Components of an Exemplary Middle School

What are the components of an exemplary middle school?



The purpose and functions of exemplary middle schools center on the intellectual, social, emotional, moral, and physical developmental needs of young adolescents (Clark & Clark, 1993; National Middle School Association, 1995). Within a few years, young adolescents undergo rapid physical growth, changes in moral reasoning, the onset of abstract thinking, and introduction to a range of social pressures, including sex, drugs, and violence. Simultaneously, the lifelong developmental tasks of forming a personal identity or self-concept, acquiring social skills, gaining autonomy, and developing character and a set of values are begun (Irvin, 1995). Exemplary middle level programs foster appropriate programs, policies, and practices that foster the development of these tasks in positive ways.

Characteristics of successful middle schools

Exemplary middle level schools address the distinctiveness of early adolescence with various instructional and organizational features. Five key components are generally recognized by educators, associations, foundations, state boards of education, and researchers. Both empirical data and conventional wisdom support these components.

  1. Interdisciplinary teaming refers to the organizational structure of a core of teachers assigned to the same group of students. A variety of configurations have been successful ranging from 2 – 5 team members in two, three or four subject areas. Teaming provides the structure to support two essential aspects of middle level education: (1) a positive psychosocial environment that allows flexibility and variety (Keefe et al., 1983), and heterogeneous grouping of students (Mac Iver & Epstein, 1993) and (2) a structure to plan and deliver a curriculum that balances academic and humane factors (NMSA, 1995). Because teachers share the same students and have a common planning period, they are able to respond more quickly to the needs of individual students though collaboration, meeting jointly with parents, and designing thematic units which foster the transfer of ideas among disciplines and increase relevance.
  2. Advisory programs consist of a small group of students (usually 20 or fewer) assigned to a teacher, administrator, or other staff member for a regularly scheduled meeting to discuss topics of concern to students. The purpose of this program is the development of close, trusting relationships between students and adults and to increase engagement with learning and feelings of positive self-esteem and belonging. Social and academic support activities include “discussing problems with individual students, giving career information and guidance, developing student self-confidence and leadership, and discussing academic issues, personal or family problems, social relationships, peer groups, health issues, moral or ethical issues and multicultural issues/intergroup relations” (Mac Iver, 1990, p. 459). Teacher advisories also help create more positive school climates, develop students’ self-concepts, and prevent dropouts (George & Shewey, 1994; Mac Iver, 1990).
  3. Varied instruction includes (1) integrating learning experiences, addressing students’ own questions and focusing upon real life issues relevant to the student; (2) actively engaging students in problem-solving and accommodating individual differences; (3) emphasizing collaboration, cooperation, and community; (4) seeking to develop good people, caring for others, democratic values, and moral sensitivity (NMSA, 1995). Some of the more common programs include multi-age grouping over longer periods of time, cross-age tutoring, cooperative learning, hands-on and student-centered activities; use of block time and flexible scheduling; and positive evaluations. Learning tasks are developmentally appropriate and adapted to individual differences.
  4. Exploratory programs capitalize on the innate curiosity of young adolescents, exposing them to a range of academic, vocational, and recreational subjects for career options, community service, enrichment, and enjoyment. Exploratory topics include foreign languages, intramural sports, health, clubs, student government, home economics, technological arts, independent study projects, music, art, speech, drama, careers, consumer education, creative writing, and several other special areas.
  5. Transition programs focus on creating a smooth change of schools for the young adolescent. Eighty-eight percent of public school students begin the middle grades in a new school, a transition which may overwhelm the coping skills of some students and “have pathogenic effects on their psychological adjustment, self-esteem, and motivation to learn” (Mac Iver, 1990). A common approach is for elementary school students to visit the middle level school they will be attending, while administrators of the elementary and middle level schools meet to discuss programs and the middle school counselors to discuss ways to help students make a smooth transition from elementary to middle school and from middle school to high school. Visits to the middle school by fifth graders were used in 90% of the 6-8 schools (McEwin, Dickinson, & Jenkins, 1995).

National Middle School Association (1995) believes that developmentally responsive middle level schools are characterized by:

  • a shared vision
  • educators committed to young adolescents
  • a positive school climate
  • an adult advocate for every student
  • family and community partnerships
  • high expectations for all

Therefore, they provide:

  • a curriculum that is challenging, integrative, and exploratory
  • varied teaching/learning approaches
  • assessment and evaluation that promote learning
  • flexible organizational structures
  • programs and policies that foster health, safety, and wellness
  • comprehensive guidance and support services
related articles

National Middle School Association (1995) believes that developmentally responsive middle level schools are characterized by:

  1. Chapter 1, “What Is a True Middle School?” of Building An Effective Middle School by
    Romano, L. G., & Georgiady, N. P (1994). Madison, WI: WCB Brown & Benchmark.
  2. Chapter 17, “Summary of Practices and Trends,” of Education in the middle grades: Overview of national practices and trends, by Epstein, J. L., & Mac Iver, D. J. (1990).
    Columbus, OH: National Middle School Association.
  3. Clark, S. N., and Clark, D. C. (1987). Middle level programs: More than academics.
    Middle School Journal, 19(1). Columbus, OH: National Middle School Association.
  • Clark, S. N. & Clark, D. C. (1993). Middle level school reform: The rhetoric and the reality. The Elementary School Journal, 93(5), 447-460.
  • George, P., & Shewey, K. (1994). New evidence for the middle school. Columbus, OH: National Middle School Association.
  • Irvin, J. L. (1995). Cognitive growth during early adolescence: The regulator of developmental tasks. Middle School Journal, 27(1), 54-55.
  • Keefe, J. H., Clark, D. C., Nickerson, N. C., & Valentine, J. W. (1983). The middle level principalship: The effective middle level principal. Reston, VA: National Association of Secondary School Principals.
  • Mac Iver, D. J. (1900). Meeting the needs of young adolescents: Advisory groups, interdisciplinary teaching teams, and school transition programs. Phi Delta Kappa, 71, 458-464.
  • Mac Iver, D. J. & Epstein, J. L. (1993). Middle grades research: Not yet mature, but no longer a child. The Elementary School Journal, 93(5), 519-533.
  • National Middle School Association. (1995). This we believe: Developmentally responsive middle level schools. Columbus, OH: Author.

Copyright 1999 National Middle School Association. Used on NCMSA web site with permission of NMSA.