Missing Links from Middle School to High School

Kate Gallagher
Kate Gallagher
High School Principal; MA in Urban Education, ESL Program Specialist

In a brief article about using transition planning as an intervention to support the student shift from middle school to high school, authors Peterson, Erickson, and Lembeck cite research that states “failure and dropout rates in ninth grade exceed those in any other grade.” Research shows that academic decline occurs drastically when students transition from middle school to high school. The question is, why? The same article classifies antecedents into three categories: social and developmental adjustment, structural and organizational change, and increased academic rigor and failure.

Missing Link One: Social and Developmental Change

When students finish eighth grade, they are young teenagers. Some are just starting to hit puberty, become interested in romantic relationships and dating, and are starting to desire more independence from parents at home. If they weren’t interested in social media before, most are now, and this can exacerbate low self-esteem and anxiety issues. By the beginning of ninth grade, there is a wider gap than ever before between genders, and it deeply affects student relationships with each other. In addition, students jockey for attention from each other and long to be part of a group with a sense of belonging. Their focus on social life usually eclipses attention to academics, resulting in decreased achievement.

Missing Link Two: Structural and Organizational Change

In middle school, students generally transition as a section or group between multiple classrooms per day by subject and teacher. When entering high school, students no longer always move with the same group of students from class to class. There are more students in the school building, and their classes now count for credits needed to graduate. This change, coupled with an increased expectation of student responsibility and initiative, can leave students struggling to manage their time, assignments, and commitments. Typical high school teachers view their job as delivering subject-specific content to students, whereas middle school teachers typically view their job as teaching students first, content second. This shift can de-personalize the experience for students, leading to a decrease in student motivation and eventual failure.

Missing Link Three: Increased Academic Rigor and Failure

Depending upon how well students were prepared academically in middle school, the increase in academic rigor may be a tough challenge for students entering high school. Students who struggled with reading or math in middle school will experience even more issues in ninth grade. The structure of academics in high school assumes proficient academic subject acquisition in middle school. With lower support and higher expectations, more students begin to drop out or fail. Where teachers used to personalize instruction and assignments based on individual knowledge of each student in middle school, relationships are much more impersonal in high school. This level of anonymity makes it difficult for students who need help or interventions to access what they need to be successful.

Intervention Support to Address Missing Links

After identifying the missing links, it is important for schools to put interventions in place to support and promote student success. One way to do this is to develop a transition plan. Implementing transition plans can decrease drop-out rates, increase standardized assessment achievement, and improve student participation in school activities. Stakeholders who should be included in this process include administrators, teachers, parents, students, and counselors. Several examples of action items that transition plans include are rigorous academic courses in middle school, early academic interventions, student shadowing, mentorship programs, and providing opportunities for parent involvement.

As a district, administration should communicate the importance of literacy, mathematics, science, and social studies. They should also ensure that staff continues to update curriculum to reflect state standards and best practices. Providing staff development on the importance of developing student relationships, cultural relevance, and utilization of data to drive instruction are also key.

Targeting intervention programs, such as MTSS (multi-tiered system of support) help identify locally-specific barriers to successful transitions from middle school to high school. For example, the MTSS team at my school has identified class cuts as a barrier to success in ninth grade. As a response, we are providing staff with additional training on student engagement and began to implement consequences for students who are not on time to class. Lack of motivation due to insufficient student engagement leads to academic failure.

Transition planning can help resolve missing links from middle school to high school!

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