The Middle of Nowhere

, Kristen Blair, Leave a comment

Much has been said in recent years about reforming our high schools. Given widespread data documenting a worrisome dropout crisis, this makes good sense. But what about the critical school grades that bridge the gap between late childhood and full-blown adolescence? Do these middle school years impact a student’s determination to stay in school?

Researchers say they do. Middle school – that socially awkward and emotionally combustible phase of development – is also a pivotal, influential time of educational transition and learning. As early as the first year of middle school, students step onto academic trajectories that either point them toward or away from high school graduation.

Dr. Robert Balfanz of the Center for Social Organization of Schools at Johns Hopkins University has conducted longitudinal research evaluating risk factors for dropping out. (Dr. Balfanz’s 2007 study on high school “dropout factories” was highlighted in a fall Alliance column.)

According to Dr. Balfanz, 40 percent of future dropouts can be identified in sixth grade. In a 2007 Educational Psychologist article with Liza Herzog and Douglas Mac Iver, Dr. Balfanz writes, “Many students in urban schools become disengaged at the start of the middle grades, which greatly reduces the odds that they will eventually graduate.” Attendance, behavior, and course failure – what Dr. Balfanz dubs the “ABCs” – are key variables predicting whether a student will ultimately drop out of school.

And far too many do. Lost in the middle years, these students eventually leave school in droves. Fortunately, some school districts are stepping up efforts to help kids find their place. This week’s issue of Education Week features an article by Kathleen Kennedy Manzo on “Motivating Students in the Middle Years.” Ms. Manzo references Dr. Balfanz’s data and profiles promising efforts undertaken in Durham County, North Carolina to stem the tide of dropouts. Durham’s attempts to crack down on truancy and “ensure consistent monitoring and support of students, particularly those in the middle grades,” notes Ms. Manzo, seem to be working. Data released last month from the state Department of
Public Instruction show Durham’s dropout rate has fallen, even while the state dropout rate has increased.

Ms. Manzo also singles out Rogers-Herr Middle School – a Durham public school of choice – as a school that embodies the “mix of rigor, relevance, and responsiveness” essential for positive student outcomes. Rogers-Herr has been designated a 2008 “school to watch” by the National Forum to Accelerate Middle-Grades Reform.

Rogers-Herr’s success is heartening. But many other middle schools aren’t making necessary academic strides. Why? Dr. Cheri Yecke, author of a 2005 Thomas B. Fordham Institute report, Mayhem in the Middle, blames a middle school philosophy that values “self-exploration, socialization, and group learning” above academic achievement.

What helps? Aside from the obvious – high expectations for academics and behavior – Dr. Yecke proposes returning to a K-8 configuration. A number of school districts are already doing this, either partially or completely. Dr. Yecke cites research in Milwaukee, Philadelphia, and Baltimore showing students in K-8 schools outperformed their peers in middle schools. Data last year from Duke University and UC Berkeley researchers indicate school restructuring may provide behavioral benefits too, at least for sixth graders: North Carolina sixth graders attending K-6 elementary schools were less likely to exhibit discipline problems than
their peers attending middle schools.

To reengage students, Dr. Balfanz advocates “comprehensive whole school reforms” (.pdf) that focus on transforming academics, school culture, teaching instruction, and other variables. Such reforms are currently underway through the Hopkins Talent Development programs for middle and high school.

Clearly, there’s no single remedy for our dropout malady, or for improving academic outcomes for early adolescents. But if the data show us anything, it’s this: educational discontent and disengagement take root years before high school. That knowledge ought to inform how and when we intervene with student behavior and academics, as well as our commitment to enforcing existing truancy laws.

We can’t wait until high school to act. It just might be too late.

Kristin Blair is a fellow at the North Carolina Education Alliance This article originally appeared in The K-12 Update that she assembles for the NCEA.