Middle School Crisis Time

Middle-school children are not alone. The nation's schools themselves seem to be having as many growing pains as the kids who attend them. Education expert Bruce Hammond gets the scoop on why middle schools are going through an identity crisis.

Everyone knows the dilemma of the middle child. Not the oldest and not the youngest, the middle child is an identity crisis waiting to happen. The same can be said of the nation's middle schools. On one side of them are the elementary grades, where teachers handle everything from biology lessons to bloody noses in a cozy, self-contained classroom. High school looms in the other direction, where students roam like nomads and teachers work in college-style departments.

The traditional education pecking order is top-down. College requirements dictate the high school curriculum, high schools specify the preparation from middle schools. Elementary schools have always been exempted, to a degree, because the special needs of young children are so obvious. As a result, the first day of middle school is the biggest transition in a student's K-12 education. Fresh from the child-centered classrooms of the elementary grades, middle schoolers plunge into a world designed to mimic the high school model.

In recent years, middle schools have struggled to gain an identity of their own. The junior high concept is out, and in its place is an approach that balances academic challenge with greater attention to the developmental needs of early adolescents. Many of the changes have been fueled by recent neurological research on how kids learn. Studies have shown that the oldest warhorse of high school teaching methods -- the lecture -- is highly ineffective in the middle grades. Developmental psychology has also yielded important findings, such as the fact that girls seem to lose self-confidence and self-esteem in middle school after outperforming boys by a significant margin in the earlier grades.

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