For almost three decades the trend across the United States has been to move sixth-graders from elementary to middle schools, which would be a better fit for them academically and socially. Or so the experts thought. Results from the national No Child Left Behind tests indicate that while elementary school students typically progress in math and reading, those gains disappear in middle school. And a study by Duke University and the University of California, Berkeley, found that sixth-graders in elementary school performed better on end-of-year exams than their middle-school counterparts.
Findings like these have prompted a growing chorus of critics to blame the slump on the sixth-to-eighth-grade schools themselves. Middle school is sometimes referred to as an educational Bermuda Triangle, in part because only about one-quarter of teachers there are certified to teach middle grades. Many instructors are trained as elementary-school generalists or high-school subject specialists, and according to Education Trust, an advocacy group based in Washington, D.C., an alarmingly high number hadn't even minored in their subjects. The result, critics say, is too much emphasis on rote memorization rather than on critical, creative thinking.
But even with the best teachers, many adolescents can't handle the juggling act of so many classes, assignments, and projects. That's why, in addition to math tutoring, JoAnna Fernandez took a learning skills course, where she picked up practical tips like making up songs to help remember facts and reading textbook chapters in advance so she'd be familiar with the material when the teacher lectured on it. "It helped me get my confidence back," she says. Principal Alyce Barr tells mothers and fathers to assume their middle schoolers "aren't strong on organization and will need structure and support from their parents."