Middle School and Junior High Education

Many schools that include grades 7 through 8 are referred to as middle schools or, more commonly, junior highs. Regardless of the name, they share a focus on adolescent development.

When Paul Cuffee students break school rules–clogging a toilet, for instance–they’re asked which one they violated and how to fix it. This frank discussion of values and emotions, experts say, has paid off.


In some parts of the country, middle schools include only grades 7 and 8. In others, they’re combined with elementary school. Still, a good middle school (or “junior high”) focuses on both academics and values.

The academics must be rigorous, but they also must respect students’ cognitive capacities and social-emotional needs. Two programs, Advancement Via Individual Determination and Schoolwide Enrichment Model, help students—particularly those who will be the first in their families to attend college—build skills through their elective courses.

But even without these kinds of supplemental programs, some researchers have found that a lack of rigor in the middle grades can stifle student achievement. And when students fail in the middle grades, their chances of graduating from high school and going to college plummet. (See Getting to Graduation). As a result, many high-performing middle schools have adopted strategies that increase rigor and support social-emotional development. One example is Paul Cuffee, a high-achieving school in Boston that requires students to follow certain principles. When a student violates one of them—say, by clogging the toilet—the principal talks to them about it, rather than sending them to detention.

Social/Emotional Learning

A growing consensus in education is that schools should attend to students’ social-emotional development. This is reflected in recent policy decisions at the state and federal levels (e.g., the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015).

Early adolescence is a critical time for fostering social-emotional learning (SEL) competencies, but the number of evidence-based SEL programs available to middle school students remains limited. Additionally, the majority of these programs have a limited research base and often report null effects.

To address these challenges, we studied ten middle schools with strong student-reported SEL results and high achievement gains among African American and Latinx students in Grades 6-8. The schools are characterized by a focus on fostering healthy coping and problem-solving skills that can help students navigate the challenges of middle school, the transition to high school, and beyond. A key question is whether these approaches can mitigate the well-documented achievement tumble that occurs when young adolescents make the transition from elementary to middle school.

Character Development

While it is easy to focus on reducing problems like bullying, fighting, and harassment in schools, we should also look at character development. Students learn from the behavior of their teachers, and if they see educators modeling virtuous behaviors, it is easier for them to copy those traits.

Character development is a complex process that involves moral cognition, other-regarding social-emotional skills (e.g., perspective-taking), and self-regarding social-emotional strengths (e.g., self-regulation). Research shows that the character strengths of hope, bravery, teamwork, and self-regulation are important for students to flourish in their communities.

In a study of Brazilian classrooms, teacher-reported student-student relationships and SEL were related to both classroom baseline character strengths and change over time. This multi-level model accounted for gender, grade level, and teachers’ utilization of specific socio-emotional techniques. The findings indicated that both teacher-student relationships and student-student relationships were associated with the initial character strength levels, with higher quality relationships predicting a stronger increase in character strengths over time.


A strong community is an important part of a student’s life. One way to build this community is through community involvement projects. One school’s students help in an AppleCorps program that offers work experiences to local youth, a way for the kids to hang out together, and opportunities to bridge age and cultural differences.

Middle schools usually have separate grades 7 through 8. In some regions, these schools are called “junior high schools.” In other regions, these grades may be combined with grade 6 in a single school. Core Knowledge Middle School Science provides rich literacy readings and activities that allow teachers to implement the three-dimensional approach to science learning recommended by the National Research Council and in the Next Generation Science Standards. It is an enhanced republication of the OpenSciEd Project.

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