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FOCUS ON THE WONDER YEARS: New RAND Report Examines Challenges Facing Middle Schools

"The idea of a separate school for students in this age group seems to have been misguided in the first place, and major reform efforts are difficult to implement within the current system."

During the late 1980s, many television viewers tuned in to The Wonder Years, a drama series set in the 1960s that allowed viewers to see life through the eyes of Kevin Arnold, a junior high school boy. Through him we saw his first kiss, the struggle to get his father to buy a new color TV, and his first day of high school.

A new report from the RAND Corporation examines the multiple physical, social, and intellectual changes that students like Kevin Arnold undergo in middle school. It also offers recommendations on how middle schools can distance themselves from their “Bermuda Triangle of education” reputation, in which they are often blamed for increases in behavior problems, disengagement from school, and low achievement. The report, Focus on the Wonder Years: Challenges Facing the American Middle School, examines twenty years of literature on middle schools and analyzes existing national and international data.

“While many well-intended and reasoned reforms have been implemented in U.S. middle schools, we are not doing very well compared with the rest of the developed world,” said Jaana Juvonen, a RAND psychologist and lead author of the report. “The idea of a separate school for students in this age group seems to have been misguided in the first place, and major reform efforts are difficult to implement within the current system.”

Much like the large, comprehensive high schools that became popular during the middle of the last century-many of which looked more like factories than schools-a significant number of today’s middle schools were more a product of outside factors than specific educational or developmental considerations. According to the report, the concept of an intermediate school between elementary and high school often had more to do with labor market needs or the capacity of school buildings. The report also cites numerous studies that have found that young teens perform better in K-8 schools.

Meanwhile, school systems in Baltimore, Cincinnati, New York City, and Philadelphia have begun returning to more traditional K-8 schools (See “New York City to Eliminate Most Middle Schools” here) Not surprisingly, the report’s recommendations include a call for alternatives to the current sixth-to-eighth-grade middle school configuration which would reduce multiple transitions for students and allow schools to better align their goals across grades K-12.

Advocates for middle schools stress that changing a school’s grade configuration won’t magically make all the problems associated with middle schools disappear. “If you’re not addressing what happens in the classroom, it really doesn’t make a difference what grade configuration you have,” Michael J. Dietz, a middle school principal in Mequon, Wisconsin, told Education Week. (Dietz also sits on the National Middle School Association’s executive board.)

The report provides the first international comparisons on student well-being and school climate of middle-school-age youth. It compares American students (grades 6-8) to students of the same age in Belgium, Canada, the Czech Republic, England, Finland, Hungary, Israel, Latvia, Lithuania, Russia, and the Slovak Republic. It notes that the performance of American middle school students in mathematics and science declines from elementary school to middle school when compared to other countries. At the same time, it recognizes that there has been overall improvement in standardized test scores in math, science, and reading since the 1970s, and suggests that efforts to improve achievement and reduce performance gaps among different groups of students are “at least somewhat successful.”

In order to raise student achievement and continue to reduce achievement gaps, the report recommends interventions for the lowest-performing students, possibly including summer programs before the sixth grade, additional reading and math courses, and tutorials after sixth grade.

In addition to its conclusions about the academic performance of middle school students, the report found that U.S. students have negative perceptions of their learning conditions and “rank the highest [internationally] in terms of reported levels of emotional and physical problems.” They also “view the climate of their schools and the peer culture more negatively than do students in other countries.” Such disenchantment and social alienation are not only related to low achievement but are also predictors of whether students may eventually drop out of school.

The complete report is available at

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