Is “Mayhem” Misleading?


In his Summer EL article “Misleading in the Middle: A Rebuttal to Cheri Pierson Yecke,” Rick Wormeli calls on his credibility (as long-time teacher and teacher trainer) to back up his assertion that Yecke’s April EL article, “Mayhem in the Middle: Why We Should Shift to K–8,” is out-of-touch.

Yecke’s got it wrong, Wormeli contends. Middle schools aren’t the gooey caramel filler between the substantial rigor and accountability of the elementary and high school grades. On the contrary, the middle school concept that drives middle school education

… advocates teaching a rich core of knowledge in multiple disciplines, as well as the habits of mind that enable students to make connections among these disciplines and to apply what they learn deftly to life beyond school.

Yecke, on the other hand, believes the middle school concept is the very culprit undermining an academic focus in the middle grades.

… the middle school concept—the notion that middle schools should be havens of socialization and not academies of knowledge—has wrought havoc on the intellectual development of many middle school students.

She backs her beliefs with corroborating research, and the implied intentions of several school districts abandoning stand-alone middle schools for the K–8 configuration.

Wormeli counters that the research cited is misinterpreted and the K–8 transition strategies Yecke sets forth are unrealistic. He accuses Yecke of confusing concepts with configurations, noting that a properly implemented middle school concept can thrive in K–8, or more traditional sequences.

The gloves are offwhose side are you on? Do middle schools need to be saved from the middle school concept? Or are middle school concept-driven venues fulfilling the mission to create intelligent, compassionate, and contributing citizens? Take sides here.


  1. Like Wormelli, I was astonished when I read Yecke’s article. For the first five years of my career, I taught in a junior high setting before my school district began the transition to middle school. It has clearly been the best change we have made. I have seen students progress from sitting in straight rows and completing worksheets, workbooks, and tests daily while filling their free time with numerous discipline problems and little motivation to gathering in tables, communities of learning excelling in higher level thinking, differentiated actitvies ensuring success for all students and an incredible drop in discipline problems. All of this has occurred in the past ten years within a community that has seen a serious drop in socio-economic levels along with less and less parental involvement.
    Our students are succeeding and exceeding expectations—it would not be happening if we did not exist within the middle school concept. As for merging with the lower grades, I feel this would be a mistake with devastating results. For the same reason, we felt it best to move the older, more mature ninth graders to the high school—the older middle schools students should not be placed with the younger elementary grades. True—middle school is a time for growth and finding and identity—many middle schoolers would not be able to do this in a K-8 configuration.
    As for the discipline issue, as stated, our inicidents have dropped dramatically. We’ve moved from a time of violent fights which often required police intervention to a time when principals can actually be involved with students in positive interations such as classroom visits and even field trips, because they aren’t spending all of their time in disciplinary hearings.
    I think Yecke needs to visit a few more middle schools before presenting any more information. It is very easy to substantiate a claim when one only presents
    findings which support that claim while ignoring the other side of the coin.

  2. I am a middle level teacher in Toronto Canada. Although my school board does not adhere to the middle school model, I wholely agree with Mr. Wormeli. Middle level students must be treated and taught differently. I have always wished my board would adopt a middle school model, but it must be implimented with an understanding of what a middle level student is like. They are young adults who – like the rest of us – are in search of some semblence of control in their lives. Sometimes the only control they have is the promptness of their actions. No matter which model they are taught in they must be treated with respect and a good pedagogical understanding of how young adolescents learn based on current brain and learniing research. No matter where they are taught this is essential. Laying the blame on how a school is organized and not on how a student is taught is short-sited at best and distructive if not challenged. Thank you Mr. Wormeli

  3. Yecke is correct. In another sense, so is Wormeli. They differ in that Yecke speaks of middle schools, while Wormeli talks about the middle school concept. These are not the same thing. The middle school concept is wonderful when properly implemented, as Wormeli indicates. However the ugly truth of the matter is that it rarely is properly implemented, which is why we actually get the results that Yecke quotes. In one school district in which I worked there were about four junior high schools with exemplary or very good programs out of about 70 schools. That’s just not a very good hit rate for a great concept.
    It’s time to stop talking across one another in education. A great idea is just so much air if it’s not implemented. Let’s talk about more effective ways to implement great ideas, or let’s talk about what really works in the large scale. Let’s not lambast one another with an ideal versus reality.

  4. Sandra — Your point is important, but I can’t agree with all of it. The topic of the article was not about how to bring systemic change, which I agree with you is the more important issue in many schools. My goal was to not let the misinformation continue. I don’t want to lambast anyone, but Yecke does not discern between the two ideas: the middle school and the middle school concept; she lumps them together. This is very dangerous as it distorts policy-makers’ views and their subsequent decisions. To add misinformation on top of that makes it even more of a concern, given the regression that could happen if readers gave it credence. We need to place her conclusions under the spotlight of research and frontline practice. Undoubtedly, Yecke has done some great things as an education leader — as evidenced by her high level positions here in Virginia, in Minnesota, and now in Florida, among other positions. She is very confused when it comes to middle schools, however, and in need of correction. I hope she’s open to that. In addition, we are talking about what works on a large scale when we talk about the middle school concept. It’s implemented on a large scale around the country and the world. Finally, the last line of your posting suggests that one is ideal and the other is reality, as if they are mutually exclusive. In fact, the ideal is reality in many middle schools. For my own part, I’d like to approximate the goals of successful education reforms than settle for something proven to be so ineffective, and ultimately, even damaging. — Rick Wormeli

  5. [Yecke] says that: “the purpose of [middle] schools is to create students who are in touch with their political [and] social… selves” and “that middle schools [are] havens of socialization and not academies of knowledge.” The first example is right, but the second excerpt has only the first part right. What I have issue with is her definition of socialization. I teach seventh grade and frequently have my students deep in discussion of political systems and social organizations in our study of world geography. These students are eager to know why and how grownups run the world and are often puzzled by inequities and illogical behavior. The class learns about the background of many social and political movements, argues about outcomes and actions of local and national representatives and frequently decides that their ideas are just as valid as their elders. They also realize that they have a long way to go before they reach full understanding. In either case, they are interested in what is happening in the world and why. I have no doubt that their “socialization” and “politicization” will someday benefit our world by creating thoughtful citizens, no matter where they land.
    My second issue is with Ms. [Yecke]’s Strategy #8. She wants middle schools to be “more academic” then cites statistics on Philadelphia middle school teachers who failed subject area tests at a 50% rate. She ascribes it to teachers who have lost their rigour in teaching. I would like to see the breakdown of original certification of these teachers. After all, if they were, indeed, subject area teachers, they would not have been taking the test! Only elementary certified teachers have to take the test to become middle school certified in the areas they are teaching. Traditionally, Philadelphia middle schools often hired elementary teachers, because up to 8th grade, they were allowed to teach all major subjects, so that the school had greater flexibility in rostering. I spent five years in a Philadelphia middle school and I taught Language Arts and Math. I was only prepared in Math (and science) but was required to teach what I was told.
    Ms. [Yecke] also seems to contradicts herself on the issue of middle schoolers and extracurriculars. In the study on Milwaukee schools, she says that there is more participation in elementary schools’ extracurricular programs. Then later, in Strategy #10, she recommends that K-8 schools increase their extracurricular programs to serve these older students. In what programs do elementary school students participate?
    [Yecke] says that reconfiguring schools into K-8 is not a “silver bullet” solution. Neither is simply naming a school a “middle school” and condemning it. She is correct in listing the characteristics of successful schools: “having high academic standards, a coherent curriculum, effective instruction, strong leadership, results-based accountability, and sound discipline.” This is what successful middle schools have. I am sorry that she has not taken the time to visit one.

  6. Many large high schools are incorporating many of the successful concepts great middle schools use like interdisciplinary teaming and advisory groups. These strategies help with the most important teaching tool which in my opinion (and shown through a lot of research) is relationships. By having strong relationships, we can get to the rigor that middle schools are able to provide.

  7. Cheryl Pierson Yecke is wrong in all ways. In general, she has taken on high posts in education in Minnesota and Florida, and also in the US Department of Education. However, it is not a result of her research; it is a result of her adherence to certain political beliefs. This leads to dishonest educational interpretations of research. She believes something and then goes out and finds research to support it. Research should be done with an open mind. She does not have that.
    The middle school concept, when fully implemented, provides increased achievement. This is not my statement, but one from Felner et al, reported in Phi Delta Kappan, who studied middle schools across the Midwest. And this is the basic problem: in most regional schools that I am familiar with, schools, for a variety of reasons, implement only some of the basic tenets of middle schools. The professional development program might be underfunded, or their welcoming of parents might be less than warm, or their hiring of teachers grounded in teaching not just algebra but also young adolescents is chancy, or their providing a healthy and safe environment is not complete.
    Yecke tries to provide a simplistic answer (change to K-8 schools) to a complex question (how to increase achievement). Quite catchy, but completely incorrect. I would recommend she become better grounded in research, and she should start with Turning Points 2000. It has a lot of research that she would be unable to undo with her intellectual dishonesty.

  8. I cannot agree with Mr. Wormeli more. When I initially read the article, I too was aghast at the bending of research to suggest that middle schools, on the whole, do not work. Most offensive was the suggestion that middle schools are “havens of socialization and not academies of knowledge.” I cannot disagree more. We do recognize that dolescents are by nature social, and successful middle schools construct their systems and programs using this knowledge to teach students. No one can suggest that appropriate, positive socialization is not a prerequisite to success in life. It would be inpossible to omit this from the informal curriculum and establish a learning environment.The accusation that middle schools are not “academies of knowledge” is incorrect. Students in our district, and throughout the state, have challenging standards that must be met. The nature of a successful middle school is one that recognizes it is the rigor that challenges and motivates the students, thus promoting learning and inquiry for further learning. Yecke states a school “having high academic standards, a coherent curriculum, effective instruction, strong leadership, results-based accountability, and sound discipline” is asuccessful school. What is so confusing to me is that of the 17 middle schools in this urban district not one would not fit this description. Each has its own characteristics and challenges but all have teachers who are certified and teaching in their content of expertise, all know and teach the states standards, and most importantly, all, from teacher to administrator, know and interpret data in making curricular decisions. I am sure there are schools across the United States that fail to meet these requirements, but to suggest it is a “middle school” problem to be solved by a different structure is incorrect. Middle schools adhering to the reseach practices of Turning Points 2000 and Research amd Resources in Support of This We Believe (NMSA) are successful and research shows this.

  9. Bravo to Rick Wormeli for his excellent defense of middle schools as attacked by the Yecke article. I was disguisted with the initial article positing that K-8 buildings produce better thinkers and leaders than typical middle schools. Mr Wormeli has it right when he suggests that the Yecke analysis is flawed. Was she comparing apples to apples. I think not.
    How do we know that the middle schools she considered were meeting the true middle school concept? My experience is that even schools that profess to be middle schools often don’t meet the criteria of true middle schools, mainly because of funding concerns. It is difficult to schedule common planning time for teachers, and often it is costly. But without this time for teachers to plan and collaborate, it isn’t a real “middle school.” You might as well be comparing a “junior high” with an elementary school. I am afraid that Yecke has misrepresented and misconstrued date to support her “political” agenda. True middle schools are powerful learning communities in which there are high expectations, effective instruction, meaningful curriculum, engaged and disciplined students and highly qualified teachers. We will not go back to a K-8 model based on such specious and invalid “research.”


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here