If middle school is miserable – think pimples and puberty – then, according to the survey released by the Toronto District School Board this week, it really goes downhill in high school. Along with the expected news that a good chunk of the city's teenagers surveyed are anxious, sleep-deprived and stressed , one of the key findings is that pretty much everything gets worse after students hit Grade 9.
The survey involved 103,000 Toronto district students Grade 7-12 who filled out the questionnaire in class. On the emotional scales, for instance, while only 29 per cent of middle school students felt lonely either all or some of the time, 43 per cent of high school students did. (Of those, 10 per cent of middle-school students and 16 per cent of high-school students felt lonely all the time.) Stress and anxiety both rose significantly in secondary school. Nearly twice as many older teens (29 per cent) reported "losing sleep because of worries all the time or often" than those in middle school. They were also less likely to feel "reasonably happy" or "able to enjoy daily activities."
That's an important result for educators to consider, because by several important measures middle school students weren't faring that well to start with. Awareness of this trend is a big reason why researchers and policy makers are stepping up efforts to improve the transition to high school. But it's hard to make policy or change school systems, says Elizabeth Dhuey, an economist at the University of Toronto who has studied school transitions, because we still don't really understand why the shift is so hard for many students.
Is it just because "niners" are landing at the bottom of the social ladder just when puberty is more tormenting? Would students, particularly those struggling academically, fare better staying in one school until Grade 8, as research suggests. Or is it because schools do a poor job teaching students how to manage their time or course choices, or navigate the social complication of a school of strangers? Or should students make fewer moves between schools?
According to the survey, high-school students were significantly less likely (38 per cent compared with 56) to grade their time management skills as good or excellent – while the heavier workload is definitely a factor, an awareness of this drop should prompt clear instruction in those key transition grades.
Students were also asked if they felt "comfortable discussing a problem with their teachers." The results had improved since the previous survey in 2006, but still, only 41 per cent of high-school students answered yes. And only 54 per cent felt there was "at least one" adult they'd feel comfortable going to for help. (In middle school, that percentage was better, but not great, at 65 per cent.)
Of course, it's unfair to level the blame on teachers who are dealing with a tumultuous population; as Dhuey points out, with budget cuts, counselling and study skills help are usually the first to go. But consider the example of Liberty High School in Pennsylvania, which next year is overhauling its Grade 9 curriculum to include a course on time management and memorization strategies, and creating a "hybrid" schedule in which the freshman students stick more to one area of the school.
Part of the problem is that schools often don't communicate as a "family" raising students into adulthood, suggests Kate Tilleczek, a professor and Canada Research Chair of education and sociology at the University of Prince Edward Island, who co-authored a report on school transitions for Ontario. Best practices, such as co-ordinating curriculum or creating mentorship with older students, haven't been translated across boards of education. This move from middle school to high school is "absolutely critical," she told The Globe and Mail. "We are not simply speaking of a couple weeks before and after entry, although these are important. We need to attend to social, academic and procedural issues across schools and across time."
It's clear from the survey results that too many students are getting lost in the leap from middle school.