ERIC Identifier: ED385426
Publication Date: 1995-09-00
Author: Wiles, Jon W.
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Rural
Education and Small Schools Charleston WV.
Middle Level Education in Rural America. ERIC Digest.
This Digest describes the development of the standard middle school and the
impact that development has had on rural areas. The Digest then describes the
original goals of middle level education and how rural schools can accomplish
these goals despite their small size.
MIDDLE LEVEL EDUCATION IN RURAL AMERICA
The earliest middle
schools were innovative junior high schools in rural areas (Gatewood, 1975), but
by the early 1970s the movement toward middle schools had spread to suburban,
then urban areas. An early survey by Alexander (1968) identified 300 such
schools; by the early 1990s, the number had risen to 8,500. In the 1990s, the
middle school design was by far the dominant curriculum form for middle level
education in America.
In rural school systems, the first junior high schools usually were
introduced under less than ideal conditions. Most early rural junior high
schools were housed either in the same building with the high school (7-12) or
in a former high school building that was, in many ways, dysfunctional to
program development. Further, in many districts, the junior high school was
perceived as a sort of training ground for the high school, where athletes and
even teachers and administrators were prepared. Small school size regularly
forced the rural junior high school to share teachers and facilities, almost
always as a "junior partner." Traditional activities such as sports events,
dances, and marching bands gave the junior high schools identity, but at the
same time prevented them from developing more age-appropriate strategies and
In the early 1960s, innovative principals in rural junior high schools began
to enrich their programs with additional electives and age-appropriate
activities. Popular innovations such as team teaching and flexible schedules
found their way into these early forms because they afforded the curricular
flexibility needed to serve a complex student. Without serious regulation, and
with energetic personnel, many of these early rural middle schools became
identified in the literature as models.
By the late 1960s and early 1970s, however, middle school designs began to
take on a more standardized character. In conferences and state association
meetings, middle level educators shared ideas and practices, and a kind of
formula for a successful program began to emerge. School staff organized
teaching teams that shared common time, space, and students. These core teams
planned together while their students went to specialty classes (physical
education, art, music). Staff developed an interdisciplinary curriculum and, in
enrichment programs, students sampled several short courses during the school
year. Creative, flexible schedules allowed for constant updating and change.
Guidance programs led by teachers but designed by counselors became popular, and
intramural sports replaced interscholastic sports.
This formality of the middle school design created problems for many rural
educators wishing to have a "true" middle school. Sharing facilities and
teachers with the high school often meant little flexibility for scheduling,
teaming, and enrichment activities. Small faculties precluded common team
planning time. Personal counseling sometimes challenged community values.
Intramurals stripped away both the tradition of the junior high school and the
identity of the community.
In many rural areas, reaching a critical scale--believed to be 800 to 1,200
pupils--for a standardized middle school program often led to proposals to
consolidate small rural districts and build large regional facilities. It is an
oversimplification, however, to say that middle schools caused rural
consolidations. In the period between 1930 and 1950 (before middle schools) the
number of districts in the United States declined from 127,000 to 80,000. But
certainly, in the 1970s and 1980s, the creation of a middle school program
provided a rationale for rural school consolidation. The shrinking of the
American high school population (from 15 to 11 million students in the 1980s),
however, was the more powerful factor that precipitated the middle level
GOALS FOR RURAL MIDDLE SCHOOL PROGRAMS
As rural middle
schools combat traditional problems such as relatively small size, isolation,
and dependence on the high school, it is important to focus on middle-level
education goals. The significant change introduced by the American middle school
during the past 30 years has been to broaden the scope of the curriculum to meet
the needs of learners. In their literature, middle schools espouse a program
designed to meet the many needs of the preadolescent learner, and rural middle
schools must focus on how they can best accomplish this task given their
In the United States, the average school enrollment is 488 pupils, and most
rural middle schools are much smaller than average. In fact, in the early 1990s
there were still 3,800 schools in America with fewer than 300 pupils (Sietsema,
1993). Obviously, the standardized model so often described in the literature is
not attainable in many rural school districts.
Traditionally, the American middle school has three targeted domains in the
curriculum: academic achievement, learning skills, and personal development.
While larger middle schools may address these areas by employing standard
components, rural middle schools need not do it the same way.
In the area of academic achievement, for instance, small rural schools are
dependent upon the high school for specialization and depth. Scheduling is often
disrupted by the priorities of the high school, and the problem of scale
precludes the activation of true interdisciplinary teams. Most of these
perceived difficulties are easily overcome in rural middle schools. The need for
academic depth is minimal in grades 6-8, where exploration appears more
important than mastery. In many states, teacher certification allows for more
flexible use of staff, and the absence of the Carnegie unit frees the program
from being dominated by a six-period yearlong format. Most rural middle schools
feature teachers who teach two or more subjects plus an elective of some sort.
The time for four-person interdisciplinary team meetings is found at the
beginning or end of the school day or by use of early-release days. Two-member
teaching teams, with each teacher covering two subjects, are most common.
Most middle-school theorists hold that developing appropriate learning
skills, not mastering subject matter, are the keys to high school achievement.
In schools where teacher teams analyze test scores and target specific skills,
such learning can be reinforced across the disciplines. Also, computer labs can
supplement teacher delivery in developing learning skills. A 3-year effort to
build attitudes and skills can be supported by having teachers move across
grades with classes or by having a teacher-advisor follow a student throughout
the middle school years. Student skill profiles, life skill learning, and
reinforcement for skill development in grading practices have been found to
increase effectiveness in developing students' learning skills and attitudes.
Finally, in the area of personal development, rural schools have a great
advantage in being small enough to allow teachers and staff to really know
students. Rather than scheduling advisory classes twice a week so that some
teacher will know each student, teachers in rural schools tend to know and
advise students on a more informal basis. Frequent, and often social, contact
with the community's parents and service agencies allows teachers to provide
more consistent, informed guidance in the growing-up process.
SUPPORT FOR SMALLER RURAL MIDDLE SCHOOLS
research supports the many benefits of small school size: a more positive
attitude toward school and greater parental satisfaction, student participation,
and attendance have been documented time and again. Small schools have been
shown to have lower dropout rates, in general, and superior achievement among
students from lower socioeconomic status homes (Howley, 1994).
If there is a criticism of the small, rural school in the research
literature, it is that often the school is unable to provide a full curriculum
offering for each student. For the most part, this reference is to the academic
curriculum, not to the wider enriching academics and extracurricular options.
From the standpoint of middle level curriculum, the rural school may often be
found to provide a more nurturing and satisfying program for preadolescents than
a larger model found in suburban or urban environments. For example, in the area
of guidance, the larger schools provide a teacher-led guidance program because
the average counselor-student ratio is 1:450. In rural schools, smallness may
facilitate a much more effective delivery program just by virtue of size.
RURAL SCHOOLS AND THE MIDDLE LEVEL SCHOOL OF THE
Recent developments provide additional promise for rural educators at
the middle level. Not only have the past 30 years brought a new and independent
mission for this school form, but many of the elements vital to developing a
successful school are very accessible in a rural community. Consider the
the academic area, technology promises to help educators overcome the
traditional problems of smallness and isolation in rural communities. Informed
utilization of computer software programs, the Internet, distance learning, and
video transmissions can help schools compensate for small libraries and
shortages in specialized teachers. In Texas, for instance, TI-IN broadcasts
specialized instruction to classrooms by satellite from a single studio in San
involvement, long associated with effective schools, can be readily activated in
close-knit rural communities. Rural middle schools that discover the power of
community resources and business partners can greatly enrich their programs.
ways of using buildings, not as the sole place of learning but as an organizing
center for learning activities, can be carried out in rural settings. Action
learning is age-appropriate for the middle school, and students can learn
important life skills by becoming actively involved in community affairs. The
Kellogg Foundation has funded numerous projects that demonstrate how these
relationships can be structured.
structuring learning as a social activity, rather than as an individual
activity, is easiest in a middle school where peer orientation is very strong.
The use of instructional strategies such as cooperative learning and authentic
(portfolio) assessments holds great promise in rural middle schools.
REFERENCES AND ADDITIONAL READINGS
Alexander, W. M. (1968).
The emergent middle school. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.
Eichhorn, D. H. (1966). The middle school. New York: Center for Applied
Research in Education.
Elkind, D. (1994). A sympathetic understanding of the child: Birth to sixteen
(3rd ed.). Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.
Gatewood, T. E. (1975). The middle school we need: A report from the ASCD
Working Group on the Emerging Adolescent Learner. Washington, DC: Association
for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
Howley, C. B. (1994). The academic effectiveness of small-scale schooling: An
update (ERIC Digest No. EDO-RC-94-1). Charleston, WV: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Rural Education and Small Schools. (ED 372 897)
Sietsema, J. (1993). Characteristics of the 100 largest public elementary and
secondary school districts in the United States: 1990-91 (statistical analysis
report). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics. (ED 359 226)
Wiles, J., & Bondi, J. (1993). The essential middle school (2nd ed.). New
York: Macmillan Publishing Company.