A teacher hugging a student

Credit: Jane Meredith Adams/EdSource Today

Fifth grade teacher Kathy Argus at Argonne Elementary School in San Francisco hugs graduating fifth grader Trish Owyang. Student-teacher connections are more difficult to make in middle school, researchers say.

Of all the middle school anxieties facing 5th-graders at Argonne Elementary School in San Francisco last spring, the most tangible was a round-faced combination lock.

Elementary school, a land of cubbies and coat hooks, soon would be in the past for these 11- and 12-year-olds, who practiced spinning the dials right-left-right in a Transition to Middle School workshop. Middle school would mean a metal locker with a lock to open, fast, at the risk of floundering in the hall and being late to class.

Fear of being publicly embarrassed or even physically hurt is widespread among students who are entering middle school, according to research studies, including a 2015 survey that ranked 225 5th-graders’ top concerns: getting undressed in front of others for physical education class, coping with peer pressure, dealing with bullying and opening a combination lock.

These concerns aren’t exclusively social problems. Instead, social and emotional struggles are thought to play a significant role in what researchers in 2012 dubbed “the middle school plunge,” an academic achievement drop that occurs for many students. In some of the strongest evidence to date, a 2011 longitudinal study of 2,300 Los Angeles middle school students by UCLA psychologist Jaana Juvonen and others found a direct relationship over three years between being bullied and having lower grades.

“The path to dropping out very often has its roots in the middle school,” said Maurice Elias of Rutgers University. “It’s safe to say we have underemphasized the potential impact of the middle school climate.”

“Kids need to feel safe in school before they can learn,” said Juvonen, a longtime researcher on the culture of middle schools. “It’s as fundamental as recognizing that kids can’t come to school hungry and learn.”

Boys hugging

Credit: Jane Meredith Adams/EdSource Today

A group hug for graduating fifth graders at Argonne Elementary School in San Francisco.

A safe and friendly school environment is particularly crucial for 11- to 14-year-olds, said Maurice Elias, director of the Rutgers University Social-Emotional Learning Laboratory, which conducts school research on social-emotional skill building. “The path to dropping out very often has its roots in the middle school,” Elias said. “It’s safe to say we have underemphasized the potential impact of the middle school climate.”

Changes in the California educational landscape – including a growing emphasis on positive school environments, school discipline reform and livelier, discussion-based classroom instruction to meet Common Core State Standards – may improve the quality of life at some middle schools, acknowledged Irving Howard,  a past president of the National Forum to Accelerate Middle-Grades Reform, an Illinois-based group.

But the middle grades continue to get short shrift in funding and training, Howard said. The California Department of Education closed its middle school division more than five years ago for budgetary reasons (although its website with program recommendations remains), the middle grades are not designated as a category in the Education Code — which would have meant a separate funding allocation — and middle school teachers aren’t given relevant training about the social and psychological needs of pre-teens and teenagers, he said.

Nonetheless, some middle schools have created remarkably welcoming environments, Howard said, including dozens of California middle grade schools named 2014 “Schools to Watch” by the National Forum to Accelerate Middle-Grades Reform. Those schools include Alondra Middle School in the Paramount Unified School District, Heber School in the Heber Elementary School District and Elizabeth Pinkerton Middle School in the Elk Grove Unified School District. Those campuses have had success in three areas that the National Forum considers necessary: high academic expectations and support; developmentally appropriate services, opportunities and curriculum; and socially equitable rules where all students and families feel included.

Statewide, investments in school climate include a $10 million allocation announced in July by the Legislature to train teachers and administrators on positive approaches to disciplining students. That new training, which is expected to include middle school staff, would expand the work already happening at middle schools that use Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, a tiered, data-driven approach to figuring out what is going on with student behavior. That approach is used in middle schools in about 80 of 1,000 school districts in the state, including Napa Valley Unified, Oakland Unified and Santa Ana Unified.

In a meeting this summer, the California League of Schools, a membership organization, decided to devote its weekend conference in April 2016 to the theme of K-12 school climate, said Scott Steele, executive director of the League, a Long Beach-based professional organization for teachers and administrators that oversees the California League of Middle Schools.

“Our conference is aimed at K-12, but we do feel that climate and culture is so important to middle grades,” Steele said. “A lot of people are talking about this right now.”

And increasing numbers of elementary and middle schools are developing middle school transition programs, said Dru Tomlin, director of middle level services at the Association for Middle Level Education, an Ohio-based national membership organization.

The goal is to keep anxiety levels down.

“Behavioral expectations in middle school can be talked about, but not from a fear-inducing standpoint,” Tomlin said. “It’s not, ‘Get ready, it’s going to be tough nails in middle school.'”

On the academic front, Tomlin said, the transition should include year-long conversations between elementary and middle school teachers about curriculum, so that students know they are being prepared for what’s coming.

And once students arrive at middle school, there’s a need for teaching strategies that play to their strengths, said Elias at Rutgers.

Chart

Credit: California Department of Education

Grade configurations for public middle schools in California, 2013-14.

“Middle school kids are incredibly excitable,” Elias said. “There’s no shortage of enthusiasm and energy. The lack of engagement is really a symptom of the fact that we’ve not been successful in providing the right learning environment.”

These efforts are remedies for what some see as the more fundamental problem of middle school: its grade configuration is not appropriate for young adolescents, said Juvonen at UCLA.

Students who attend K-8 schools for 6th, 7th and 8th grades do better both academically and socially than their peers who attend middle schools, which typically serve 6th- through 8th-grade students, according to a comprehensive 2004 report by the Rand Corporation, which Juvonen authored.

Jacquelynne Eccles, a psychologist and author of the 2008 California Dropout Research Project report “Can Middle School Reform Increase High School Graduation Rates?,” says that in terms of adolescent development, the traditional middle school culture has done nearly everything wrong: Students are separated from friends, teachers and buildings they know, just as they’re trying to define their new identities; students have six or seven class periods a day with different teachers, making relationship-building more difficult; and teachers often approach the middle school classroom through the lens of controlling students and limiting their decision-making, just as young teens are seeking autonomy.

The results are middle schools out of sync with what research has shown improves motivation and achievement: students who feel their teachers trust them, believe in their abilities and want to hear their opinions, said Juvonen.

“The more research I’ve done, the more I’m convinced that the basic building blocks in these schools are relationships, with teachers and with other kids,” she said. “That is our big challenge – to take the relationship side very seriously.”

On the day before the last day of school at Argonne Elementary, 5th-grader Trish Owyang hugged her teacher, Kathy Angus, hard, before the “5th-grade farewell walk,” where 5th-grade students pass through the halls and receive high-fives from younger students and teachers from lower grades.

The Transition to Middle School workshop at Argonne had covered how to organize assignments, how to relax by breathing deeply and how to open a combination lock.

Andrew Wong, 12, said he felt prepared for 6th grade. “That combination lock is so easy!” he said.

But Trish said the most helpful tool in ending her elementary school career was the classroom closing circle.

“Everyone said their appreciations about the classroom,” she said, sniffling back tears. “It’s like one big family.” In the final minutes of class, students and Ms. Angus gathered in a circle again. Trish and a friend took turns reading aloud a letter.

“Dear Ms. Angus, Thanks for being the best teacher in the school,” Trish read. The letter concluded: “Love, love, love, Trish and Maddie.”

 


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  1. Parent News Opinion 1 year ago1 year ago

    First, we see that the article focuses on children who are ten or eleven years old going leaving a school in fifth grade to go to another school in sixth, seventh, and eighth grade. The question I have and would make a real good EdSource article (hint hint, can an EdSource reporter do this article) is how many California Middle Schools are three year middle schools where children come in at 6th grade and … Read More

    First, we see that the article focuses on children who are ten or eleven years old going leaving a school in fifth grade to go to another school in sixth, seventh, and eighth grade. The question I have and would make a real good EdSource article (hint hint, can an EdSource reporter do this article) is how many California Middle Schools are three year middle schools where children come in at 6th grade and how many California Middle Schools are just two year middle schools where children come in at grades 7 and 8 only.

    Then we need the C.D.E to do meaningful studies on if the deeper common core mandated state standards for 6th grade should be saddled on the back of the 6th grade teacher. I believe the 6th grade teachers need to all move to the middle schools and let the elementary schools be only ages K,1,2,3,4,5 and if California wishes to place emphasis on pre-kindergarden (which seems to be the case) with extra dollars, then elementary schools could use those empty 6th grade classrooms for transformation to preschool classrooms.

    Strict oversight must be done to ensure all sixth grade teachers truly cover all new state mandated common core standards in all subjects, history (also called social studies), science (also called biology and chemistry and physics, wonder if the STEM common core for 6th grade is deeper and wants children to learn more more more more), math, physical education, and the art of language and grammar and joy of reading and writing to resonate well to the audience intended.

    So, let us move all 6th grade classes over to the middle schools. That way, there can be more specialization in each subject I listed and that way a Teacher Facilitator Uncommon Specialist (T.F.U.S.) can teach and plan out to teach one subject with deeper strands of facilitation and properly cover all STATE MANDATED COMMON CORE STANDARDS by going a mile wide and mile deep.

    The elementary schools suffer with the sixth graders being on campus. Better to change the atmosphere and let all sixth grade teachers move down a grade level with a multiple subject ,or in a transition period laid out and mandated by the California Department of Education, mandate any teacher teaching 6th grade must have a single subject credential to properly teach that subject.

    Math skills will soar when we remove the 6th grade math from teachers who want to focus on language arts and avoid math because they are uncomfortable with teaching math. The project based learning for math will be on target if a teacher in sixth grade has a single subject credential in math, because, the common core standards are more deep and they require more mastery of children and young adults.

    To verify I am correct, we need simple testing to prove this out. Let us use the SmarterBalance/CAASPP to measure if the sixth grade teachers have properly taught the sixth grade students in both math and science and social studies. I think by using it as a measure to judge the effectiveness of teachers, the teachers will ask to no longer teach all subjects in sixth grade and instead welcome the chance to get a single subject credential and focus on only one of the subjects and teach away from all elementary school settings and move to the middle school setting, or use the multiple subject credential to teach in grades K-5 only.

    Perhaps Governor Brown can direct extra state monies to facilitate this change for all school districts over the next five years.

    Parent Opinion News

    Replies

    • Parent News Opinion 1 year ago1 year ago

      Also, I stated but left out something... I stated: "So, let us move all 6th grade classes over to the middle schools. That way, there can be more specialization in each subject I listed and that way a Teacher Facilitator Uncommon Specialist (T.F.U.S.) can teach and plan out to teach one subject with deeper strands of facilitation and properly cover all STATE MANDATED COMMON CORE STANDARDS by going a mile wide and mile deep." I forgot to … Read More

      Also, I stated but left out something…

      I stated: “So, let us move all 6th grade classes over to the middle schools. That way, there can be more specialization in each subject I listed and that way a Teacher Facilitator Uncommon Specialist (T.F.U.S.) can teach and plan out to teach one subject with deeper strands of facilitation and properly cover all STATE MANDATED COMMON CORE STANDARDS by going a mile wide and mile deep.”

      I forgot to write the following:

      Let us limit the amount of input and oversight from the District Uppermost Union Spokespersons (D.U.F.U.S.) and instead gain traction on good ideas from parents.

  2. Gary Ravani 1 year ago1 year ago

    Having taught at middle school/jr. hi. for 31 years I think someone might have mentioned puberty. But, the heck with all those hormones and their varying effects on kids.

  3. Dr. Mike McQuary 1 year ago1 year ago

    Let’s work together to place renewed focus on the “Middle School Years,” including reestablishing a Middle School Division at the California Department of Education. Interested?

  4. Nicole Williams 1 year ago1 year ago

    The one issue that whites in education do not address is the needs of Black students in middle school. Especially the needs of Black boys. Black students are just lost in this sea of whiteness and a culture that does not include them. And Black parents feel the same way.

  5. Barbara Cervone 1 year ago1 year ago

    Great article on a vital issue. Social-emotional learning in secondary grades is a topic WKCD (What Kids Can Do) has been following and documenting for several years now. While we spend a huge amount of time in schools talking to teachers and observing classes and other settings, WKCD's particular interest has always involved talking with kids to gather their experiences, stories, words, and often images/video. A few years ago we created an audio slideshow in … Read More

    Great article on a vital issue. Social-emotional learning in secondary grades is a topic WKCD (What Kids Can Do) has been following and documenting for several years now. While we spend a huge amount of time in schools talking to teachers and observing classes and other settings, WKCD’s particular interest has always involved talking with kids to gather their experiences, stories, words, and often images/video. A few years ago we created an audio slideshow in which a group of NYC middle school students talk about their concerns in relation to a variety of social-emotional issues–most of all, feeling safe and wondering whether they can do the work. I’m thinking it might interest EdSource readers: http://www.whatkidscando.org/featurestories/2012/12_this_is_my_place/

    Replies

    • Jane Meredith Adams 1 year ago1 year ago

      Wonderful video of middle school kids talking!

  6. Frances O'Neill Zimmerman 1 year ago1 year ago

    Don't get me going. Middle school in San Diego was started years ago as an expedient response to overcrowding -- not as a special design to benefit children "caught in the middle," as it was duplicitously characterized. Sad. All the things you list as wrong with middle school have been wrong for many years -- and are presently compounded by huge class sizes of 35+ adolescents, too many poor-to-mediocre teachers, absolutely no arts electives (if you take a poorly-taught … Read More

    Don’t get me going. Middle school in San Diego was started years ago as an expedient response to
    overcrowding — not as a special design to benefit children “caught in the middle,” as it was
    duplicitously characterized. Sad.

    All the things you list as wrong with middle school have been wrong for many years — and are presently
    compounded by huge class sizes of 35+ adolescents, too many poor-to-mediocre teachers, absolutely
    no arts electives (if you take a poorly-taught foreign language) and no after-school extracurricular activities.
    It’s a place where classroom discipline is paramount lest there be chaos. It’s a place to get in and out of
    daily as quickly as possible, and survivors congratulate themselves for being tough as nails. Sadder.

    Middle school as it’s set up in this state (news flash: without a Dept. of Ed division of its own!) is a shameful waste
    of middle-school-age youngsters’ inherent enthusiasm and openness to new learning and their ability to work
    and play well together. And saddest of all, it does set many kids up to feel negatively about school, about themselves
    and about their and futures.

    By the way, I’m talking here about high-SES La Jolla, not the poorer inner-city, where disproportionate numbers
    of newbie green teachers are assigned, to the detriment of adults and children alike.

  7. Katherine S. Suyeyasu 1 year ago1 year ago

    Thanks for your focus on middle school! It’s such a critical time.

  8. Scruzie 1 year ago1 year ago

    This is so funny…I still, at the age of 65, have school dreams in which remembering the combination lock is a problem. Good for them for having the kids practice. At one time in college I had 3 separate lockers and combination lock numbers to remember.

    Replies

    • FloydThursby1941 1 year ago1 year ago

      Middle School is crucial. You can tell talking to most 6th graders if they are bound for success or not. Good parents can change the direction, but getting good grades in middle school is crucial to a happy life in the modern era.

      • Don 1 year ago1 year ago

        I think I understand. Given your powers of fortunetelling you feel you have a responsibility to use your God-given talent to warn lazy students of their impending doom.

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