Across the United States, preteens are eagerly embarking on their first year of middle school. In the past, this would not have been a significant transition year for most students – they would have had to wait another year or two. Paul S. George sheds light on the origins of the middle school as we know it today.
Before the 1960s, as George explains, most students attended junior high school as the step before high school, usually covering grades 7 to 9. These schools were structured like miniature high schools, with separate teachers and classrooms for each subject and little collaboration.
Eventually, this model evolved into the middle school system. However, as George writes, the initial creation of fifth or sixth through eighth-grade schools was primarily a response to demands for racial desegregation. By integrating the middle and high school grades, school districts could circumvent desegregation requirements for elementary schools, which now exclusively educated younger students.
“The outcome was a plan for a significantly more desegregated school district that would likely be approved by the courts,” George explains.
This process led to the establishment of numerous middle schools in the 1960s and ’70s. A decade later, the Northeast and Midwest saw an increase in middle schools due to changing demographics. With under-enrolled high schools and growing elementary school populations, reorganizing schools became an obvious solution for efficient use of existing buildings.
According to George, academic considerations only took center stage after the 1983 Nation at Risk report, which sparked concerns about student achievement. As a result, states began including ninth-grade curricula as part of high school programs.
During the ’80s and ’90s, educators at the middle school level turned their focus to the specific needs of young adolescents. George notes that his district in Florida spearheaded this effort, experimenting with various approaches and ultimately adopting an interdisciplinary, “team” philosophy:
Our district’s middle school educators began to explore the benefits of sharing the same students, teaching schedule, planning time, and physical space, as well as the responsibility of coordinating all the key components of each student’s educational experience.
This concept gained popularity nationwide. Schools also implemented other strategies to cater to the unique needs of middle schoolers. They divided the school day into long, flexible blocks of time for multidisciplinary instruction.
To ensure teachers had a deeper understanding of individual students, some schools created multi-age groups of sixth to eighth graders, allowing the same students and teachers to remain together for more than a year. Another approach, known as “looping,” involved a team of teachers working with the same students for three years before starting anew in sixth grade. Some schools even divided large middle schools into smaller “houses.”
Today, middle schools have widely embraced these models, transforming into an entirely different educational experience compared to traditional junior highs.