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Schools for Teenagers: A Historic Dilemma

by Fred M. Hechinger - 1993

Presents a historical overview of the development of junior high schools for young adolescents, focusing on the unique physical, emotional, and social needs of that population. The article examines the views of James Conant, the Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development, and a junior high school teacher. (Source: ERIC)


The inherent and continuing dilemma of schools for teenagers is described by Nancie Atwell, a gifted teacher:


In general, what our adolescent students get from us by way of schooling isn’t very good. Our main concern as teachers seems to be to skirt all the messiness-and exuberance-of these years, mostly by regimenting our kids’ behavior: tracked groupings, busy work and seat work, few opportunities for students to initiate activity or work together. . . . Our policies tell junior high kids that their active participation is too risky an enterprise.



The invention of the junior high school in the first decade of the twentieth century was perhaps the earliest acknowledgement by the American education establishment that adolescence calls for a special educational response. Up to that point, the elementary school had dealt with what had been considered children, typically from ages live or six to fourteen. After that, the four-year high school took over, at least for the relatively small number of adolescents who continued their education.


As educators and psychologists began to pay greater attention to the development of children and adolescents, they discovered what most parents had long known: Young adolescents, roughly between the ages of ten and fifteen, are different from children. Puberty, among other changes, affects their bodies and minds, the ways they think and behave. Their interests and reactions undergo substantial revision. They seek greater independence from adults; they test the limits of adult authority; they explore; they argue; they challenge rules.


Unless adults understand those changes, they move on a collision course with young adolescents. In school, this can lead to either open or passive hostility between students and their teachers. Instead of seizing new opportunities to engage the young adolescents’ curiosity and restless energy, teachers who are accustomed to dealing with more docile children may react to adolescents’ challenges with frustration and anger.


Creating a new segment within the American school, attuned to young adolescents’ needs and behavior, seemed a sensible answer. In theory, at least, the junior high school seemed to provide that answer.


Americans pride themselves on believing in progress, but their institutions often resist change. Schools are no different. When change does come to American education, it is usually driven by outside forces rather than by insiders’ expert planning. Education reforms tend to be introduced as a response to only indirectly school-related or poorly understood crises: changing needs of the labor market, the civil rights movement, the launching of Sputnik, international economic competition. When facing such external pressures, education’s leaders understandably try to justify their response by cloaking the reforms in educational, often psychological, terms. And so it was with the creation of the junior high school.


The pressure for a new way of dealing with the education of young adolescents did not come entirely from within the education establishment. Great numbers of these youngsters were, for a variety of reasons, dropping out of school. In the past, this had not been considered a matter of national concern: There were plenty of jobs that required little education. In fact, the term dropout had not yet been invented. But the economy was changing, and early in the twentieth century too many youngsters without adequate schooling began to be an economic concern. Under such conditions, it would make sense to look for a reorganization of the schools in a way that promised to prevent young adolescents from dropping out.


Pragmatism has been the major engine of the way American schools are run and occasionally reorganized. It is the exceptional policymaker or philosopher who looks at the school as something more than an organization intended to serve the needs of the adult society. Benjamin Franklin, who himself had no formal schooling, wrote that school could be “delightful.”[2] John Dewey pictured schools as the instrument that would create a “more worthy, lovely, and harmonious” society. School reform to Dewey did not mean an occasional updating or reorganizing but a dedication to continual changenot to adjust to society but to improve it.[3]


And so it is not surprising that the junior high school was born of a mix of pragmatism, idealism, and new developmental theories. It was a response to a variety of pressures: of the progressive views of a new class of educational philosophers, of an immigration-driven changing student population, of the needs of modern industrial society. It was also a response to the critical view of the existing common school by the dominant elite, the higher education leadership.




In 1893, the Committee of Ten, which reviewed the state of the secondary schools under the chairmanship of president Charles W. Eliot of Harvard, decided that the existing system was inadequateto prepare the college-bound elite. [4] The committee called for shortening the elementary school years and proposed instead a system of six years of elementary and six years of high school. It stated bluntly: “It is impossible to make a satisfactory secondary school program limited to a period of four years and founded on the present elementary school subjects and methods.” [5] It recommended a shorter but academically tougher elementary school, with the inclusion of Latin and algebra, and an extended secondary school- thus, an initial push for the first major school reorganization.


The college-oriented Committee of Ten was not alone in arguing for a change in the existing school structure. By the turn of the century it had become evident that Horace Mann was overly optimistic in his fervent belief that once the schools were opened to all, children would want nothing more than to devote themselves to learning. History soon proved such idealistic expectations wrong. Masses of students dropped out without completing the eight elementary school years. Psychologist E. L. Thorndike studied the trend and concluded that “not more than half of the youth who entered the common school completed eighth grade.”[6] The crucial years during which youngsters gave up were the seventh and eighth grades.


At the same time, the labor market had begun to change. Such expert studies as that of the Massachusetts Commission Industrial and Technical Education found educators and researchers in agreement that adolescents, between the ages of twelve and sixteen, belonged in school rather than in the labor force.[7] Poorly educated, these youngsters would become victims of exploiting employers. They could be forced into undesirable, unskilled jobs dead ends that closed off prospects for future advancement.


While some of these youngsters, mainly children of poor immigrants, left school because they had to add their meager wages to the family income, the majority of those who dropped out did so not because they had to work but rather because they disliked school. The changes proposed by the Committee of Ten may have helped the small college-bound elite; they did nothing to improve the education of the great majority whose futures were too complicated and unpredictable to be served by a clearly mapped out course of higher education.


The junior high school - a new institution with wide-open possibilities for a different curriculum and an as yet undefined pedagogy-would be the answer. In 1910, Frank Bunker, the superintendent of the Berkeley, California, schools, opened the first junior high school, McKinley School, actually known as the Introductory High School. Located in its own building. it turned the seventh, eighth, and ninth grades into a separate institutional entity. (Several other communities, it should be noted, also claim to have been first to establish a junior high school around the same time, and the model was replicated in many places.)


Berkeley’s school administrators-particularly Bunker and C. L. Biedenbach, principal of McKinley Grammar School-deserve much credit for this daring step. In fact, they had already experimented with a number of unconventional ideas, including the introduction of academic departments in the upper grades of the elementary school; but their desire to create an entirely new school organization might well have come to nothing had there not been too many bodies to fit into the local high school’s ninth grade. It was lack of space that made it possible for Bunker to commandeer an elementary school as the site for a reorganized seventh-, eighth-, and ninth-grade school. At least in part, America’s first junior high school was born of an inexpensive solution to an overcrowded high school. The 6-3-3 plan became the reformers’ preferred organizational plan.[8]


In 1913, the Committee on the Economy of Time in Education,[9] borrowing heavily from earlier proposals by the National Education Association, endorsed the 6-3-3 plan, in large part because of the feeling that youngsters at age twelve are already concerned about training for future jobs. Five years later, the committee outlined an even stronger rationale for the concept of the junior high school by urging educators to respond to changes in the society, changes in the composition of the secondary school population, and changes in the understanding of adolescent growth and development. The report, known as Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education,[10] criticized the eight-year elementary school: “The last two years . . . in particular have not been well adapted to the needs of the adolescent.” Therefore, the report continued, many pupils lose interest and drop out. It recommended that the junior high school gradually introduce departmental instruction, offer some electives and prevocational courses, and stress the development of a “sense of personal responsibility.”[11]




From its beginning, the idea of the new junior high school clashed with the earlier concept of the American common school whose democratic ideal was to be reflected in a system that provided the same education for all children. In fact, public school leaders in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century were obsessed with the search for "the one best way”- the professionally approved solution. The antidote to chaos in politics seemed to the new breed of education managers the “scientific” approach to the schools, testing everything with the aim of arriving at one standard way that would fit all. In what was almost a parody of that approach, John Philbrick, who was Boston’s school superintendent from 1856 to 1878, put it in simple terms: “The best is the best everywhere. If America devised the best school desk, it must go to the ends of the civilized world.” [12]


The American ideal at the time was the factory, which guaranteed the best and most economically designed product. Why not apply it to the schools? In 1874, William T. Harris, superintendent of schools in St. Louis and subsequently U.S. Commissioner of Education, explained the new system’s purpose and attraction: “Great stress is laid on (1) punctuality, (2) regularity, (3) attention, and (4) silence, as habits that are necessary in an industrial and commercial civilization.”[13] It was hardly surprising that restless young adolescents left such schools.


The creators of the new junior high school sensed that changing social and economic conditions and an increasingly diverse population made the one best way intensely undemocratic. Children differ. The idea of the right education for every child clashes head-on with the effort at creating a standard education in which the one best way fits all. Moreover, economic changes also called for what came to be known as “differentiation,” separating children according to their talents and, perhaps more important, their future place in the economy.


Elwood P. Cubberley, professor of education at Stanford University, rationalized those changing economic conditions by calling on the schools to “give up the exceedingly democratic idea that all are equal, and that our society is devoid of classes.” In a differentiated junior high school, future workers would be prepared for modern social and industrial life and for the growing specialization of labor, while also having instilled in them “social and political consciousness that will lead to unity amid diversity.” He saw the schools as “factories in which the raw products [children] are to be shaped into products to meet the various demands of life.”[14]


New philosophers of education brought to the schools a different view of childhood and learning. John Dewey was less concerned with scientific theories of schooling than with the political and social developments in society. If conditions of life have changed, he said, then the educational response must also change.


It would be misleading to suggest that the new junior high schools were dedicated to Dewey’s progressive views of childhood, but his departure from “the one best way” helped to free them from the rigid existing rules of school organization and curriculum. Leonard Koos, professor of education in Minnesota, wrote in The Junior High School in 1927 that “it is now a truism that equalization of educational opportunity cannot be achieved without adjustment to individual differences.”[15]


In a way, the original junior high school became something of a sorting agency, preparing the academic elite for the universities and others for opportunities in the marketplace, thus creating academic and vocational or commercial tracks.


Much of the tracking was based on questionable grounds and methods. Theories had begun to circulate among educators about innate differences between certain ethnic groups and about the meaning of certain physical characteristics. Head shapes were often thought to be indications of mental ability, and such pseudo-scientific theories usually favored youngsters of Anglo-Saxon and Northern European descent. Southern Europeans and Eastern European Jews were thought to be of inferior intellect. Children of such heritage were often treated by teachers condescendingly or with undisguised contempt. Undoubtedly, such stereotyping played a significant part in early tracking. [16]


Concerned about such bias-driven sorting of youngsters, educators looked for less subjective ways of judging students’ potential and assigning them to specific programs on the basis of more scientific data. They sought the answer in the newly developed instrument of standardized intelligence tests. The approach had strong appeal, partly because the subjective yardsticks had led to so much abuse and partly because of Americans’ simplistic faith in anything that appeared to be scientific.


As happens so often in American policymaking, the pendulum swung from one extreme to another. Instead of leaving to the teacher the assessment of youngsters’ talents and capacities, the task was assigned to the newly developed tests. While it was true that teachers had often misjudged and misassigned students, usually in belief that they were serving the, cause of instant Americanization, excessive reliance on tests invited new abuses. Dewey’s concern about individual children was increasingly lost in test-dominated, tracking. Children became stuck in tracks without much hope of moving into paths more appropriate to their talents. Since the junior high schools were thought to be the ideal place for such sorting, they assigned students according to what were viewed as scientific teaching instruments in the hands of school bureaucracies.


By the early 1930s, support for the separate junior high school faded. Although progressive reformers originally intended the new schools to respond to the developmental needs of young adolescents- to encourage them to explore, and to build on their special talents-the junior high schools had essentially become prep schools for high school. Many rural districts fell back on the 6-6 organization.


In 1933, Chicago became the first major city to eliminate its junior highs, largely on the grounds of saving taxpayers’ money. As so often in the history of American public education, cost-efficiency became the driving force. [17] (Cost-efficiency also served as the excuse for the creation of very big- educationally unsuitable - urban and suburban high schools.)


For a brief period, after World War II, the more progressive approach enjoyed a revival. Once again, educators and child psychologists used the transitional period to respond to the special developmental needs of young adolescents. The percentage of autonomous junior high schools, which had been shrinking during the 1930s, grew rapidly, from 13.6 percent to 31.4 percent of all secondary schools between the years of 1952 and 1971.[18]




James Bryant Conant, former president of Harvard, followed in the footsteps of his predecessor, Charles W. Eliot, as a reformer of the schools. In 1959, with a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, he published The American High School Today.[19] He offered educators and parents a detailed checklist of the subjects he thought should be studied and the way the schools should be organized.


A year later, in 1960, he turned his attention to the junior high schools. Together with a small staff and with support from the Carnegie Corporation, he spent the 1959-1960 school year visiting 237 junior high schools in ninety districts in twenty-three states. He was aware that “some people have approached the question of education for the twelve to fifteen year olds from a viewpoint that emphasizes recent studies in physiology and adolescent psychology. Others have approached the same questions from a different viewpoint that strongly emphasizes academic subject matter.” [20] Given those different viewpoints, he said, he tried to rely mainly on what he had personally observed during his visits.


In assessing the role and the actual performance of the junior high schools, Conant wrote in Education in the Junior High School Years that “first, parents and teachers are well aware that early adolescence is a very special period physically, emotionally, and socially. It is a crucial age in the transition from childhood to adulthood and often presents many problems.”[21]


Some of what he saw alarmed him. In an address to the American Association of School Administrators in Atlantic City, he charged that instead of enjoying their independence, these schools tended increasingly to imitate the high schools, particularly their weakest features. He accused them of an “almost vicious” overemphasis on competitive athletics and extreme academic pressures for the sake of getting into college. Colleges, he said, “are by and large the worst sinners in this regard” but that “the disease” of athletic rivalry had spread from the colleges all the way down to the junior high schools appeared to him as “a new and shocking revelation.” [22] Specifically, he warned against the danger “that the three-year junior high school may become a replica of the senior high school." He wrote: “Interscholastic athletics and marching bands are to be condemned in junior high schools: there is no sound educational reason for them and too often they serve merely as public entertainment .”[23] He also disapproved of graduation ceremonies with diplomas and cap and gown.


Conant predicted “a lot of grief ahead” as parental pressures pushed high school subjects down to pre-high school pupils. He urged that the seventh grade serve As a transition from the elementary school’s self-contained classroom with one teacher to the departmentalization of high school.


Conant was surprised that there was little agreement among professional educators about what the junior high school ought to be like. He did find some general agreement about the nature of the youngsters with whom the schools would have to deal: that at their level of maturity, they needed more help in making the transition from elementary school.


Still, Conant, somewhat critical of the child-centered theories of the 1920s and the early advocates of the junior high school, did stress the importance of academic subjects in junior high school-English, social studies, algebra, science, art, music, physical education, and (in the unreconstructed gender-oriented ways of his time) industrial arts for boys and home economics for girls. Conant also called for a well-stocked central library and a full-time librarian for every junior high school.


It was during the education debates of the early 1960s that one of the endemic flaws of the junior high schools first rose to the surface: the lack of sufficient teachers who understood young adolescents, and who saw the junior high school as an institution with its own ideas and goals. The very name “junior high school” may have been a mistake: Who wanted to be junior or subordinated to the real high school? Those teachers who really liked children would be happier in elementary school; those who had academic aspirations often became frustrated and acted like high school teachers. As is still largely true today, few were being prepared, professionally and psychologically, to be committed to the very special task of dealing with adolescents and shaping a curriculum to their ages and interests.


“Because of the transitional nature of these grades,” Conant wrote, “teachers with an unusual combination of qualifications are needed. Satisfactory instruction in grades seven and eight requires mature teachers who have both an understanding of children, a major characteristic of elementary school teachers, and considerable knowledge in at least one subject-matter field, a major characteristic of high school teachers.” Because such specially qualified teachers are difficult to find, Conant urged teacher-training institutions to take this into account and warned against looking at the junior high schools “as a training ground for senior high school teachers.”[24] He called on school boards to do everything in their power to enhance the status and prestige of junior high school teachers. His appeal fell largely on deaf ears: Few of those boards’ lay members had any deeper understanding of the junior high schools’ mission.


Little came of Conant’s comments on the junior high schools, probably because he had invested so much of his time and energies in his efforts to reform the high schools that his critique of the junior highs tended to be overshadowed.




Nancie Atwell, who taught English in eighth grade (she now runs a K-3 experimental school), wrote in her book In the Middle:


When I listen hard to my junior high students, their message to me is, “We’re willing to learn. We like to find out about things we didn’t know before. But make it make sense. Let us learn together. And be involved and excited so that we can be involved and excited.” When I listen to educators talk about junior high, I hear a different message. I’m told that my role is to keep the lid on . . . and prepare my students for high school. [25]


Atwell understands the underlying problem that the middle grades must face if they are to succeed. She writes:


Surviving adolescence is no small matter; neither is surviving adolescents. It’s a hard age to be and teach. The worst things that ever happened to anybody happen every day. But some of the best things can happen, too, and they are more likely to happen when junior high teachers understand the nature of junior high kids and teach in ways that help students grow.[26]


Some of the brighter, observant students also sense the inferior level the system has reserved for the junior high school. At the end of the year, one of Atwell’s students, after saying that he would miss her, added: “Maybe some day you’ll be smart enough to teach in the high school.”


Conant’s critical review may have been the first hard look at the junior high school; it was not the last.


It was a growing dissatisfaction with the junior high school that led in the 1960s to a renaming of that institution as the middle grades or middle school or, in some instances, as in New York City, the intermediate school. The new nomenclature suggests that young adolescents require a school that responds to their important developmental years instead of an advance copy of the high school.


In the 1980s the Lilly Endowment, in Indianapolis, studied the middle grades-increasingly the preferred terminology - because it had found that, particularly among poor and minority youngsters in inner cities, “the number of students who fail in school seems to grow almost uncontrollably from fourth through eighth or ninth grades. As a result, these students fall further and further behind in almost every essential activity, until they either drop out or struggle in remedial programs throughout their high school years. ” The endowment therefore concluded that something must be done to avoid the drift into a dead end during “these critical formative years.” It called for a clear sense of purpose in the middle grades and “a mandate to create powerful experiences for young adolescents.”[27]


Middle-grades schools, the endowment warned, too often are viewed merely as “feeder schools” for the high schools instead of being a testing and proving ground “for combining what we know about learning and what we know about early adolescent development.” [28]


The Edna McConnell Clark Foundation also directed its attention to the middle-grade schools’ potential for dealing constructively with disadvantaged young adolescents, stating: “Even if disadvantaged children have demonstrated academic achievement in elementary school, their achievement gains tend to diminish during the middle grades. For some students, this decline is dramatic. In their remaining school years, they never live up to their academic promise in elementary school.”[29]


These problems, the foundation stressed, are compounded by changes in development and behavior youngsters undergo in early adolescence: Peer approval becomes more important and may lead to a downgrading of studying; risk-taking influences much of their behavior; school failure resulting from these changes in attitudes may, in turn, lead to a decline in self-confidence. At the very time when disadvantaged young adolescents need support, the foundation found, they are placed in institutions that are ill-equipped to respond to their needs. Middle schools are larger and more impersonal; teachers are less accessible; the middle grades are not only academically harder but also often less stimulating than the elementary schools. Just as society, including many parents, often considers adolescence as a phase young people must live through, so the middle years in school are too often treated as something students must simply “get through.” As a result, the foundation concluded, “the middle grades become the breeding ground for behaviors and attitudes that cause many students to drop out of school in the ninth or tenth grade.” [30]


Yet it is during these very years that damage can be prevented. Next to the first three years of infancy, when the new human being learns to walk, to listen and understand, and to speak, the years of early adolescence are a time of the most dramatic development. The middle grades, therefore, ought to be viewed as a time of special opportunity for positive intervention - shaping adolescents’ values, helping them to set goals for themselves, assisting their healthy development. The junior high school, or the middle grades, ought to respond to adolescents’ special needs and pay attention to the development of their bodies and minds.


While the original junior high schools depended heavily on the efficiency experts for their organization-determining the best use of space and facilities in a community-the middle school took its marching orders from developmental psychology and the child-oriented philosophy of Dewey and other progressives. The homeroom assumed new importance, with a teacher getting to know a limited number of youngsters and acting as counselor. Pupils were encouraged to probe and discover. Even the idea of team teaching-several teachers with different subject-matter expertise teaching a class together began to be advocated by reformers. (Team teaching never became a major force in the schools, in part because teachers traditionally are trained to preside over their classroom rather than to engage in collaboration.) Once again, however, efforts at reforming the way young adolescents learn and are taught became subordinated to outside pressures. The panic set off by the launching of the Soviet Sputnik imposed on many ninth grades a less flexible and more high school-oriented curriculum, especially in mathematics and science. Once again, overcrowding often dictated the way schools were organized.


By the 1980s, more than eighty years after the founding of the first junior high school in Berkeley, the purpose of education in the middle grades continued ill-defined. Many of the schools remained merely an adaptation of either the elementary or the high school. In part, educators’ uncertainty about what the middle grades should be and do is the consequence of their, and most adults’, uncertainty about how to deal with young adolescents - what and how to teach them, how to affect their behavior, what to prepare them for.


The daunting reality is that the middle grades receive a motley crew of young people: no longer children who essentially accept the teacher’s role, and may trust and occasionally even love the teacher. The young adolescents who enter the middle grades school are far less docile: They want to be shown why they should respect the teacher, why they are in school in the first place, what the school can offer them beyond the company of their peers. With her experience as a junior high school teacher and her sensitivity for the special needs of adolescents, Atwell wrote in 1987: “The American secondary school status quo presents a bleak picture, revealing little evidence of the collaboration, involvement, and excitement in acquiring knowledge that our students crave-that all humans crave.” She expressed concern “with the nature of instruction adolescents typically receive in U.S. junior high schools; how our classroom ambience, instructional approaches, and ability groupings do not meet adolescents’ needs; and how this is no accident. Our junior high schools are structured to deny, or at least delay, the satisfaction of our junior high school students’ needs, physical, intellectual, and social.” [31]


By the mid-1980s, experts on both education and adolescence agreed that something was seriously wrong with the way the schools had been dealing with young adolescents. Other factors virtually forced educators and the public to focus their attention and concern on that age group. Serious physical and mental health problems, including depression and suicide, sounded the alarm. So did increasingly younger pregnancies and teenage involvement in violence. The old view that adolescence was merely a phase that would pass seemed no longer acceptable, and the schools had to reexamine the way they were treating the junior high school population.


While the junior high school and subsequently the middle or intermediate school were supposed to ease the transition from elementary to secondary school, there was a lack of understanding of what makes that transition difficult. Instead of arranging a compromise between the one-teacher elementary school class and the departmentalized middle grades, the basic structure turned out to be one of a daily succession of subject-matter lessons, each taught by a different teacher. The pupils moved from class to class; each teacher dealt with a daily average of five to six classes, each with a new cadre of students. Typically, teachers recognized students by the seating chart, not as individuals. Some effort was often made to substitute counselors for the absence of personal contact and guidance, but financial constraints tended to give each counselor so many “clients” that personal meetings had to be limited to acute crises rather than continuous advising.


Moreover, the heritage of the allegedly cost-effective factory model-the big school-compounded the problem of anonymity within the school. Under any circumstances and at any age, anonymity aggravates potential behavior problems: When people are submerged in the impersonal condition of large institutions, they tend to behave at their worst. For teenagers, with their normal insecurities and their natural tendency to explore and test the rules of society, being swallowed up by a large impersonal institution is particularly damaging. Such an organization clashes head-on with Dewey’s concept of the school as a community.


At the heart of the problems that an effective school for the middle grades should address is the nature of early adolescence: the risks to which young teenagers are exposed; the temptations they face; the fateful choices they must make in shaping their values and their behavior. The potential dangers include alcohol and other substance abuse, and nicotine; premature, irresponsible, and unprotected sexual activity; poor nutrition; and, increasingly, involvement in violent behavior. Many of their uncertainties lead to depression and other mental disorders and, in the most serious cases, suicide. All teenagers are in need of effective health care.


At the same time, these early years can also be the gateway to lasting success. Helped to make the right choices and to channel energies into productive activities, these youngsters are at the threshold of what can be a lifetime of personal strength and success.




In the late 1980s, the Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development established a task force on the education of young adolescents. In its final report, Turning Points:


Preparing American Youth for the 21st. Century, published in June 1989 by Carnegie Corporation of New York, the task force said: Middle grade schools-junior high, intermediate, and middle schools -are potentially society’s most powerful force to recapture millions of youth adrift, and help every young person thrive during early adolescence. Yet all too often these schools exacerbate the problems of young adolescents.


A volatile mismatch exists between the organization and curriculum of middle grade schools and the intellectual and emotional needs of young adolescents.[32]


Perhaps the basic corrective of past failure is to reduce the damage done by large, factory-style middle-grade schools. Since big buildings cannot be replaced by smaller ones, the remedy suggested_by Turning Points and other recent reports is to reorganize the large buildingsinto smaller units - schools within schools or houses, each with no more than about 120 youngsters.


At the same time, the teaching staff would be-reorganized into teams composed of experts in a variety of subjects and would coordinate instruction through cooperative planning. (This is different-from the earlier, largely unsuccessful concept of team teaching in which several teachers acted as a team in the classroom.) Under such an arrangement, every teenager would be known well by one adult who would serve as an advisor and confidant on both academic and personal problems. In the words of Turning Points, the aim is to “create small communities for learning where stable, close, mutually respectful relationships with adults and peers are considered fundamental for intellectual development and personal growth.” [33]


To strengthen those important ties, Turning Points recommended that each team of teachers remain with the same group of youngsters for at least two, and possibly three, years. Lack of continuity is one of the basic flaws in American education; lack of continuity in personal relationships is particularly damaging to the development of young adolescents.


Equally important is the creation of a link between school and home. Some effective middle-grade schools have realized its importance and tried to institutionalize it. James P. Comer, Maurice Falk professor of child psychiatry, Yale University School of Medicine, has created a successful model that emphasizes communication with parents and continuing parental involvement in defining the schools’ programs for young adolescents. Deborah Meier, the director of Central Park East Secondary School in East Harlem, provides parents with a regular newsletter about school and community-related activi-.adolescents, the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation pointed out that “parents do not have to be well educated to help in their children’s education.”[34] Turning Points underscores this by urging: “Reengage families in the education of young adolescents by giving families meaningful roles in school governance, communicating with families about the school program and student’s progress, and offering families opportunities to support the learning process at home and at the schoo1.”[35]


Schools must make special efforts to forge links with the community. This may include the involvement of students in community service and the creation of internships in local businesses, hospitals, parks, and other enterprises. While essential for all young people, this is crucial in the case of poor youngsters, who desperately need a link between their often debilitating environment and the world of work.




Neglect of today’s adolescents’ health and fitness is at a crisis state. By age fifteen, about a quarter of all young adolescents are engaged in behaviors that are harmful to themselves and others. Poverty adds to the crisis. In 1988, about 27 percent of American adolescents between the ages of ten and eighteen lived in poor or near-poor families. For nonwhite minorities, the figure exceeded 50 percent. Half of all black and 30 percent of Hispanic adolescents live in one-parent families. As many as 5 million teenagers have no health insurance and therefore are denied access to proper health care, especially of the preventive kind. Poor health and debilitating living conditions make it difficult for these adolescents to succeed in school. Their problems therefore must be addressed by middle-grades educators as well as by the community at large.


The problems of today’s teenagers enrolled in middle-grades schools differ dramatically from those of the past. By age sixteen, 17 percent of girls and 29 percent of boys have had sexual intercourse. Between 1960 and 1988, gonorrhea increased four times among ten- to fourteen-year-olds. Suicide rates almost tripled among ten- to fourteen-year-olds between 1968 and 1988. Middle-grades schools cannot ignore these facts.


One of the key recommendations of Fateful Choices: Healthy Youth for the 21st Century, a book sponsored by the Carnegie Corporation and based in large part on research underwritten by the Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development, is the creation of school-related health centers. [36] Such centers would provide adolescents with comprehensive health services, from dental care to treatment of injuries and chronic diseases. They would also deal with reproductive issues, including counseling on sexual matters ranging from advocacy of postponed sexual activity to family planning and prevention of sexually transmitted diseases.


Existing school-related health centers serve mainly high schools, too late for many of the critical health issues faced by adolescents. Moreover, the clinics now serve fewer than 1 percent of the age group. Yet the experience of the existing centers shows that they can substantially improve young people’s health and prevent health-threatening activities.


In the long run, however, youngsters must be given the information and the skills to safeguard their own health. This is why Fateful Choices urges that middle-grades schools, and possibly even the upper elementary grades, include in their curriculum instruction in human biology and the life sciences to provide young adolescents with an understanding of the potential damage to their bodies and minds from alcohol abuse and the use of drugs and nicotine. Such courses also aim at preventing premature sexual activity and lessening the high risk of sexually transmitted diseases, including AIDS.


In an atmosphere of increasing violence, with escalating injuries and deaths among young people, the schools are also urged to make a contribution by teaching the benefits of nonviolent conflict resolution.




Why focus on early adolescence? Only because it may well be the most misunderstood and, therefore, the most neglected stage of human development. Parents hope that this too shall pass. Physicians do not want to spend the time and effort necessary to understand, and be_understood by, teenagers. Teachers see the assignment to the middle grades as an unwelcome trial at best. Educators have been slow to discover reasons why even youngseers who do relatively well in elementary school so often fail in junior high school.


Yet, even if the institutions that deal with the early teen years constitute weak links in the chain of human development, they are only one segment of what ought to be recognized and treated as a continuum. The human story begins before birth and continues through infancy to the preschool and elementary school years, then on to early and late adolescence, and ultimately to adulthood.


The trouble comes with our tendency to break what ought to be a continuum into nearly self-contained fragments: child care, Head Start, preschool education, elementary school, the middle_grades, senior high school. Each segment is dependent on the one that precedes it, yet communication between them-up and down- is defective. Blame for failure tends to be directed downward. In that flawed process, adolescence gets short shrift. Beyond the segregation by age group, there is the larger division between the poor and the affluent.   David A. Hamburg, Carnegie Corporation’s president, in “The Urban Poverty Crisis: An Action Agenda for Children and Youth,” writes:


There is much that can be achieved if we think of our entire population as a very large extended family- tied by history to a shared destiny and therefore requiring a strong ethic of mutual aid.


I suggest that the central question is: Can we do better than we are doing now? After all, the casualties in early life are now so heavy that they are beginning to drag down the entire nation. The social and economic costs of severely damaging conditions that distort growth and development are terrible-not only in the intrinsic tragedies of these shattered lives but also in effects that hit the entire society, rich and poor alike-the costs of disease and disability, ignorance and incompetence, crime and violence, alienation and hatred. In a more than microbial sense, these are infections that know no boundaries, that cannot be effectively contained the way we are going now. Surely present knowledge, evidence and experience make clear that we can do better than we are now doing. [37]


In their eighty-year history, the junior high schools (and their successors) have fluctuated between sincere efforts to respond to a growing understanding among experts of the special needs of teenagers and a variety of social and economic issues, from competing more effectively with adversaries in international trade to preparing adolescents for admission to college. Some forward-looking initiatives have been taken, as in the Lilly Endowment’s support of schools that integrate the regular school day, from 8:00 A.M. to 3:00 P.M., and after-school activity, from 3:00 P.M. to 6:00 P.M., with schools and youth-serving agencies.


More recently, the Carnegie Corporation has been underwriting follow-up initiatives to implement the recommendations of Turning Points. After decades of relative planlessness, there is finally some hope that the middle grades will find a firmer footing within the total scheme of American education-not as a holding pen; not as a device for dropout prevention; not as a utilitarian vocational or prep school in the service of either business or college; but as an academic and developmental home base for young people in the process of moving from childhood to maturity.


I am greatly indebted to Daniel Perlstein and William Tobin of Stanford University for their research reported in “The History of the Junior High School: A Study of Conflicting Aims and Institutional Patterns," commissioned in 1988 by the Task Force on Education of Young Adolescents, in the process of producing Turning Points.



[1] Nancie Atwell, In the Middle: Writing, Reading, and Learning with Adolescents (New York: Boynton/Cook, 1987), p. 25.

[2] John H. Best, ed., Benjamin Franklin on Education (New York:  Teachers College Press, 1962).

[3] John Dewey, “The School and Society, " in John Dewy: The Middle Works, ed. Jo Ann Boydston (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1980), pp. 19-20.

[4] Fred M. Hechinger and Grace Hechinger, Growing Up in America (New York: McGrawHill, 1975), p. 119 and annotated bibliography p. 427.

[5] Ibid., p. 107; and National Education Association Committee of Ten on Secondary School Studies, Report of the Committee of Ten (Washington,D.C.: U.S. Bureau of Education, Government Printing Office, 1893),p. 45.

[6] Edward L. Thorndike, “Elimination of Pupils from School," in U.S. Bureau of Educational Annual Report, 1908 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1909), p.9.

[7] Massachusetts Commission on Industrial and Technical Education, “Report of the SubCommittee on the Relation of Children to the Industries” (Quincy, Mass.: Author, 1909, act of 1906), pp. 47-54, 57-69.

[8] H. N. McClellan, “The Origins of the Junior High School” CaliforniaJournal of Secondary Education, February 1935, pp. 168-69.

[9] U.S. Bureau of Education, “Special Reports: 'Principles Involved'," Bulletin No.38. Report of the Committee of the National Council of Education and Secondary of Time in Education (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1913), p. 25.

[10] National Education Association, "Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education,” Report of the Commission on the Reorganization of Secondary Education (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Bureau of Education, Government Printing Office, 1918), p. 18.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Quoted in Hechinger and Hechinger, Growing Up in America, p. 99.

[13] Ibid., p. 100.

[14] Elwood P. Cubberley, Changing Conceptions of Education (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1909), pp. 50-51.

[15] Leonard Koos, The Junior High School (Boston: Ginn Co., 1927), p. 62.

[16] Hechinger and Hechinger, Growing Up in America, pp. 66, 67.

[17] Samuel Popper, The American Middle School (Boston: Houghton MifIlin, 1962), p. 212.

[18] Daniel Perlstein and William Tobin, “The History of the Junior High School: A Study of Conflicting Aims and Institutional Patterns” (A paper commissioned by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, 1988).

[19] James Bryant Conant, The AmericanHigh SchoolToday (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1959).

[20] Ibid., p. 9.

[21] James Bryant Conant, Education in the Junior High Schools Years (Princeton, NJ.: Education Testing Service, 1960), pp. 16ff.

[22] The New York Times, February 21, March 2, March 4, 1960.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Conant, The AmericanHigh SchoolToday, pp. 12-13.

[25] Atwell, “In the Middle,” p. 36.

[26] Ibid., p. 25.

[27] Lilly Endowment, Inc., Middle Grades Improvement Program: A Prospectus for IndianaMajor Urban School Corporations (Indianapolis: Lilly Endowment, 1986), p. 48.

[28] Ibid.

[29] The Edna McConnell Clark-Foundation, "Program for Disadvantaged Youth: Program Statement,” working paper (The Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, New York,June 1988).

[30]   Ibid.

[31] Atwell, “In the Middle,” p. 36.

[32] Task Force on Education of Young Adolescents, Turning Points: Preparing American Youth for the 21st Century (Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development, 1989).

[33] Ibid., p. 9.

[34] The Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, Program for Disadvantaged Youth, p. 11.

[35] Task Force on Education of Young Adolescents, Turning Points, p. 9.

[36] Fred M. Hechinger, Fateful Choices: Healthy Youth for the 21st Century (New York: Hill and Wang, 1992).

[37] Adapted from David A. Hamburg, “The Urban Poverty Crisis: An Action Agenda for Children and Youth,” adapted from Today's Children: Creating a Future for a Generation in Crisis (New York: Times Books/Random House, 1992).

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 94 Number 3, 1993, p. 522-539
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 174, Date Accessed: 5/20/2022 10:36:13 PM

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