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Making the Most of Middle School: A Field Guide for Parents and Others

reviewed by Barbara Blackburn - 2004

coverTitle: Making the Most of Middle School: A Field Guide for Parents and Others
Author(s): Anthony W. Jackson, P. Gayle Andrews, Holly Holland, and Priscilla Pardini
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 080774476X, Pages: 160, Year: 2004
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In Making the Most of Middle School: A Field Guide for Parents and Others,

Jackson , Andrews, Holland , and Parini use a variety of sources (external research, their own research, real-life examples) to describe the middle school experience in an easily understandable manner. Working from their background as parents, teachers, and researchers, the authors focus on moving beyond the myths of middle schools to understanding and being involved in the middle school years in a positive way. For many parents, sending a child to middle school creates negative images, in part, due to the horror stories they have heard from others (i.e., normal kids turn into nightmares at this age; the child you’ve raised disappears for about three years and hopefully returns when they ‘grow out of it’). Instead of simply explaining that the stereotypical ‘rollercoaster years’ perception of middle schoolers is wrong, the authors provide practical, pointed vignettes to portray the real contradictions surrounding this age group:

He sleeps with stuffed animals but stands up to racist adults. He eloquently debates laws during a mock legislature at the state capitol but forgets to change his underwear for a week. He knows more about Greek mythology than Homer but can’t recall what he is supposed to do for homework tonight. (p. vii)

Jackson, et al. also deal with the complicated nature of parental interaction with middle schools, describing the confusion parents feel when the traditional elementary school parental roles don’t seem to work, the detachment that can result from the confusion, and the lack of encouragement of parental involvement from schools.

Chapters cover all aspects of middle school, from understanding young adolescents, to understanding what makes a good middle school, to understanding the roles of teachers and administrators. Headings and key points are designed to grab the reader’s attention, while simple tables are used to graphically depict perceptions of young adolescents. Throughout the book, the authors use language that is accessible to anyone, rather than focusing on educational jargon. However, do not mistakenly think that simpler language reflects a lack of content. The authors describe practical, easy-to-implement strategies combined with vignettes, information from student surveys, and research-based recommendations, particularly from Turning Points (Carnegie Council, 1989) and Turning Points 2000 (Jackson and Andrews, 2000).

One particular concern of parents is academic achievement, and the authors’ discussion provides a comprehensive picture of the complex issue. First, the authors present numerical data from their nationwide survey of over 2,000 sixth, seventh, and eighth graders. Responding to a question as to how they feel about school, 42% of girls and 41% of boys stated they were bored. This information is followed by sample student comments describing their greatest accomplishments, many of which focused on learning experiences:

  • Learning to read…because if I can read I can do pretty much everything.
  • Getting on the math team…
  • The books I write…
  • Making it on the honor roll one time…
  • Passing sixth grade French because I was failing all year…

Jackson, et al. note that students want and need to demonstrate their competence, but the authors then contrast the student perceptions with traditionally low standardized test scores (from the National Assessment of Educational Progress) of middle school students. These seemingly contradictory messages are similar to the conflicting messages parents receive about the current emphasis on accountability in schools. In a recent newspaper article (Helms, 2004. p. B1), parents read a headline, “2 kinds of school ratings out today: N.C. report covers ABC and federal No Child Left Behind. Details complicated and contradictory but information is valuable,” which exemplifies the confusion that exists related to school performance ratings. A school can fail or be rated unsatisfactory under federal standards for success, but the same school can be ranked as satisfactory under state regulations. In the news article, Helms (2004) further details the weaknesses of both types of ratings: (in the state test)… “high overall pass rates can conceal the fact that some types of students-minorities, immigrants and students from impoverished homes, for instance-tend to trail their peers” (p. B3)….(but) “No Child Left Behind doesn’t distinguish between a school that falls short because of one struggling student and a school where most students fail” (p. B3). The authors reinforce the importance of measuring student learning through standardized testing, but they point out the need to move beyond test scores as the only measure of a successful school. In keeping with the practical tone of the book, readers are then provided specific questions to ask when evaluating the success of a school, such as:

  • Do all staff members expect, teach, and model ethical and responsible behaviors?
  • Are all parents routinely asked for their input about their children’s education?
  • Are all the students in my child’s school performing to the best of their ability, feel(ing) connected to the school, and hav(ing) regular opportunities to celebrate their talents? (pp. 46-47)
Jackson , et al. also confront typical obstacles to parental involvement in middle schools, such as a lack of time. They move beyond standard recommendations about attending parent conferences and volunteering at school to a focus on simple action items any parent can accomplish, including asking children about work, monitoring homework, and signing planners or agendas.

The interweaving of external research data, recommendations, and comments from “real kids” provides a compelling, clear picture for parents and others. Although the books is specifically designed for parents, I recommend it to anyone who knows, lives with, or works with middle school students. In our society, where young adolescents are depicted in the media as loud, lazy, strange creatures who dress in odd ways and watch too much television, Making the Most of Middle School moves beyond these stereotypes to help readers truly understand middle schoolers. The stories of students who volunteer in homeless shelters or raise money for Lupus research offer a realistic, yet positive portrait of the young adolescents who are our future. The authors recommend that parents focus on looking inside students, rather than “…judg(ing) the quality and integrity of youths based on quick evaluations of their clothing, their music, or their quixotic behaviors” (p. 111). Ultimately, this is the message of the book for everyone: take the time to look beneath the surface and see the true picture of the middle school years.


Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development. (1989). Turning points; Preparing American youth for the 21st century. The Report of the Task Force on Education of Young Adolescents.

New York : Carnegie Corporation of New York .

Helms, A. D. (2004, August 5). 2 kinds of school ratings due today. The Charlotte Observer, pp. B1, B3

Jackson , A.W. and Andrews, G. P. (2000) Turning points 2000. New York : Teachers College Press.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 106 Number 12, 2004, p. 2273-2276
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 11364, Date Accessed: 1/19/2022 5:27:57 AM

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