Document Type

Research Report

Original Publication Date


Date of Submission

June 2016


Young adolescence is a time of important transition. It is a time when youth strive to define themselves as individuals while at the same time establishing their relationship within social groups. It is a developmental period characterized by curiosity and exploration. From a certain perspective, these qualities of young adolescents seem to be a good match for school settings. Schools might offer the social spaces for establishing individual and group identity and the academic space that harnesses curiosity and allows youth to find direction as they move toward high school, college and career.

And yet, middle grades education – that is education for students between the ages of 10 and 15 – has consistently emerged within the K-12 educational reform debates as a problem that needs to be solved. Since the early 20th century, the idea has persisted that the structure and the philosophy of schools for young adolescents are grossly mismatched with the needs of youth. Those making the case for the failure of middle grades schools point to declining outcomes in academic achievement and loss of student engagement.

This perceived problem has spurred an on-going effort to reform both the philosophy and the design of middle grades education. Junior high schools were originally proposed in the early 20th century to solve problems related to retention of upper grade students in the traditional K-8 schools. The middle school movement of the 1960s and 1970s was a response to the problem of junior high schools that many considered inattentive to the developmental needs of young adolescents. In the late 1990s, a push to return to the K-8 grade configuration emerged as a solution to the problem of the middle school model, which came under attack for their over-emphasis on the socialemotional dimensions of education and lack of attention to academic rigor. In certain ways, this series of solutions offered by the reform community have come full circle, yet the problems and possibilities of middle grades education persists.

This paper is designed to serve as a resource for practitioners, administrators, policy makers, and community members from the Richmond-area who are interested in developing a better understanding of the history and core themes of the middle level learning space and grounding their work and decision-making in the national research and literature on best practice for middle level learning.

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