Culture  /  Origin Story

The Invention of Middle School

In the 1960s, one scholar writes, there was no grand vision behind the idea of a middle school. The problem that the model sought to solve was segregation.

All across America, tweens are nervously embarking upon their first year of middle school. A few decades ago, this wouldn’t have been a major transition year for most of these students—for that, they would have had to wait another year or two. Paul S. George explains how the middle school as we know it came to be.

Before the 1960s, George writes, the step for most students before high school was junior high, which normally covered grades 7 through 9. As the name suggests, the schools were structured like mini high schools. Subjects were taught by separate teachers in separate rooms, with little collaboration.

The middle school model changed that, eventually. But when it started, George writes, creating a post-elementary school that covered fifth or sixth through eighth grade was simply a way to accommodate demands for racial desegregation. If the middle and high school grades were integrated, districts could often get away with leaving elementary schools, which now educated only the youngest kids, segregated.

“The result would be a plan for a dramatically more desegregated school district very likely to receive court approval,” George writes.

This process created hundreds of new middle schools in the 1960s and ‘70s. A decade later, more middle schools blossomed in the Northeast and Midwest because of changing demographics. Many high schools were under-enrolled while many elementary school populations grew, making reorganization of the schools an obvious solution to use the buildings efficiently.