03/26/2014 01:41 pm ET Updated May 26, 2014

The Dumbbell Effect: Middle Level Education Falling Behind

Ask any sixth grader if they are going to college and, chances are, they will give an enthusiastic "Yes!" Ask the same student three years later and the answer is likely to be much different. First, they will check to see how their friends respond and then -- maybe -- they may offer a half-hearted shrug. The questions this experience should raise for educators, parents and policy-makers include: Why are students falling behind at this age, and what can we do about it?

Patricia Jimenez already understands the issue. When she started seventh grade at Ellen Ochoa Learning Center in Los Angeles, Patricia did not think college was for her. No one in her immediate family had gone to college, leaving Patricia disengaged and a prime candidate to eventually drop out of school.

But now, nearing the end of eighth grade, Patricia wants to be a pathologist, plans to go either to USC or UCLA, and knows what classes she needs to take in high school to get there. Patricia has even become a mentor for other students, helping them with their college readiness.

So what led to Patricia's transformation? Among other things, her school did not back off and give her time to find herself. Her counselor, Sherry DeFontenelle, engaged Patricia in extra activities specifically designed to build her confidence and leadership skills, and to make sure she enters the ninth grade on track for post secondary success.

We need every middle school student to follow Patricia's path. Unfortunately, most are not. Between sixth and ninth grade, young people undergo significant social, emotional and physical development that has the effect of turning many optimistic kids into skeptical, pessimistic young adults. Of course, this is not earth-shattering news. Anyone who has raised or worked with a preteen knows this progression all too well.

It is easy to write off these years as a phase and hope for the best. When my own kids hit middle school, I remember feeling pleased and proud of their progress so far, with any anxiety about what will be in store for them in the future. Their middle grade years were a kind of intermission, a time to let their physical and emotional development occur at a separate pace.

But here's the rub: There is no intermission when it comes to child development.

In fact, we now know that the middle grade years are an incredibly important time for determining the path to students' future success. Research by Dr. Robert Balfanz and the John Hopkins University's Everyone Graduates Center shows that in high poverty school districts, 75 percent or more of eventual dropouts can be identified between sixth and ninth grade. Once identified, early interventions can ensure these students graduate and are prepared for postsecondary success.

Moreover, ACT, Inc. Research finds that, in key ways, middle school is more important than high school for a child's future, that "the level of academic achievement that students attain by eighth grade has a larger impact on their college and career readiness by the time they graduate from high school than anything that happens academically in high school.

You may not even need this level of research, if you can recall how important middle school was to either jumpstart your life or leave some barriers behind that you had to deal with in later years. Despite the research and common sense available, students in the middle grades continue to get less attention from parents like me and policymakers alike.

Here in California, a new formula for funding public schools is generally a step in the right direction -- but when it came time to make the tough decisions, middle school didn't make the grade. Money alone will not solve the problem, but the middle grades fell behind on that score. Funding per student for grades four through eight fell below the funding per student for either elementary or high school students.

As in so many areas of education, we pay much more attention to the beginning and end of the PreK through 12 cycle, with much less focus on the middle. Just as we are learning how important the middle grades are, we're thinking about and spending less to support students and families during this critical time. Early childhood is clearly important, as is high school, but surely we can do better than California's dumbbell approach (heavy on the ends, light in the middle) to school funding. And this focus on either end of education is expanding, as federal and state policy-makers push more funding into early education and higher education, leaving the central role of the middle years behind.

But there is hope. In addition to educators like Sherry DeFontenelle and academics who continue to provide insightful research, other organizations are raising awareness.

The Association for Middle Level Educators, National Association of Secondary School Principals, the National Forum to Accelerate Middle-Grades Reform, Adolescent Success, and Let's Move Active Schools just finished celebrating National Middle Level Education Month in March. They used the month as an opportunity for students, parents, teachers, administrators and policymakers to focus attention on the middle grades.

Our own middle grade effort, Career and College Clubs, also celebrated Middle Level Education Month by sponsoring the Middle Grade Shout Out. We used social media to recognize middle grade educators who are making a difference. Search the tag #middlegradeshoutout to see some of the great educators serving the middle grades.

Ultimately, our hope is that building support for the middle grades will help policymakers recognize their importance and provide funding equal to other grade levels.

Money does not solve all problems but, in this case, more equitable funding and educational innovation for the middle grades will demonstrate our commitment to ensuring our children get the highest quality education for the entirety of their K-12 careers.