Middle School Education Overview

Last Updated Dec 8, 2021

This overview is intended to help donors gain a deeper understanding of the U.S. education system and identify opportunities to address the root causes of inequitable outcomes for students. See the entire series. By Jocelyn Harmon

Did you know?
  • Studies show that performance in middle school math is a predictor of future success in high school and beyond.
  • In California, only 58% of students attend schools that offer eighth grade Algebra 1.
  • Compared to the national average (41%), demand for afterschool programs in communities of concentrated poverty is much higher (56%).

What is Middle School?

You remember middle school. It was that exciting and awkward time between elementary and high school, when you weren’t a child anymore but definitely weren’t an adult. For many of us, middle school meant new friends and experiences, cool lockers and loud hallways! It was a time of transition and a marker for the beginning of adolescence. In addition to having an opportunity to learn new academic subjects, in middle school, many of us were introduced to extracurricular activities, like arts, music, and sports, that became lifelong passions. Finally, middle school was (and still is) an important time to close academic gaps experienced in elementary school in order to ensure success in high school and beyond.

Why Donors Should Care About Middle School Education

Adolescence, which is now believed to begin in middle school at age 10 and extend to age 25, is an important time for growth - physical, emotional, and social - for young people.  According to the National Academy of Sciences:

The onset of puberty brings about changes in the limbic system region that heightens adolescents’ sensitivity to rewards, willingness to take risks, and awareness of social status - tendencies that are necessary for exploring new environments and building relationships outside of the family.

Middle schools which are responsive to the unique developmental needs of pre-teens help them develop a sense of meaning and purpose, find safe and satisfying ways to explore the world, and are staffed by warm and supportive teachers and other caring adults. Successful middle schools are also responsive to the unique talents and perspectives of the increasingly diverse student bodies they serve.

Math is just one subject that students are encouraged to begin to master in middle school. Studies show that performance in middle school math is a predictor of future success in high school and beyond. According to WestEd, “mastery of Algebra in particular is a critical step to enrollment and success in a college preparatory math sequence that can include trigonometry, pre-calculus, and calculus.”

Unfortunately, wide and persistent disparities in math proficiency exist for different populations.

Eighth Graders Who Scored Below Proficient Math Achievement Level by Race by (Percent) - 2019


One possible reason? Middle school students of all hues lack access to math courses. For example, in California, only 58% of students attend schools that offer eighth grade Algebra 1.

Percentage of Students Who Are Enrolled in Schools That Offer Eighth Grade Algebra 1


Who Is Missing Out?

In the school year 2016-2017, there were over 12.5 million children aged 12-14 and who attended approximately 13,300 middle schools in the U.S.

Characteristics Among U.S. Students


While middle school can be a tough time for all adolescents, those who are marginalized because of the language they speak, their family income, or their race and ethnicity are most disadvantaged in our schools, which are not designed to serve their cultural or linguistic needs. This reality leads to a lack of proficiency in areas like English Language Arts. In 2017, 82% of Black and 77% of Latinx eighth graders were not proficient in reading, compared to 55% of white eighth graders. This isn't surprising given that 81% of Black fourth graders and 78% of Hispanic fourth graders were not proficient in reading and weren't adequately supported to catch up.

What is Causing These Disparities?

The achievement gaps we see in middle school and across the K-12 school system are caused by many variables. Here we briefly cover four structural barriers to student success and areas where donors can make a difference. For a more comprehensive view of what it takes to end disparities in education, read Diversity Within Unity: Essential Principles for Teaching and Learning in a Multicultural Society.

Teacher Bias

Girls aren’t good at math. Black students aren’t motivated to learn. These are examples of stereotypes or biases that shape our interactions with others. Biases have a damaging impact on the young people in our lives, especially when they are held by teachers. In his book, Whistling Vivaldi: And Other Clues to How Stereotypes Affect Us, Claude Steele documents the pernicious effect that stereotypes can have on the people they are meant to target. His research and the research of others has shown that educators can affect student performance by triggering a “stereotype threat.” For example, reminding a girl that some young women struggle with math, right before a quiz, makes it likely that she will underperform on the test. We also see how biased disciplinary practices push Black students out of the education system.

To overcome teaching biases, schools can provide continuing education in diversity for educators so they can uncover their personal attitudes toward racial, ethnic, and cultural groups, understand the ways in which institutionalized knowledge within schools can perpetuate stereotypes about racial and ethnic groups, and develop the knowledge and skills to develop an equity pedagogy.

Lack of Teacher Diversity

Another challenge facing students of color is the lack of diversity among teachers. In 2015, nearly half of students were not white while less than a quarter of teachers were people of color. In the 2017-2018 school year, about 76% of public school teachers were white females, yet research shows that students of color perform better in school when they have at least one teacher of the same race because they act as role models and have a better cultural understanding.

Percentage Distribution of Teachers in Public Elementary Schools, by Race/Ethnicity


Kingmakers of Oakland, Call Me MISTER, and Latinos for Education are among the groups working hard to increase the diversity of teachers, especially by recruiting more male teachers of color.

Lack of an Inclusive Curriculum

In addition to a lack of diverse teachers, many students learn from curriculum which are not inclusive. A core part of advancing a multicultural learning environment, where all students feel seen and heard, includes developing curriculum that centers the experience of diverse students, helps them to understand that all knowledge is constructed, and enables them to become critical thinkers. Some lawmakers get it. Four states, including California, New Jersey, Illinois, and Colorado have passed an Inclusive Curriculum Laws, which requires schools to teach LGBTQ history. In Seattle, Washington educators are testing new curricula to “rehumanize” math by teaching it through an ethnocentric lens. According to Gutierrez, “students should be able to see themselves in the curriculum, recognize math [and other subjects] as a tool for making their lives better.”

Lack of Opportunities for All Students to Participate In and Learn from Extracurricular Activities

Learning doesn’t just take place in schools. Research shows that “participation in after-school programs, sports activities … contributes to academic performance, reduces high school dropout rates and discipline problems, and enhances interpersonal skills among students from different ethnic backgrounds.” Unfortunately, students living in poor communities lack access to vital out of school programming they need -- an issue that could be remedied with additional public and private investments. Compared to the national average (41%), demand for afterschool programs in communities of concentrated poverty is much higher (56%).

Get Involved

Check out The Nation’s Report Card to see how your state is doing on math and reading proficiency for eighth graders. Next, join Grantmakers for Education. Finally, use the resources below to get educated, advocate, and invest for change.

  • Center for the Developing Adolescent improves adolescent health, education, and well-being through developmental science.
  • Kingmakers of Oakland supports school districts across the country to improve the educational and life outcomes of Black boys by “healing the fish while treating the toxic ecosystem.”
  • The Afterschool Alliance works to ensure that all youth have access to affordable, quality afterschool programs by engaging public will to increase public and private investment in afterschool program initiatives at the national, state, and local levels.
  • Higher Achievement closes the opportunity gap during the pivotal middle school years.
  • Latinos for Education develops, places and connects essential Latino leaders in the education sector. It is building an ecosystem of Latino advocates by infusing Latino talent into positions of influence.
  • Education Leaders of Color is a membership organization dedicated to elevating the leadership, voices and influence of people of color in education and to leading more inclusive efforts to improve education.
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