Two years ago, Emily Raper had a kid in her language-arts class who wouldn’t sit down. A seventh-grade teacher at Cleveland Middle School in Cleveland, Tennessee, she remembers him well. Jackson* was not doing well academically. His home life was hard. He had already failed language arts once, making him a year older than all the other kids in his class. But he wasn’t unwilling to learn, she found. He just didn’t want to learn sitting down.
So Raper decided to let him stand. She gave him a desk in the back, where he could comfortably stand up during class without disrupting his fellow students.
“I don’t know that his bottom ever touched a chair when he was in my classroom,” she says, and that was fine with her. Though he might once have been thought of as one of the “bad kids,” Raper saw him as a typical pubescent boy. At the end of the school year, Jackson scored in the “advanced” category on his language-arts test.
Education experts would describe Raper’s course of action as a “developmentally responsive” approach, one that takes account of a student’s stage of life and cognitive development. Raper would put it more simply: She tries to do what’s best for each student. For Jackson, that meant letting him stand up.
Most of the developmentally responsive schooling for students this age follows what is known as the middle-school model. Pioneered in the 1960s, the middle-school model was a reaction to the concept of “junior high,” which, as the name suggests, was conceived as just a starter version of high school.
Middle school is for kids where they are, not where they’re going, and that simple idea implies a world of difference. The middle-school concept means small classes, moving the same group of kids from class to class, and lots of active collaboration among the teachers in their various subjects to consider and address each student’s special emotional, psychological, and physical needs—the kind of approach that let Emily Raper succeed with Jackson.
That can make a teacher’s day a bit longer and lunch breaks a little shorter, but it pays off in job satisfaction and student performance. According to a 2007 study, small, interdisciplinary team teaching has a “significant effect on student social bonding1” and allows teachers to work more closely with both the students and their parents. A 2014 study2 found that developmentally responsive teaching fostered closer relationships between teachers and pupils, with a resulting improvement in their students’ motivation.
Middle schools have become commonplace in the U.S. Some 25,000 have the words “middle school” in their names, says William D. Waidelich, executive director of the Association for Middle Level Education (AMLE), adding that there are “probably 10,000 schools that don’t have ‘middle school’ in their names but use middle-level practices.”
The middle-school concept also continues to be adopted worldwide. At the most recent annual AMLE conference, there were teachers and administrators from Italy, Thailand, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Bermuda, Bahamas, and elsewhere.
Despite its reach, though, the middle-school model still isn’t used in every school for this age group, even in the U.S., and that raises a question: If research shows that the student-focused middle-school model works best, why isn’t everyone using it?
Teachers, administrators, and researchers point to several reasons. One is that many teachers are still unfamiliar with the approach, and others are simply resistant to change. There are also barriers raised by government programs that measure success by metrics alone. Dru Tomlin, director of Middle Level Services at AMLE and a former assistant principal and teacher, respects the intentions behind programs like No Child Left Behind or Race to the Top, but he argues they have a downside. The focus on test results “pushes other aspects of what young adolescents need to the side,” he says. “That’s what’s harmful and not working for young adolescents in certain schools.”
Judging every student and school on the basis of standardized tests, he argues, takes no account of what teachers can do to inspire students to be more adaptive, resilient, and eager to learn, which will lead to better grades, higher education rates, better citizens, and a healthier society.
Thomas Armstrong agrees. A researcher, educator, and author of The Power of the Adolescent Brain: Strategies for Teaching Middle and High School Students, Armstrong points out that kids in middle school are figuring out how to make and keep relationships, how to behave in public, who they want to be. Teachers can help them through this development and push them toward excellence, or they can do the opposite.
As an example, he says, when preparing students for standardized tests, researchers too often default to rote, “brain-hostile” teaching methods, which “fail to take advantage of the neuroplasticity of the adolescent brain.” Given the enormous emotional changes that come with adolescence, he says, putting middle school kids in stressful, alien, or other suboptimal learning situations can actually lead to lasting damage.
“Brain-hostile” or “brain-damaging” approaches influence an adolescent’s ability to succeed later on, according to Armstrong’s research. A large national survey of middle- and high-school students showed that more than half of all 10th graders reported feeling bored in school, and less than half enjoyed being there at all. Another survey of 14- to 15-year-olds showed that only 33 percent of girls were thought by their parents to be “actively engaged in school.” For boys, that number was 20 percent.
Research also shows3 that a student’s likelihood of graduating high school on time can be predicted as early as sixth grade. A combination of attendance patterns, behavioral traits, and academic performance can make the difference between a student’s finishing public school on time, graduating behind schedule, or not graduating at all. That means that a failure to use effective, responsive teaching methods in middle school can undermine students’ ambitions and achievements for the rest of their lives.
Fortunately, more and more middle schools get that. “There are those of us who are out there pushing,” says Armstrong, “and there are wonderful middle-school teachers doing fabulous things every day. So there's hope.”