Middle school -- smart, not small

Jaana Juvonen, a professor and chair of the developmental psychology program at UCLA, was the lead author of the 2004 Rand Corp. report, "The Challenges Facing the American Middle School."

These are facts of life for seventh-graders in L.A. County public middle schools, according to a new report sponsored by the United Way of Los Angeles: 48% are bullied; 13% carry a weapon to school; 71% do not have a caring relationship with a teacher or another adult at school. Perhaps it’s no surprise then that statewide assessments published in May reveal that only 5% of the 98 middle schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District meet California’s academic standards.

Can anything be done? On June 24, the school board will vote on a resolution intended to fix the problems by reducing middle schools from an average size of more than 2,000 students to an average size of 400 over the next 12 years. Large campuses would be turned into smaller, administratively independent schools sharing some spaces and coordinating services, and the construction of new, smaller campuses would begin.

The resolution’s goal is laudable: Smaller schools encourage better relationships between students and teachers, which results in better attendance, safer schools and better teacher-parent connections. But downsizing is a long and expensive process -- and it’s not the only way to get middle schoolers back on track.


Consider cost first. The resolution doesn’t include a price tag, but according to The Times, new schools in Los Angeles cost $500 or more a square foot these days -- that’s expensive, especially in a district facing looming budget cuts.

Even leaving aside the funding for new buildings, smaller is generally costlier. That’s because, unless teachers take on multiple roles (teaching more than one subject, acting as administrators as well as instructors), smaller schools create less cost-effective teacher-student ratios. In New York City, where the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is investing $51 million in school-size reduction efforts, the high schools are struggling because it’s hard to implement changes in teachers’ scope of work.

So what are the alternatives? It helps to reconsider middle schools from the ground up.

Developmental psychologists know that sixth- to eighth-grade students are emotionally better off -- and therefore better able to learn -- in stable situations, without multiple transitions and constant changes. Not only is the transition from elementary school to middle school dramatic, but everday experiences are alienating in most middle schools, where students face as many as 100 different classmates and six teachers daily as they move from one period to the next. Teachers work with 120 students a day, and parents barely get to know the parade of teachers grade by grade. This is true even in middle schools with 400 students, when teachers teach one subject for one grade level.

All of this means that a simple and cost-effective way to improve middle school is to keep the same teacher for each subject across more than one year -- one teacher for sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade English, for example. Most teachers are qualified to teach more than one grade in their subject, and research shows that when middle school students have the same teachers for multiple years, students have more positive attitudes toward school, their attendance and achievement improve and disciplinary problems decrease. Teachers like it better too, possibly because they aren’t wasting time each year starting over with a new set of students.

A more fundamental structural change that would promote stable relationships and continuity is to eliminate separate middle schools. Research demonstrates that sixth- to eighth-grade students feel safer in K-8 schools compared with separate middle schools. Moreover, students who change schools between fifth grade and sixth grade incur greater achievement losses in middle school and when they transition to high school.

The LAUSD has only eight K-8 schools, compared with 74 middle schools. Some of the largest existing middle schools could be converted and, with more grades per campus, the number of students in each grade would fall -- automatically achieving smaller middle school classes.

Carving big schools into small ones is one way to go. But the LAUSD board would be wise to not commit to this costly option without considering the alternatives. Size matters, but the good things it fosters can also be achieved by other more immediate and cost-effective measures.