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The Scientific Case Against Middle Schools

Preteens who attend K-8 schools have higher perceptions of their reading skills than those who attend middle schools or junior high schools.

Preteens who attend K-8 schools have higher perceptions of their reading skills than those who attend middle schools or junior high schools, according to a new study in the Journal of Early Adolescence. Although students did not differ when it came to their test scores, the researchers say that kids with low confidence in their reading skills can suffer academically in the long-term. Put another way, preteens who attended middle schools made a well-informed prediction that they would have worse educational outcomes.

We find a negative impact of middle and junior high school as compared to K-8 schools,” coauthor on the study Elise Cappella of New York University told Fatherly. “The most robust effect is the negative impact of middle schools on students’ self-perceptions of their competence in English.”

Until the mid-1900s, virtually all adolescents attended K-8 elementary schools until they moved on to high school for grade nine. Middle school drama was not yet a thing. Today, 90 percent of U.S. public school students attend a middle school or junior high school, the theory being that such specialized schools can better meet the unique needs of young teens. In practice, however, this is not necessarily the case—especially regarding academic outcomes.

“Research broadly supports the idea that K-8 is a better choice overall,” Cappella says.

For this new study, Cappella and colleagues examined data that followed a sample of 5,754 kindergarteners from 1,712 U.S. schools until they entered the eighth grade. The data measured each student’s math and reading test scores and his or her psychosocial development, as well as each student’s beliefs about his or her academic abilities.

When the researchers compared outcomes for kids enrolled in K-8 schools to outcomes for kids who left elementary school for junior high school after fifth grade, they found few difference in academic performance. But when it came to students’ beliefs about their own abilities, the differences were staggering. K-8 students were significantly more confident in their reading skills and reported significantly more interest in reading than middle school students. Middle school students were also more likely to assume that their teachers did not think highly of their abilities.  

It’s unclear why that would be the case. “It may be that the educators in middle or junior high school contexts have not received the training and support to work with this age,” Cappella suggests. “In addition, the larger size of the typical middle or junior high school means it may be harder to individualize schooling to young people in ways that might be most beneficial.”

Now, there may still be some advantages to junior high schools, which were “initially designed to better meet the needs of early adolescents,” Cappella says. “Middle schools that provide many opportunities for autonomy, competence, and relatedness may have an advantage over K-8 schools because they can focus exclusively on the strengths and needs of early adolescents.” Some experts suggest that middle school gives adolescents fresh starts, but Cappella is unsure that this is always a good thing. “Most studies have found that a transition to a new school at a time when young people are experiencing other transitions…is not an advantage,” she says.

But that does not mean that parents should boycott junior high schools. Instead, Cappella says, moms and dads should holistically consider whether their children are most likely to flourish in a particular school environment. “I would advise parents to send their children to schools with positive social and instructional climates, regardless of grade span,” she says. “If that school is a middle or junior high school, it is important to support young people through the transition to the new school. But it is even more important to be in a school that provides support—academic, social, and emotional—throughout the years of schooling.