Former Fairfax County school superintendent Daniel A. Domenech, now a senior vice president with McGraw-Hill Education, attended seventh grade at St. Charles Borromeo School in Brooklyn Heights, N.Y., in 1957. He was asked what is different about seventh grade today.

I went to a K-8 elementary school. The term "middle school" had not yet been invented. My seventh grade was a self-contained class where we spent the entire day in the same classroom with the same teacher and the same kids. No different than K-6. Today, the seventh grade is departmentalized and much more like high school than elementary school. Kids have different teachers for every subject, and they move from class to class. Often they are grouped with a different set of students in each class.

The level of difficulty of the course work has also changed significantly. I wasn't exposed to algebra until I reached high school. Many seventh- graders today are taking algebra or pre-algebra. As a matter of fact, today's seventh-grade curriculum is very much like the ninth-grade curriculum of my day. Take a parent survey and see how many are able to help their kids with their seventh-grade homework. Except for those highly educated parents in the Washington, D.C., suburbs, I'll bet not many.

I liked my self-contained seventh-grade class with its safe, secure and nurturing environment. I wasn't ready for high school at 12. While approaching adolescence, I was still very much a child, as were most of my classmates. We thrived on the relationships that we were able to establish with our teacher and with each other. Academically, we may have been hampered by the fact that we were not exposed to content-area specialists in every subject. If that one teacher was a lemon, you were in for a long school year. We certainly lacked the ability to fast-track in a subject that may have been prerequisite for Advanced Placement or honors courses. But then, Advanced Placement and honors courses didn't exist.

Today's middle school was supposed to be an improvement on the junior high school model. It was supposed to recognize the lack of maturity and need for nurturing among adolescents. It was supposed to restrict departmentalization and moving about by creating "houses" with a smaller cluster of teachers and students. Generally today, however, most middle schools are not much different than the old junior high school.

The reality is that often, school organization is dictated more by economic factors than by the needs of students. Grades are clustered according to the available facilities. Class size is dependent on how many teachers you can afford to hire, as are counselors and support personnel.

Daniel A. Domenech