I recently came across a discussion in Linked-in dealing with the issue of whether we should continue to utilize middle schools or more greatly advocate the use of a different model. While I did respond to that forum, I decided to include my thoughts here. This is an age-old discussion. There are those that advocate for the K-8 model, some advocate for the 6-12 model, while still others agree with the current configuration of K-5, 6-8, and 9-12. From a curriculum continuum standpoint, the K-8 and/or 6-12 models seem to make sense. By having teachers and students in the same building it is possible for collaboration not only within the grade, but among the entire building. Teachers on a particular grade level will be able to discuss curriculum with teachers a grade level below or above them to better set their plans and expectations. Families will understand not only what their students need to know at the current grade level, but what they will need to know at the next level and how this will prepare them for that. In school districts that are small enough, this can be accomplished even though they employ the K-5, 6-8, 9-12 configuration.
However, there are other factors that need to be taken into consideration when dealing with the middle level child. It goes without saying that you need to address every aspect of every child - academic, emotional, social, physical - and this becomes even more apparent with the middle level student. This student is a completely different creature. He is truly a "middle child". The youngest child (K-5) receives the most attention. Parents/guardians are extremely involved in the lives of these students, often walking them to and from school, attending parent-teacher conferences, etc. The oldest child (9-12) has the most freedom. Parents tend to trust these students with more responsibility and give them more privileges. The middle child (6-8) is torn. He wants the attention of his younger sibling, but at the same time he wants the freedom of the older. Add to the mix the hormonal changes and the adolescent need for acceptance among her peers, and you truly have a challenge. For this reason, it becomes necessary to have a specialization for middle school. State licensing may need to reflect this as well. Currently, most states have K-6 and 7-12 licensure. Since 6th grade is not necessarily elementary school and grades 7-8 are not necessarily high school, it may become necessary to create a license that reflects addressing the specific needs of the middle level student.
As for the behavioral problems associated with this age level, this is usually more prevalent in the larger school districts that don't have the same level of oversight that smaller districts do. When you allow for students to attend who are out of district/area, you eliminate the sense of community that is so important. If students and parents have to travel long distances, their level of participation will be reduced as will their stake in the progress and achievement of the school overall. Another concern that needs to be raised with these models is the grouping of the ages. It makes people uncomfortable to know that there are 17-18 year olds in the same building, utilizing the same spaces as a 12-13 year old (6-12 model) or even a 13-14 year old sharing space with a 5-7 year old (K-8 model). It is more comfortable to have students who are all within a 3 or 4 years of each other rather than 6 or 7 years.
The middle level student is a challenge, perhaps the most challenging group of the three, and needs to have specific needs addressed that cannot be addressed in the K-8 or 6-12 models. Additionally, this age group needs more parental involvement/supervision rather than less, which is usually the case. It isn't that middle schools do not work, a different approach to how they are structured and staffed needs to be addressed.