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Education Statistics Quarterly
Vol 2, Issue 3, Topic: Elementary and Secondary Education
In the Middle: Characteristics of Public Schools With a Focus on Middle Schools
By: Martha Naomi Alt and Susan P. Choy
This article was originally published as the Executive Summary of the Statistical Analysis Report of the same name. The sample survey data are from the NCES Schools and Staffing Survey (SASS) and the Teacher Follow-up Survey (TFS).

Educators, parents, policymakers, and researchers have focused considerable attention on middle-level education in recent years, prompted by widely held concerns about middle schools' academic rigor and the effectiveness of activities designed to help early adolescents develop in nonacademic realms. As a result, many middle school educators have renewed efforts to develop curricula and instructional strategies that challenge students academically and expand their intellectual interests, to ensure that teachers receive appropriate training to meet the needs of this age groups, and to create more nurturing and supportive environments.

This report uses data from the Schools and Staffing Survey (SASS), conducted in 1987-88, 1990-91, and 1993-94, and the accompanying Teacher Follow-up Survey (TFS), conducted a year after each administration of SASS, to describe various aspects of middle schools, examine how they have changed over time, and compare middle schools with elementary and secondary schools. These data provide information on fundamental dimensions of school organization, programs and services, decision making and management, staffing matters, instructional practices, and school climate. Only public schools are described; there were too few private middle schools to analyze in the SASS data set.

Definitions and Overview of School Levels

Middle schools include some of the grades from 5 through 8, by any definition; the most common configuration is grades 6-8. This report defines school levels in the following way: 1
  • elementary-schools with at least one grade lower than 5 and no grade higher than 8;
  • middle-schools with no grade lower than 5 and no grade higher than 8;
  • secondary-schools with no grade lower than 7 and at least one grade higher than 8; and
  • combined-schools with at least one grade lower than 7 and at least one grade higher than 8. Schools with only ungraded classes (no grades reported in K-12) were included with combined schools.
In 1993-94, there were 80,740 public schools in the United States, about 15 percent of them middle schools. The number of middle schools increased from 9,086 to 11,712 between 1987-88 and 1993-94, while the number of elementary and secondary schools remained about the same (figure A). The growth occurred almost solely in schools with grades 6-8. Of some 41.6 million students in public schools in 1993-94, 6.8 million were enrolled in middle schools.

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Organization of Schooling

The self-contained class structure, the norm in elementary schools, allows teachers to track their students' progress closely and provides a consistent classroom environment for young students.

Secondary schools, on the other hand, are usually organized in departments in order to provide teachers who have in-depth subject-specific training and certification and to allow students some choice among courses. Middle school reformers have searched for creative ways to combine the advantages of both approaches. In practice, middle schools (like secondary schools) most often have departmentalized classes: 79 percent of middle school teachers and 92 percent of secondary school teachers taught in departments in 1993-94 (figure B). In contrast, 79 percent of elementary school teachers had self-contained classes. Many of the ways in which middle schools resemble secondary schools and differ from elementary schools flow from the way that classes and teachers are organized.

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Decision Making and Management

For some basic issues of school management, principals' perceptions of their influence either did not differ or differed only slightly by school level in 1993-94. High proportions of principals reported having a lot of influence on evaluating teachers' performance (about 95 percent at each level), hiring full-time teachers and setting discipline policy (about 80-90 percent), and determining the content of inservice training programs (70-75 percent). At least 50 percent of principals at each level reported that they had a lot of influence on establishing curriculum.

Teachers as well as principals were asked to rate their influence over a range of school policies and practices. In 1993-94, at least 25-30 percent of teachers at each level reported that they had a lot of influence in three areas: setting discipline policy, establishing curriculum, and determining the content of inservice training (figure C).

In the area of setting discipline policy, the percentage of teachers who thought that they had a lot of influence decreased notably as school level increased (from 42 percent of teachers at elementary schools to 31 percent at middle schools and 25 percent at secondary schools). For establishing curriculum, teachers' estimates of their influence increased somewhat with school level.

Figure A. - Number of public schools of different levels: 1987-88, 1990-91, and 1993-94

Figure A. - Number of public schools of different levels: 1987-88, 1990-91, and 1993-94

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Schools and Staffing Survey (SASS), 1987-88, 1990-91, and 1993-94, "Public School Questionnaire."

Figure B. - Percentage of public schools teachers with different types of classes, by school level: 1993-94

Figure B. - Percentage of public schools teachers with different types of classes, by school level: 1993-94

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Schools and Staffing Survey (SASS), "Public School Teacher Questionnaire."

Figure C. - Percentage of public school teachers who reported that they had a lot of influence* over establishing curriculum, determining the content of inservice training, and setting discipline policy, by school level: 1993-94

Figure C. - Percentage of public school teachers who reported that they had a lot of influence over establishing curriculum, determining the content of inservice training, and setting discipline policy, by school level: 1993-94

*Ratings of influence are counted as "a lot" if respondents marked one of the highest two numbers (5 or 6) on a 6-point scale.

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Schools and Staffing Survey (SASS), 1993-94, "Public School Questionnaire" and "Public School Teacher Questionnaire."

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School Staff

Teachers' certification status

One policy concern is that middle school teachers may be less prepared than secondary school teachers to teach subject-specific classes, and certification data from the 1993-94 SASS provide at least limited support for this concern. Middle school teachers were slightly less likely than elementary or secondary school teachers to have regular/alternative certification 2 in their main field, the field in which they taught the most classes (72 percent vs. 78 percent and 76 percent, respectively). Lack of certification is a particular concern for teachers who teach a core academic subject. Of departmentalized middle school teachers whose main assignment was mathematics, science, English, or social studies, approximately 7 to 8 percent lacked certification in that field in 1993-94. In contrast, 2 to 3 percent of such secondary school teachers lacked certification in their core field.

Teachers' education, experience, and professional development activities

The likelihood that a teacher had attained a master's or other advanced degree increased somewhat with school level in 1993-94. Also, a slightly higher percentage of teachers with 3 or fewer years of experience were teaching at middle schools than at elementary or secondary schools (the increase in new middle schools may partly explain this finding). On three of five topics included in the survey (in-depth study in their subject, teaching methods in their field, and student assessment), teachers were less likely to participate in training as school level increased. Overall, elementary school teachers were most likely to agree with several positive statements about this professional development training, middle school teachers somewhat less, and secondary school teachers were the least likely to agree.

Handling teaching vacancies

Roughly one-third of middle and secondary schools reported that they had great difficulty filling a teaching vacancy, or could not fill it, in 1993-94-about twice the proportion as that for elementary schools. Because schools at the two higher levels are mainly departmentalized, the pool of applicants for many openings is limited to those who have specialized preparation in a particular subject, as well as appropriate school-level credentials if required.

Teacher retention, mobility, and attrition

Generally, 80-90 percent of teachers surveyed in 1993-94 remained at the same school the following school year, with a slightly lower percentage for those at middle schools. Similarly, middle school teachers were slightly more likely to move to a different school within 1 year than teachers at the secondary level. However, these patterns were not found in earlier SASS data. From 1987-88 to 1993-94, teachers at middle schools became somewhat more likely to leave teaching within 1 year (4 percent in the former year vs. 8 percent in the latter), yet comparable changes did not occur at the elementary or secondary levels.

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School Climate

Teachers' evaluations of their school's climate and operations

Teachers were asked in SASS to express their degree of agreement with a broad range of statements about their school's climate, including aspects related to the principal, students, colleagues, and school conditions. The percentage of teachers agreeing with positive statements tended to decrease as school level increased, while the percentage agreeing with negative statements increased with level. Despite high rates of teacher agreement overall with the following positive statements, for example, teachers at the higher levels were less likely to agree that teachers participate in most of the important educational decisions, that they receive a great deal of parental support, that the administration's behavior is supportive and encouraging, that they try to coordinate course content with colleagues, and that the principal makes expectations for staff clear. Complementing this pattern, for the following three negative statements, teachers' likelihood of agreeing increased with level: that the principal does a poor job of getting resources (fewer than 20 percent at any school level); that they sometimes have to follow rules that conflict with their best professional judgment; and that they sometimes feel it is a waste of time to do their best as a teacher (in the range of roughly 20 to 30 percent for the latter two statements).

Teacher satisfaction

In 1994-95, at least 77 percent of teachers at each of the school levels reported that they were satisfied 3 with their job overall, with higher rates of satisfaction reported by elementary school teachers. Similar proportions of elementary, middle, and secondary school teachers reported satisfaction with their salary, opportunity for advancement, and support/recognition from administrators. However, teacher satisfaction with other aspects of their jobs varied with level. The percentage of teachers who were satisfied with two aspects of their jobs decreased as school level increased: the caliber of their colleagues and the availability of resources, materials, and equipment. Middle and secondary school teachers reported lower rates of satisfaction with the intellectual challenge of their job than did teachers at elementary schools. In contrast, middle and secondary school teachers were more satisfied than elementary school teachers with their teaching load.

Teachers' and principals' ratings of problems

Teachers and principals were asked to rate a number of possible problems at their school as serious, moderate, minor, or not a problem. In 1993-94, the percentage of teachers and principals who considered many of these problems serious increased with school level. This was true for student apathy, students' arriving unprepared to learn, the lack of academic challenge, the lack of parent involvement, robbery/theft, and student alcohol use. Middle school teachers were the most likely to report physical conflicts among students as a problem (11 percent), though it was not a particularly widespread problem. Student disrespect for teachers was cited by approximately twice the percentage of teachers at middle and secondary schools as at elementary schools. Principals were less likely than teachers to view each problem as serious, except for poverty.4 This was true for middle schools but also for all schools as a group. This discrepancy may result partly because teachers have more direct contact and interaction with students each day and with a larger number of students, compared with principals.

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Across the issues examined here with SASS and TFS data, middle schools rarely differed dramatically from elementary or secondary schools. It is possible that with data on other topics, particularly certain qualitative measures, middle schools would stand out more from other schools. Middle schools focus on serving the needs of young adolescents but otherwise share many of the same conditions, constraints, goals, and strengths of other schools. As they open new middle schools and reform existing ones, educators strive to adapt what works well at other levels to a school environment shaped for young adolescents. The overarching similarities across school levels that result should come as no surprise. Where middle and secondary schools share characteristics and differ from elementary schools, the development of middle schools along the secondary school model may provide some explanation. For other patterns, related variables such as school size may be relevant.

Five patterns characterize the data on middle schools vis--vis other schools. In the first, which occurred with some frequency, middle and secondary schools shared characteristics but differed from elementary schools. For example, a substantial majority of teachers in both middle and secondary schools teach in departmentalized settings. Middle and secondary school teachers generally have more specialized training in one or more subjects compared with elementary teachers. Middle and secondary schools were about twice as likely as elementary schools to report great difficulty filling teaching vacancies, perhaps partly because the requirements for teaching many of the subjects are more specific.

In the second pattern, middle schools are more similar to elementary than to secondary schools. Because elementary and middle schools tend to organize their classes differently, this pattern of similarity is relatively rare. Among these occurrences, middle and elementary school teachers were more likely to team teach their classes than teachers at the secondary level. Principals provide another example: at the lower two school levels, they viewed student absenteeism and alcohol use as much less widespread problems than at secondary schools.

In the third pattern, appearing with quite a few aspects of schooling, a fairly steady increase or decrease occurred in the prevalence of characteristics by school level. For example, for inservice programs on teaching methods, in-depth study of their subject, and student assessment methods, teachers were less likely to participate in training as school level increased. The proportion of teachers who thought they had a lot of influence on setting discipline policy decreased notably as school level increased, while their perceived influence on establishing curriculum increased with school level. The percentage of teachers who agreed with many negative statements about their school's climate and management (and who disagreed with several positive statements) or who viewed numerous school problems as serious increased with level.

In the fourth pattern, when middle schools stood out as the exception from both elementary and secondary schools, such differences tended to be small. For example, middle school teachers were slightly less likely than teachers at other school levels to have regular or alternative certification in their main assignment field. As an illustration, departmentalized middle school teachers of mathematics, science, English, and social studies were more likely than their secondary school counterparts to lack certification in that field. Middle school teachers were also slightly less likely than those at other levels to remain teaching at the same school the following year. Teachers were more likely to report that two problems-physical conflicts among students and student disrespect for teachers-were serious at middle schools than at the other two levels.

Finally, in some areas, particularly those related to provision of services and school management, there were no differences between the various school levels. For example, more than 90 percent of schools at each level provided programs to prevent drug and alcohol use among students, and nearly all schools had a library media specialist on staff. Similarly, principals at each school level were equally likely to think that they had a lot of influence over evaluating teachers' performance and determining the content of inservice training programs. Teachers reported similar rates of satisfaction with their opportunity for advancement, their salary, and the school administration's support and recognition.

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Future Research

The questionnaires for the upcoming 1999-2000 SASS (and 2000-01 Teacher Follow-up Survey) include most of the items used in the earlier questionnaires. Once these data become available, many of the aspects of schooling discussed here can be examined over a 12-year period. The upcoming surveys also include new items that address additional policy issues that have come to the fore more recently. New or expanded topics in the 1999-2000 SASS that may provide information relevant to middle-level education include the uses of schoolwide performance reports; tracking progress on school improvement plans; professional development and new-teacher preparation and support in the school; ability-based tracking and grouping within classes; parent involvement; charter schools; and the use of computers and other technology in the school. These new SASS data, which are planned for release in 2001, will provide opportunities for a range of additional comparative analyses among elementary, middle, and secondary schools.

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1 Previous publications that use SASS data have generally lacked a category for middle schools and used different definitions of elementary and secondary schools.

2 Teachers reported the type of certification that they had: advanced; regular or alternative; provisional, probationary, temporary, or emergency; or none.

3 Job satisfaction was analyzed only for teachers who remained at the same job 1 year after the SASS data were collected. This restriction was necessary because school level was known only for that group. However, it should be pointed out that these data are likely to overstate satisfaction rates, because teachers who leave teaching (and perhaps also those who change schools) probably tend to be less satisfied than those who stayed at the same job.

4 These discrepancies between teachers' and principals' opinions were noted in an earlier report (Henke et al. 1996, p.103).

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Henke, R.R., Choy, S.P., Geis, S., and Broughman, S.P. (1996). Schools and Staffing in the United States: A Statistical Profile, 1993-94 (NCES 96-124). U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Data sources: The NCES Schools and Staffing Survey (SASS), 1987-88, 1990-91, and 1993-94; and Teacher Follow-up Survey (TFS), 1988-89, 1991-92, and 1994-95.

For technical information, see the complete report:

Alt, M.N., and Choy, S.P. (2000). In the Middle: Characteristics of Public Schools With a Focus on Middle Schools (NCES 2000-312).

Author affiliations: M.N. Alt and S.P. Choy, MPR Associates, Inc.

For questions about content, contact Kerry Gruber (

To obtain the complete report (NCES 2000-312), call the toll-free ED Pubs number (877-433-7827), visit the NCES Web Site (, or contact GPO (202-512-1800).

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