Can middle school be better?


Erik Ketcherside

Jennifer Holm spoke for many Americans when she titled her 2011 fiction book for young readers, “Middle School is Worse than Meatloaf.”

Foundation Professor Geoffrey Borman

But Geoffrey Borman, Foundation Professor of Quantitative Methods and Education Policy at Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College at Arizona State University, thinks it doesn’t need to be that way. At about the same time Holm released her book, Borman and his fellow researchers were crafting a study they would carry out in 11 middle schools in Madison, Wisconsin. (Borman was on the faculty of the University of Wisconsin–Madison at the time.)

Reappraising Adversity Improves Students' Academic Achievement, Behavior, and Well-Being,” focused on the jarring transition from elementary to middle school that can result in a perceived threat to fitting in called “belonging uncertainty.” That perception initiates a feedback loop in which “... negative or ambiguous information confirms their interpretation that they do not belong academically and socially, which leads to diminished academic motivation and effort.”

“In the U.S., we require about 90% of our students to make the physical transition from the familiar neighborhood elementary school to a larger, distant and more complex place called middle school or junior high school,” Borman says. “When students make this transition, their grades and social-emotional well-being tend to suffer. We wanted to help students find greater success in middle school and help them understand that they are not alone during this stressful and difficult time — their schoolmates are going through the same transition process and teachers and other adults in the school can be trusted to help.”

A follow-up study, carried out in all seven middle schools of the Paradise Valley School District in Phoenix, Arizona, addressed only students’ academic grades rather than including attendance and social-psychological outcomes. “Replicating a Scalable Intervention That Helps Students Reappraise Academic and Social Adversity During the Transition to Middle School” was published in August in the Journal of Research on Educational Effectiveness.

For both studies, Borman and his graduate students designed a simple intervention comprising two writing exercises administered to transitioning middle school students; the first at the beginning of the school year, the other a month later. Each asked participants to respond to statements from other students about the challenges of middle school and strategies for dealing with them through school-provided resources and peer support.

Positive results for 30 minutes and $1.35 

The researchers found that students who received the intervention missed fewer days of school, were sent to the principal’s office less often and got better grades. They developed better relationships with teachers and classmates, experienced less test anxiety and were more motivated to do well in their classes — positive results achieved solely through the two, 15-minute writing exercises. The cost of administering the writing task was approximately $1.35 per student, while other learning transition programs used by the schools had an average per-student cost of nearly $600.

“Our intervention teaches students two important lessons,” Borman told Time magazine in July 2019. “First, the exercises convey that all students experience some difficulty, both socially and academically, at the beginning of middle school. After a little while, though, things get better. When students read our exercises, they learn that there is not something wrong with them. Instead, they learn that the transition is a shared experience that is initially difficult for just about everyone. Like jumping into a cool swimming pool on a hot day, the experience is initially shocking and uncomfortable, but after a little while we get used to it and the cool water actually feels pretty good.

"Students typically attribute [difficulties] to personality or intelligence rather than the transition," Borman told Education Week’s “Inside School Research” blog last year. "They need to realize it is a common, short-lived stress due to external, temporary causes rather than internal shortcomings."

Improving outcomes for middle school students of color 

In addition to the original Wisconsin-based study, the researchers also fielded a self-affirmation intervention in the same Madison schools. Using a similar writing activity, Borman and colleagues administered a social-psychological intervention designed to help middle school students of color navigate and overcome societal and school-based biases and stereotypes against their group. “The Impacts of a Brief Middle-School Self-Affirmation Intervention Help Propel African American and Latino Students Through High School” will appear soon in the Journal of Educational Psychology.