Fixing the middle schools

Watching the student body of one middle school rush out at the end of the day, Dr. Joan Lipsitz was struck by the youths’ sullen attitude, by the sense that students couldn’t wait to get out. But at another school, Lipsitz said, students lingered with teachers, reticent to leave.

“It’s nurture,” Lipsitz told members of the Year of the Middle School Task Force, a group that formed to consider the state of middle schools in Washoe County. “Nothing advertises a school better than a happy child going home.”

Lipsitz, of the National Forum to Accelerate Middle Grades Reform, referred back to what she called the Golden Rule of Teaching: “Do unto other people’s children what you would have done to your own.”

Nurture, of course, isn’t the only key to success in the educational environment. A high-performance school, like those in several case studies Lipsitz refers to, attempts to balance academic achievement with a willingness to respond to developmental differences and a sense of educational equity—where teachers and administrators hold high expectations for each child.

It’s a tall order. And no school is perfect in every area, Lipsitz said. But measureable, observable, obtainable goals are a good place to start.

While nurture, for example, isn’t easily measured on a graph, it can be observed merely by taking a look at a school during three important times of the day—the arrival and departure of students and the lunch period.

“At high-performance schools, where I’d want my grandkids to go, children are called by name,” Lipsitz said. “A teacher might notice one student has a new dress. The parents are surprised when the principal addresses them by name.”

At lunchtime, cafeterias can become “small prisons,” Lipsitz said. “With us saying, ‘Nobody’s getting up until everybody’s quiet.’ “

At a high-performance school, a teacher might walk around the lunchroom casually with a cup of coffee in hand, stopping to interact with students. Students might have a chance to say, “Hey, I really didn’t get that homework assignment,” giving teachers an added chance at instruction.

At one school she’s visited, Lipsitz talked with a principal who arm wrestles with students in the cafeteria once a week.

“It’s become a major event at lunch,” Lipsitz said. The point is that students know they are valued, that they feel part of a learning community. “We’re not playing ‘Gotcha’ here.”

But how does this good idea actually play out in the real classroom? One task force member noted that some middle school teachers in the Washoe County School District deal with more than 200 students.

That’s simple. It doesn’t work with 200 students, Lipsitz said.

“If you give me 200 students, I’ll try to keep them physically safe,” she said. “And I’ll try my best to keep them emotionally safe. As much as I can, I’ll try and bring them up to [grade] level. But don’t bother me about much else. I’m just keeping my head above water, and I’m angry.”

It’s up to school districts and school administrators to provide support so that the middle school environment is a rich learning and working environment. There’s no cookie cutter for good schools, Lipsitz told the task force and members of the Washoe County School District Board of Trustees.

“I think there is a cookie cutter formula for bad schools,” Lipsitz said. “They are amazingly alike, unbelievably boring and uninspiring … and so much is abdicated to the kids.”

To read about some middle schools that are considered high-performance schools, check out

More information about middle school reform can be found at