In 1888, Charles Eliot, the president of Harvard University, spearheaded a movement to revamp primary and secondary schooling. At the time, most schools followed an eight-year elementary and four-year high school model. However, Eliot and his colleagues argued that young adolescents were wasting time in the later years of elementary school and should be introduced to college preparatory courses at an earlier age. They recommended reducing elementary schools to six grade levels and increasing secondary school to six grade levels. This led to the emergence of intermediate schools, junior high schools, and junior-senior high schools.
These new secondary schools aimed to provide young adolescents with a more substantial and differentiated curriculum while addressing practical issues such as overcrowding and high dropout rates. Alongside offering college-bound students early access to preparatory courses, these schools also sought to engage noncollege-bound students through commercial, domestic, and vocational curricula. By the 1940s, the majority of young adolescents in the United States attended a junior high school.
Junior high schools brought about various innovations in education. They introduced a wider range of courses and activities to help students explore their interests and talents. These schools also implemented homeroom and teacher-adviser programs, extracurricular activities, and core curriculum approaches that emphasized the integration of different subject areas.
The Emergence of Middle Schools
Despite the successes of junior high schools, they faced criticism for adopting elements of senior high schools, such as curricula, grading systems, large size, and regimentation. Some of the organizational changes, which were initially intended to meet the needs of young adolescents, had been taken to the extreme and were now viewed as inappropriate. Furthermore, having ninth-grade programs within the same school as seventh- and eighth-grade programs posed challenges.
In the 1950s, educators began advocating for middle schools that would provide a more gradual transition between elementary and high school. These new schools would have a different grade organization and a program tailored to the developmental needs of young adolescents. The concept of 6-8 middle schools was proposed, eliminating the limitations imposed by high school requirements and offering a more stable school climate. Interdisciplinary teaming, small learning communities, and special learning centers were also suggested.
Donald Eichorn, a school district superintendent, published a book in 1966 promoting the creation of 6-8 middle schools. The book proposed a curriculum that aligned with early adolescent development, with an emphasis on active learning, interaction, and the inclusion of students of all physical and cognitive abilities. Flexible scheduling, curriculum that integrated different subject areas, and a balance between academic and non-academic subjects were also recommended.
The Midwest Middle School Association was founded in 1970, later renamed the National Middle School Association, to support the middle school movement. Educators increasingly agreed on practices suitable for young adolescents, including interdisciplinary team teaching, discovery and inquiry methods, teacher advisory programs, and flexible scheduling.
Growth and Maturation of the Middle School Movement
By 2000, the majority of middle-grades schools in the United States were 6-8 or 5-8 middle schools, marking a significant shift from the prevalence of 7-9 junior high schools in the past. The number of middle schools grew rapidly over the years, with increasing recognition of their potential to improve students’ academic performance and overall educational experience.
While the establishment of middle schools saw progress, many schools still failed to implement distinct practices. Structural changes were often limited to only the name and grade levels of the schools. Lack of empirical research and scientific evidence hindered the adoption of best practices.
During the 1980s, educators realized that the typical middle-grades school, regardless of grade organization, was not meeting students’ needs. A strong consensus on the necessary supportive structures and responsive practices for young adolescents emerged. States and foundations dedicated to educational reform began focusing on reforming the middle grades.
Accomplishments of the Middle School Movement
Structural changes in middle-grades education, such as schools-within-schools, looping, and team teaching, have had positive effects on students’ motivational beliefs and teacher-student relationships. These changes in school climate and structure have transformed middle schools into more supportive and inclusive environments.
However, achieving major improvements in academic achievement requires more than just structural changes. Curriculum, instruction, and professional development must also be improved to provide students with better learning opportunities. Studies have shown that schools that implemented both structural and instructional changes achieved greater achievement gains compared to those that made only structural changes.
One ongoing challenge in middle schools is the lack of specialized teacher and principal preparation. The majority of middle-grades teachers have not received training specific to the middle-level before entering their careers. This results in teachers being ill-equipped to work with young adolescents effectively. Similarly, the preparation of middle school principals is also insufficient.
To address this issue, there is a growing consensus on the need for specialized teacher preparation at the middle-grades level. Mandatory requirements for middle-level licensure and the establishment of specialized programs can help prepare teachers to meet the unique needs of middle school students. Additionally, specialized preparation and continued professional development for middle school principals are vital to support and sustain improvements in middle-grade education.
Although progress has been made in creating warmer and more supportive middle schools, there is still work to be done to improve curriculum, assessment, and instruction. Middle schools must strive for academic excellence, developmental responsiveness, and social equity, ensuring that all students have access to high-quality education.