School Change: Middle school

Maine schools lose the attention of many of their students during the middle school years, and this loss is no longer acceptable. The work environment in Maine is changing, and with that change students need to stay in school longer. Fishing is an increasingly uncertain way of making a living. Factory jobs are few and far between. Employment that does not require a college education generally pays poorly, has no benefits, and provides little guarantee of stability. As we all know, life is very expensive these days.  We must prepare our young people for the challenge of creating satisfying lives for themselves and those they love. We cannot prepare  them with the middle schools most communities in Maine currently have.

Students start school brimful of enthusiasm, talent,  and a desire to learn, but many don’t keep their motivation in middle school.  In middle school their enthusiasm wanes and school becomes a chore. Middle school is the time when many students decide that school is not for them. They begin to count the years until graduation, when they no longer have to attend school. Some, in their boredom and alienation, turn to substances at this age.

The problem with students turning off to school in middle school is that in the years to come most students in Maine will need to go to college, or some sort of specialized training program. Those whose education ends with high school, or with just a bit of college, risk finding themselves holding the short end of the stick when applying for competitive jobs. Their chances of finding work they love and a decent salary will unfortunately be slim.


Our students are fine young men and woman who deserve an education that will enable them to live satisfying lives. We need to change our middle schools so that they become places students want to be. We need to change our curriculum at the middle school level to include more of what students like to do. Students like action. They like projects. They like finding out new things. They like honing practical skills and trying out different art forms. They like learning about the adult world. They like recess and technology. We cannot continue to offer the same middle schools that worked for students decades ago. The students themselves, as well as their futures, have changed.

Those of us who work with students have ideas about what they like, but we have no forum for sharing what we know with each other.  In order to create effective change in our middle schools we must have open, sustained dialogue between administrators,  students,  parents and teachers so we can all analyze what we know about how to make schools work for students and then figure out how to do it. We need to move beyond the quick conversation about how to make things better and really engage with the problem.

Without involving the stakeholders in such dialogue we will go along as we have for decades, tweaking the system here and there, making tiny advances, suffering setbacks, bemoaning the status quo, blaming each other for problems we all help to create.

I think our communities want their schools to prepare the young to meet the future. They want to be invited into the dialogue about school change. The best idea is for the local school boards and administrators to issue the invitation.

What are your thoughts on this topic? I’d love to hear them!

Kathreen Harrison

About Kathreen Harrison

Kathreen Harrison is a public school teacher in Maine. She has a master’s degree from Bank Street College of Education and a bachelor’s degree from Harvard College. She has worked in a variety of schools in New York and Maine in a number of capacities – French teacher, gifted and talented teacher, elementary school teacher, and curriculum coordinator for island schools. She has lived in Maine for 20 years and has a particular interest in school reform.