looks at the databases of longitudinal studies conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics, the trend becomes obvious–poor readers are the students who drop out. And poor readers tend to be poor math students, despite their possible proclivity to spatial and numeric tasks–because one needs to know how to read to read the directions and explanations in a math text, not to mention to read the word problems. My entire K-12 teaching career was spent in teaching middle school aged children, and I continue to be convinced that we can still divert dropout during the middle school years. But we need to teach the potential students uniquely, sensitively, and compassionately.

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