Are Middle Schools bad for kids?
Yes and no. Middle schools aren't-- the "Middle School Philosophy," worshipped unquestioningly, definitely is.
What brought up this question is the article in Time magazine's Being 13 special edition. Sez that several districts across the country are switching to K-8 schools--of course, to raise test scores as one of the main reasons.
I spent more than a decade teaching 13 and 14-year-old kids. I taught in a K-8 parochial school and in a public middle school. Here's what I saw:
If a student had a "failing" grade-- not that that meant anything, since there was no retention-- even after you had mentored and encouraged and voluntarily stayed after school with them on your own dime to tutor them, after you had sent notes home to the parents, after you had repeatedly called the parents (keeping a log of the discussions if you knew what was good for you), after you had spoken to parents in face-to-face conferences, after you had taken countless late assignments and given them six more copies of every paper they ever lost and given them four textbooks since they lost those too (and you knew those books were gone forever because you weren't allowed to charge the kid for the lost books but you had no money to order new ones)-- at the end of the year, you were asked what more you, the teacher, could have done.
With a straight face.
By an administrator who either spent two years in a classroom or who last stood in front of a class 25 years ago. If you said "Nothing"-- which was safer than sarcastically making a remark related to doing their work for them or wiping their "noses"-- then the kids were socially promoted. If you actually could think of something else you could have done-- I had one colleague who actually went to one kid's house and woke him up in the morning, fercryinoutloud-- then the kid was promoted to the next grade because it was really the teacher's failure, not the responsibility of the kid.
It is completely verboten to consider that perhaps the student had some part to play in this drama. By consistently demonstrating no concern with learning, the student learned nothing. And even when she is passed along to the next grade, she still has not learned that material. Which might be useful as a building block for learning in the next grade. And the next.
Not to mention that the student HAS learned that he is a passive player in their own education-- which is the most dangerous lesson you can teach someone.
All in the name of an alleged "Middle School Philosophy" which spurns intellectual rigor and academic achievement in favor of "affective development" and -- my favorite-- "self-esteem."
I say that in today's society, kids don't have three years to spin their wheels intellectually while educators focus on helping them love themselves. Many kids love themselves so much right now that they brook no thought that they could do better and they have no shame when doing wrong.
We have created and celebrated a culture of adolescence in modern society which always tries to make things come easy-- which means nothing. Adolescence is a very recent concept, really developed only in the last few decades. It is no coincidence that bar and bat mitzvah and confirmation-- rites of passage into responsibility and the beginning of the path to adulthood-- have been traditionally scheduled for millennia at or about the age of thirteen. Middle schools infantilize students at the expense of their education. Young people should be transitioning into being responsible for their actions, not being cocooned from every pitfall.
Middle schools and their adherents demonstrate their lack of faith in students to learn. They assume that kids can't do it by coming up with the hit-parade of excuses. Guess what? If you have real rapport with your kids, when you talk to them they will cop to the fact that they didn't work hard enough, and that they deserve their grade.
Although it would be easier if I didn't, I fiercely love my students. I am such a sap that when I see those "Eureka!" moments with my kids, or when I get hugged by gawky former students, I get tears in my eyes. Really. It's very embarrassing. And the kids know I love them when I demand their best effort, nothing less.
I manifest that love by expecting them to learn-- to read, write, contemplate, to wrestle with ideas like Abraham wrestling with the angels. Letting them off easy is, unfortunately, the middle school way. And it's not working.