The good and bad news on middle-school reform

iStock_000008669788XSmallPrevious research has revealed that middle-school students have less-positive relationships with teachers and peers and produce lower-quality academic work than they did in elementary school. In recent years, middle-school reforms have attempted to address these problems by creating caring school communities and increasing the quality of academic work. Researchers Carol Midgley and Kimberley C. Edelin, University of Michigan, report that the ethnically diverse, working-class schools they studied in southeastern Michigan had made structural changes that succeeded in improving the school climate but not the students’ academic work.

To create caring communities with positive relationships between adults and students, large schools were divided into smaller units, advisory programs were developed, and students were kept with the same teachers and peers for most of the day. These changes have had positive results. Students report feeling more supported by and connected to teachers and other adults in their school. Observers report that middle-school students and teachers exhibit greater mutual respect and thoughtfulness.

Recommendations for increasing academic quality emphasize raising the levels of understanding, effort, mastery and challenge. Many schools addressed these recommendations by requiring all students to take a core of academic subjects and by eliminating all or most ability-based class assignments. However, these structural changes did not bring about the desired improvement in students’ work.

Many students not getting challenging work

Midgley and Edelin report that despite the core requirements, many students are not getting challenging work. Observations and interviews lead these researchers to conclude that some students are allowed to get by with and are even praised for low-quality work. They found this to be particularly true for minority students. These students may feel accepted but many do not feel that learning is expected. Midgley and Edelin believe that middle schools can enhance interpersonal relations (and feelings of belonging) while expecting and promoting academic excellence.

However, students must recognize that understanding, insight, hard work, taking on challenging tasks, improving skills and intellectual growth are the goals. At present, most students in the schools studied have not gotten this message. Facilitating learning requires more than structural changes. The middle schools studied by these researchers reveal the need for continued effort to increase academic achievement.


“Middle School Reform and Early Adolescent Well-Being: The Good News and the Bad” Educational Psychologist Volume 33, Number 4, Fall 1998 pp. 195-206.

Published in ERN February 1999 Volume 12 Number 2

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