10 Differences Between Middle School and High School

By: Alison Cooper  | 

There's more to moving from middle school to high school than changing lockers. Star Tribune/Getty Images

The transition from middle school to high school marks a pretty exciting time in a child's — and a parent's — life. But it can be scary, too. It's not just a move to a different school — it's a whole new environment. The beginning of high school can be overwhelming and confusing, and not just because the buildings are physically bigger and the campus is unfamiliar. Kids leaving the middle school "bubble" for the jungle of high school not only have to deal with new teachers and academic demands, but also an entirely different set of students, some of whom are three years older and much more mature.

The switch to high school can be disastrous if a child doesn't make the transition smoothly — more kids fail a course in ninth grade than any other grade [source: Hechinger]. Most school systems do pave the way by implementing transitional programs, which can involve everything from campus visits to shadowing students, but it's never easy. Our list of the top 10 differences between middle school and high school will help you identify some of the pitfalls you might run across as your child enters ninth grade — like what happens when your trombone-playing math whiz finds out that band practice conflicts with calculus? We hope you'll find some advice that will get you through this often crazy time.


10: More Kids

One of the scariest things about moving from middle school into high school is the often dramatic increase in school size. It's daunting enough to make the move from a three-grade school into a four-grade school — and then on top of that, several middle schools from one district often dump into one high school. So there could easily be four times as many kids at the high school, most of whom will be absolute strangers. As the first day of ninth grade looms, it can be overwhelming to imagine entering a totally unfamiliar (and much larger) campus and walking around in a sea of new faces. Most high schools are pretty attentive about easing the transition, but it's not hard to see how kids can get lost in the shuffle.

The larger student body leads to the next item on our list ...


9: Larger Class Size

We know that high schools have higher enrollments than middle schools, so it stands to reason that the individual classes are going to get bigger, too. Student-to-teacher ratios vary widely across the country, but in general, high school classes are larger than middle school classes. It might not be much, but it does make a difference. The jump from a 15-student class to one with 20 kids doesn't seem like that huge of a deal, but it does result in things feeling a little more impersonal and less one-on-one interaction with the teacher. There's definitely a lot less hand-holding in high school — older kids are expected to be more responsible and independent, so they (in theory) don't need as much attention from their teachers. And a kid who's not quite ready for the task can end up falling through the cracks.


8: Larger Workload

Eighth-grade teachers seem to spend an inordinate amount of time trying to make it clear to their students (or trying to scare their students, however you want to look at it) that there's going to be a lot more homework in high school. And they do this for a reason: There's a lot more homework in high school. Kids who aren't ready for it can be in for a nasty shock during the first month or so of ninth grade. The increased workload — combined with the stress of new environments, schedules, expectations, teachers and classmates — can really throw some kids for a loop, so it's especially important for parents to be on their game during this transitional time.


7: Oldest to Youngest

Eighth grade — especially the last couple of months — is a giddy time for some kids. They're the oldest (and hence, coolest) in the school, and they take any opportunity to lord this fact over anyone they deem to be beneath them (that's, like, you know, everyone). But when September rolls around, they discover pretty quickly how demoralizing it can be to plummet from head of the pack to bottom of the barrel. For this and the other reasons we've just discussed, many kids find themselves floundering in ninth grade. Some schools have tried to combat this phenomenon by separating freshman from the crowd just a little bit — they institute "ninth grade academies" or smaller class sizes to maintain some of that middle-school feeling for a while longer.


6: Class Choices

In most middle schools, with their emphasis on community-building and nurturing students, kids don't get much choice in what classes they take. Students might be put in different groups based on skill level, but in general, there's little variation in the courses. Sixth grade is American history, seventh grade is pre-algebra, and that's about it. High school is a whole new ballgame, with seemingly endless choices — which is exciting, obviously, but it can be overwhelming. And the scheduling is always tough, too: What happens if your trombone-playing child is also a math whiz, and advanced trigonometry is at the same time as band practice? Or if physics conflicts with French? There might not be an easy answer or a quick fix, but if parents, teachers and counselors work together, they can create a balanced schedule.


5: Parent Involvement

You know how you like to send your kids off to school with a warm embrace — well come high school, you can kiss that PDA goodbye. The Washington Post/Getty Images

You might think that, as academic and athletic demands increase in high school, so might parent involvement. After all, this is a critical time in your child's life — pretty soon, they fly the coop, never to be seen again. But you'd be thinking wrong: Parent involvement actually decreases during the high school years. One reason is that high schools often don't court parent involvement as much as elementary and middle schools do — it's just a more hands-off type of environment. Parents also commonly assume that their contributions aren't needed as much because kids are older and more responsible. Not so. Many studies have shown that parental involvement is a major factor in their children's success. So go ahead and volunteer — your kids might be embarrassed to have you around, but it's for their own good.


4: Grades Count

People often refer to middle school as a "bubble" — students are doing their reading, writing and arithmetic, of course, but sometimes the process is emphasized more than the end result. Kids are learning about themselves, secure in their own little community, and there's not much focus on the outside world. But that all changes in high school. Suddenly the goal is very clear: college. No more fooling around — this is the real deal. Some students, to be sure, are grade-focused from day one, so this change in objectives can be exhilarating — finally, all those As count for something! However, it can be jarring for a child who might not have been all that concerned about grades. So again, it's up to you, parents — it's your job to remind underperformers to step up to the plate.


3: New Teachers

Poor ninth graders. As if they don't already have enough to manage, what with an overwhelming new environment, bigger class size and increased academic demands, they also have to juggle multiple new teachers. In middle school, kids probably have at most two or three different teachers per day, but high school (as it does with everything) kicks that up a few notches. Now, they could have six or seven teachers each day — all with their own methods, standards, workloads, moods and idiosyncrasies. It's really no wonder that grades plummet and dropout rates soar in ninth grade. So, even while you stay on top of your child's work and grades, remember to be understanding — this can be a rough time. Once they hit 10th and 11th grade, though, you can really crack the whip.


2: Sports!

Most of the changes we've discussed so far in this article have some ambivalence attached to them — the transition to high school is exciting and scary. But sports are one part of high school life that can be parked squarely in the "exciting" spot. Most middle schools do have sports teams, but they don't bring the school to life like high school sports can. It's just like the switch in focus with academics: Sure, middle school sports are fun, but a high school football game is the real deal. Even if your child isn't an athlete, sporting events offer lots of opportunity for social interaction with new classmates. Also, a taste of school spirit never hurts — it gives kids the start of a new identity, which can make the transition a little less painful.


1: Peer Pressure

You knew we were going to get to this one sooner or later, didn't you? Peer pressure rears its ugly head pretty early in any kid's life, but the stakes are certainly raised in high school. Pressure to drink and do drugs certainly shows up for some during the middle school years, but kids (and parents) soon realize that those concerns are small potatoes compared to what's lurking in high school. And it's not only about illegal substances — it's clothes, eating, cheating, you name it. Succumbing to peer pressure can quickly derail an academic career, and it's a major factor in many dropout cases. As always, parents need to be vigilant and, most importantly, keep the lines of communication open.

To learn more about the differences between middle school and high school, check out the links that follow.

Originally Published: Sep 21, 2010

Differences Between Middle School and High School

What is the hardest grade in school?
The switch to high school can be disastrous if a child doesn't make the transition smoothly — more kids fail ninth grade than any other grade.
Are middle school and junior high the same?
Yes. Middle school and junior high typically span from sixth to eighth grade.
How is middle school different from high school?
There are more kids and larger class sizes. There could easily be four times as many kids at the high school, most of whom will be absolute strangers.
What is the biggest difference between middle school and high school?
There's definitely a lot less hand-holding in high school — older kids are expected to be more responsible and independent, so they (in theory) don't need as much attention from their teachers.
How is middle school different from highschool for parents?
Parent involvement actually decreases during the high school years. One reason is that high schools often don't court parent involvement as much as elementary and middle schools do — it's just a more hands-off type of environment.

Lots More Information

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  • Bennett, Laurie J. and Mac Iver, Martha Abele. "'Girls Tend to Stop Going; Boys Get Told Not to Come Back': A Report on Gender and the Dropout Problem in Colorado Schools." October 2009. (Accessed Oct. 7, 2021) https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED539113.pdf
  • ERIC. "Helping Students Finish School: Why Students Drop Out and How to Help Them Graduate." (Accessed Oct. 7, 2021) https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED498351.pdf
  • Fisman, Ray. "The Right Kind of Peer Pressure." Slate, May 12, 2010. (Accessed Sept. 10, 2010) http://www.slate.com/id/2253506/
  • Hechinger. "OPINION: Ninth graders do better with fewer classes, new research shows." April 13, 2021. (Accessed Oct. 7, 2021) https://hechingerreport.org/opinion-new-research-shows-that-ninth-grade-matters-more-than-ever/
  • Mizelle, Nancy B. and Irvin, Judith L. "Transition from Middle School to High School." National Middle School Association Journal, May 2000. (Accessed Sept. 10, 2010) http://www.nmsa.org/portals/0/pdf/publications/On_Target/transitioning_hs/transitioning_hs_4.pdf
  • NHSC. "The First Year of High School: A Quick Stats Fact Sheet." (Accessed Oct. 7, 2021) https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED501080
  • National PTA. "Moving from Middle to High School." (Accessed Sept. 9, 2010) http://school.familyeducation.com/school-readiness/parents-and-teacher/37690.html
  • TheParentReport.com. "Transition to Middle School and High School." (Accessed Sept. 10, 2010) http://www.theparentreport.com/resources/ages/teen/education/624.html
  • U.S. News & World Report. "See High School Graduation Rates By State." April 28, 2021. (Oct. 7, 2021) https://www.usnews.com/education/best-high-schools/articles/see-high-school-graduation-rates-by-state
  • Weber, Dave. "Back to School: Toughest test of all is 9th grade." Orlando Sentinel, Aug. 14, 2010 (Accessed Sept. 10, 2010)http://articles.orlandosentinel.com/2010-08-14/news/os-ninth-graders-stumble-081510-20100814_1_ninth-graders-middle-schools-classroom-performance