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Issues and Challenges in Middle School Education

The following list is compiled from a variety of sources and represents a collection of salient issues and challenges that educators specifically associate with middle school students.   (Some of these issues are shared by the entire K-12 spectrum).  

The DoRight Leadership Corps program is designed with the positive remedies cited for each of these areas and has been shown to effect positive changes in students respectively. (see research)

•  Declining Student Engagement In Schools

Student engagement is directly tied to academic achievement, and lagging student engagement and inspiration for study is a growing point of concern for middle school educators. Problem-based, interdisciplinary, project-based, community service and student-centered curricular designs are shown to engage and inspire students by creating a sense of relevance, meaning, and purpose for the study of academic content in all subject areas.

•  Teaching Character, Values and Ethics

Character education initiatives are often implemented in most middle schools as separate programs that do not tie into classroom instruction.   Middle school years are an especially ripe time for developing character as students are rapidly forming their identities.   Positive character traits are developed, retained and owned by students more deeply when acquired through their own meaningful experiences.

•  The Need to Teach 21 st Century Skills

It can be very difficult for schools to keep pace with our rapidly changing global world.   Given the complexity of global problems and their interdependence (sustainability, globalization, peace and security, etc.) a new emphasis in learning for young people to thrive in this environment is identified as "21 st Century skills."   These skills include entrepreneurial literacy, complex problem solving, critical thinking, systems thinking, civic engagement, and much more.   The Partnership for 21 st Century Skills (2006) is an organization that brings together leaders from business, industry, education and government to define and promote 21 st Century skills in schools.   The Partnership for 21 st Century Skills has conducted extensive research in this area.   Refer to www.21stcenturyskills.com for more information.

•  Parent, Community, and Business Involvement

A common lament among teachers and educational reformers in their work is the degree to which their efforts are limited by external factors in society--students' family support, media messages, and the behaviors and values modeled by business and politicians.   School budgets in many areas have difficulty passing, as sectors of society grow increasingly distant from the process of educating youth.   Consequently, educational improvement will be greatly facilitated with an increased involvement of parents, communities and businesses as stakeholders and active participants in the process.

•  Heightened Social and Emotional Change

Middle school years are characterized by the most rapid growth, physically, cognitively and spiritually, of any period in life.   The onset of puberty, a growing capacity for complex and abstract reasoning and the developmental need to establish an autonomous identity and individuate from the adult world, often manifest in rebellious expressions and behavior in these students.   When properly cultivated and directed (as in the DoRight program), the synthesis of these factors can energize and positively transform students into confident, motivated change agents for society.

•  Youth Apathy and Disengagement With the Political Process

In the presidential election years between 1972 and 2000, voter turnout rates for youth ages 18-24 declined by 16 percentage points   (Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement).   There has since been an upturn in youth voter turnout in recent years, however concern for overall engagement with the political process is widespread among educators.    If students have positive experiences with the political process (lobbying politicians, letter writing, phone calls, etc.) at an early age it establishes the values, habits and knowledge base that will develop them as civically engaged citizens.

Research Study References:


•  Project Zero, Harvard University

•  The Coalition of Essential Schools, Brown University

•  Neag School of Education, University of Connecticut

•  The Stanford University School of Education (SUSE)

•  Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD)

•  The Partnership for 21 st Century Skills

•  Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE)

References (full citations upon request):

1.   Juvonen, Jaana; Le, Vi-Nhuan; Kaganoff, Tessa; Augustine, Catherine; Constant, Louay; Focus On The Wonder Years--Challenges Facing Middle School Education

•  Bruner, Jerome; The Process of Education

•  Dweck, Carol; Self Theories

  • Goleman, Daniel;   Emotional Intelligence