Middle School, the Big Fishbowl

One of the fashionable ideas in education reform these days is to make middle schools much smaller. Currently, most kids grow up in their friendly neighborhood elementary school, where they know almost everyone’s name, and then hit middle school: a big, impersonal environment full of strangers. Some research has shown that children in K-8 schools do slightly better academically─presumably because they don’t have to endure this transition.

So size is one way to think about it. Another way, though, is whether it’s a linear or a pyramid feeder system. In pyramid systems, kids come from many elementary schools to a single middle school. In the linear system, a middle school’s student body comes from a single elementary school─without a huge influx of strangers.

As it happens, the midcoast region of Maine has both types of middle schools, pyramid and linear. Dr. Julie Newman Kingery did her graduate work there, and sampled several hundred kids from both types of middle schools, both in the spring of fifth grade (their last year of elementary school) and in the fall of sixth grade (at their middle school).

Kingery fully expected the kids in the linear, single-school feeder system to be better adjusted socially, and as a result to also be doing slightly better academically. Surprisingly, she found the opposite result: kids in the multifeeder middle school had adjusted better; they had improved academically and had more best friends.

I know it’s not easy to switch schools. But I wonder if we project our fears onto this transition (dwelling on all that can go badly), forgetting how great it can be to find new friends, new interests, and new teachers to love.

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