Researchers as early as in the 1970’s noted a distinct pattern of decline in students’ academic performance associated with the transition to junior high or middle school. Studies found that students who had done well in elementary school did less well when they transitioned to junior high; not only was the transition year associated with a drop in grades, but also with a marked decline in student motivation, self-esteem and attendance. In contrast, students who remained in a K-8 school setting generally did not exhibit these negative changes. Researchers theorized that combining the stress of a school transition with the stresses associated with entering puberty produced the observed negative changes in student behaviors and attitudes towards school. But was it really the stress of these changes at work, or something else?
In 1991 a trio of academic researchers, wrote an article with the provocative title “ What are We Doing to Early Adolescents?”1 These researchers took a different tack, asking whether it was not so much the transition, per se, that wreaked havoc with school performance of young adolescents, but rather the change in the school environment and how well the new middle or junior high school environment met the developmental needs of students. The authors and other researchers had conducted a series of complex and rigorous studies to better understand the pattern of academic decline they observed in 7th grade; the article reviewed these many related studies.
What did the reviewers conclude? That more than anything, it was specific classroom features, not the transition itself, that influenced outcomes of the 7th grade students. More specifically, a comparison of 6th grade (elementary) with 7th grade (junior high) classroom settings found that:
- Entering 7th grade students were actually given fewer opportunities for independent work and classroom decision-making than they had had in 6th grade.
- Class work in 7th grade required lower-level cognitive skills than class work in 6th grade.
- Teachers in 7th grade placed a greater emphasis on control; independent observers, as well as students, rated 7th grade teachers to be less friendly and supportive.
- Grading and ability grouping practices in 7th grade accentuated student comparisons and likely increased student focus on self “ability” rather than on effort and mastery, leading to a decline in student motivation.
The above generalizations applied to most, but not all 7th grade classrooms studied. In some instances,7th grade teacher and classroom characteristics more closely approximated the characteristics of most 6th grade classrooms. In these cases, it did not matter whether the 7th grade student was in a K-8 school configuration (no physical transition) or a 7-8/9 school configuration (transition to junior high). The students in both kinds of configurations performed equally well, provided that positive teacher support and other features linked to greater student engagement and motivation persisted in the 7th grade classrooms.
Thus, the authors argued that to improve student motivation and academic performance in the middle grades we should focus primarily on the classroom setting, not on the grade configuration of the school. Their conclusions from over two decades ago are still relevant today, especially with regards to truancy and dropout prevention: Their research findings speak to the importance of creating active learning environments that engage and stimulate. Classrooms that offer young adolescents a high level of teacher support, challenging assignments and appropriate opportunities for student input and choice should become the middle/junior high school norm, not the exception.
1. Eccles, J.S., Lord, S., & Midgley, C. (1991). What are We Doing to Early Adolescents? The Impact of Educational Contexts on Early Adolescents. American Journal of Education, 99(4), 521–42.