ERIC Identifier: ED311148
Publication Date: 1989-00-00
Author: Wells, Amy Stuart
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Urban Education New York NY.
Middle School Education--The Critical Link in Dropout
Prevention. ERIC/CUE Digest No. 56.
A student's decision to drop out of high school is often the end result of a
long series of negative school experiences--academic failure, grade retention,
or frequent suspensions--that begin before the ninth grade. Dropout prevention
strategies, therefore, must be targeted at the middle school grades, when the
stresses of schooling related to a more complex curriculum, a less personal
environment, and the growing need for peer acceptance pose grave danger to
already disadvantaged students (Massachusetts Advocacy Center, 1988).
Even though research demonstrates the importance of middle schools in
retaining at-risk students, the organization and curriculum of most do not meet
the needs of young adolescents, who are going through a tumultuous period of
rapid physical development and emotional turmoil.
CREATING SMALLER SCHOOLS WITHIN MIDDLE SCHOOLS
Part of the
problem in trying to restructure middle-grade education is that intermediate
schools come in a variety of different sizes and shapes. As many as 30 different
middle-school grade configurations have been identified (Center for Research on
Elementary and Middle Schools, CREMS, 1987; 1988), with the two most popular
types being the grade 6-8 middle schools, now found in about one-third of all
school districts, and the grade 7-9 junior high schools.
Much of the research on improving middle and junior high schools is aimed at
making them look less like large, impersonal high schools, and more like caring,
nurturing elementary schools, while still offering students a challenging,
CREMS studies (1988) have shown that while the grade 6-8 middle schools tend
to be smaller and less departmentalized than the 7-9 junior highs, close to 50
percent of all seventh graders change classrooms at least four times a day.
Thus, at the point in their lives when young adolescents are feeling most
vulnerable, many are forced to leave their self-contained elementary school
classrooms, where they spent most of their day with one teacher and a small
group of peers, for large, often impersonal middle schools or junior highs,
where daily they attend as many as seven different classes taught by seven
different teachers and attended by seven different sets of students
(Massachusetts Advocacy Center, 1988).
INCREASING PERSONAL ATTENTION
While a more fragmented
middle-school structure allows teachers in the school to specialize and be more
expert in the subjects they teach, it also leads to weaker teacher-student
relationships. As teachers try to deal with 30 different students every hour of
the day, they have little time to address students' individual needs. They also
have little time to contact parents or discuss student cases with their
Yet, while less-departmentalized schools allow teachers to form closer
relationships with their students, one study found that sixth graders in these
situations were achieving at a significantly lower level (CREMS, 1987).
Thus, middle schools, especially those with at-risk students, must address
both issues--positive student-teacher relationships and high achievement.
Schools can do so by developing intermediate staffing practices, including
semi-departmentalized and team teaching arrangements. For instance, one teacher
may offer instruction in related subjects (such as science and mathematics) and
share a fixed class of students with other teachers. Schools can also assign
staff members to serve as "advocates and mentors" to individual students (CREMS,
This more personalized setting allows teachers to keep closer tabs on
frequently absent students and to work with them and their parents to prevent
truancy. The team teaching approach allows teachers to specialize and develop
expertise while still being able to network with other teachers to help students
REFORMING GRADE RETENTION POLICY
Students who are held back
one or more years are much more likely to leave school before graduating. Being
retained one grade increases a student's chances of dropping out by 40-50
percent; those retained two grades have a 90 percent greater chance of dropping
out (Massachusetts Advocacy Center, 1988).
While many students are held back in the early years of elementary school,
retention is also quite common in the middle grades when teachers are looking
for more specialized knowledge and academic achievement from their students. In
the Boston school system, for example, nearly 12 percent of all sixth graders
and 19 percent of all seventh graders were held back in 1987, compared with only
two percent of all fifth graders (Massachusetts Advocacy Center, 1988).
Research has shown, however, that retaining middle school students does not
improve academic achievement and may in fact signal that schools are not helping
students compensate for academic deficiencies that began in elementary school
(Massachusetts Advocacy Center, 1986). Meanwhile, young adolescents are more
likely to feel embarrassed and stigmatized than elementary students when they
are held back.
Although the practice of grouping
students according to their ability usually begins in the elementary schools, it
becomes formalized in the middle school grades as the various academic levels
become more fixed and obvious. Too often those students with the characteristics
associated with potential dropouts--minority students, those from low-income or
single-parent families, those with limited English proficiency or behavioral
problems--end up in the lowest tracks. Young adolescents placed in lower tracks
become locked into dull, repetitive instructional programs leading at best to
minimum competencies. Moreover, students who have difficulty in just one subject
area often end up in the lower track for all of their classes, preventing them
from becoming high achievers in areas in which they excelled in elementary
Tracking young adolescents also restricts social interaction between students
with different interests and abilities at a point in their lives when they are
formulating long-lasting perceptions of themselves and their peers. Because
minority students are consistently placed in lower level classes, tracking
segregates students, reinforcing prejudices and fostering a feeling among young
minority students that only whites can be high achievers.
PROMOTING COOPERATIVE LEARNING
One possible alternative to
tracking in the middle grades is cooperative learning where students of all
ability levels work together in groups and receive group rewards as well as
individual grades. Cooperative learning is especially appealing for middle grade
students because it allows them to develop their interpersonal communication
skills at a time when they are particularly focused on social interactions.
In some situations students learn thinking strategies more efficiently from
each other than they do from the teacher (Strahan & Strahan, 1988). They are
responsive to each others' ideas, and groups often solve problems more
efficiently than students working alone.
REVITALIZING THE CURRICULUM
Health education should be an
essential component of any middle school curriculum. Health courses need to
include everything from instruction on proper nutrition to the effects of
alcohol on the body. Also, given that teenage pregnancy is one of the most
frequently cited reasons why girls drop out of school, and that the age at which
boys and girls become sexually active continues to decline, exposing middle
grade students to a complete sex education curriculum could prove to be highly
Natriello et al. (1988) stress that providing adolescents with career
education increases the salience of the school curriculum by showing students
how the skills they are learning today can benefit them in 10 or 20 years.
IMPROVING THE STUDENT TEACHER RELATIONSHIP
Much of the
research on why students drop out points to negative teacher-student
interactions. Likewise, students who stay in school often cite a "good teacher" as one of the most positive elements of their school experience. While
adolescents tend to pull away from adults in their attempt to become
independent, they paradoxically also have a strong need to bond with them.
Bhaerman and Kopp (1986) found that students are less likely to leave school
when they work with teachers who are flexible, positive, creative, and
person-centered rather than rule-oriented. Effective teachers should also
maintain high expectations for all of their students and show they care about
their students' success.
Many middle grade teachers, however, lack adequate training on early
adolescence (Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development, 1989). Most are
prepared to teach either elementary or high school students, and view their job
in the middle schools as a "way station" before going on to assignments that
Middle grade teaching is a legitimate, specialized profession. These teachers
should be specially trained in adolescent development as well as in a subject
area. As they counsel and mentor their students through their middle school
years, teachers will be providing a climate that supports and nurtures at-risk
students, and removing much of the school-based impetus for dropping out.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Bhaerman, R.D., & Kopp, K.A.
(1988). The School's Choice: Guidelines for Dropout Prevention at the Middle and
Junior High School. Columbus: National Center for Research in Vocational
Education, Ohio State University. ED 298 324
Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development. (June 1989). Turning Points:
Preparing American Youth for the 21st Century. New York, NY: Carnegie
Center for Research on Elementary and Middle Schools. (June 1988). Grades 6-8
Schools Move Slightly Toward Organizational Structures for Balanced Student
Growth. Baltimore: Author.
Center for Research on Elementary and Middle Schools. (June 1987). Special
Report on Middle Schools: A Description of Organizational Structures in Middle
Schools and Their Effects on Student-Teacher Relations and Instruction.
Massachusetts Advocacy Center. (1988, July). Before It's Too Late: Dropout
Prevention in the Middle Grades. Boston: Author.
Massachusetts Advocacy Center. (1986, November). The Way Out: Student
Exclusion Practices in Boston Middle Schools. Boston: Author.
Natriello, G., Pallas, A.M., McGill, E.L., McPartland, J.M., & Royster,
D. (1988, July). An Examination of the Assumptions and Evidence for Alternative
Dropout Prevention Programs in High School. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University,
Center for Social Organization of Schools. ED 299374
Strahan, D.B., & Strahan, J.D. (1988). Revitalizing Remediation in the
Middle Grades: An Invitational Approach. Reston, VA: National Association of
Secondary School Principals.