Are we stuck in the middle? Should districts ditch middle school and return to K-8?

Does middle school create a transition that undermines student performance?
LAURA SKELDING/AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Ross Rubenstein is a professor and the Dan E. Sweat Distinguished Chair in Educational and Community with the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies at Georgia State University.

In this piece, Rubenstein discusses his research showing students attending K-8 schools tend to outperform students attending separate elementary and middle schools.

I’ve written about school structure based on my experiences attending a K-8 school and my children’s very different experience going to a K-3 school, a 4/5 academy and then a middle school. I am not a fan of middle school, a model that has strong defenders despite increasing evidence suggesting students fare better in the K-8 settings favored by many private schools.

Proponents keep telling me middle schools aren’t working because we aren’t doing them right. We’ve had decades to get middle school right. If it’s that hard to pull off, maybe the model ought to be junked.

With that, here’s Rubenstein’s piece.

By Ross Rubenstein

For the past 13 years, City Schools of Decatur has operated a separate 4-5 academy — a school for fourth and fifth graders only. Recently, there have been renewed discussions about returning to a K-5 configuration in Decatur.

Such debates aren’t unusual – in Decatur or in the rest of the country. While Decatur’s structure of three schools before high school is relatively rare, debates about the best grade span for elementary and middle school students have taken place in school districts around the country.

Perhaps understandably, much of the discussion from parents centers on issues of convenience: which configuration decreases traffic? Will sibling groups be in the same school? Other important considerations include which configurations will ease school-crowding.

One concern that is often absent from the discussion is student performance. This is surprising and unfortunate given that grade span configuration is one of the relatively few issues in education policy on which a strong consensus has emerged among researchers.

My own research found that students attending K-8 schools tend to outperform students attending separate elementary and middle schools. My colleagues Amy Ellen Schwartz, Leanna Stiefel, Jeff Zabel and I compared the performance of New York City 8th graders attending schools with a variety of grade spans, controlling for many other factors that could affect student performance.

We found strong evidence that students attending K-8 schools had larger test score gains between 3rd and 8th grade than did students in schools with other grade spans.  For students who made transitions, earlier was better.  In other words, changing schools between 6th and 7th grades is worse than changing between 4th and 5th.

Since then, a number of other studies have found similar results. Most notably, these results have been replicated in different school systems, states and countries. All have reached essentially the same conclusion: student performance suffers after transitioning from an elementary to a middle school, and does not fully recover by the time students are in high school.

Although we can’t know for sure why the grade configurations for schools matter, we suspect that what really matters is how often students change schools. In short, students perform worse when they must enter a new school – whether it is because of moving or because of the grade configuration of schools.

Parents sometimes have to move and we can’t change that. We can do something about changes due to the grade configuration of schools.

Policymakers, educators, and parents should push for schools that requires fewer transitions for students. This is good policy, especially given that schools with longer grade spans are not more costly than separate elementary and middle schools.

Although K-8 schools are not a “magic bullet” to cure low student performance, they are one of the relatively few issues on which a strong consensus has emerged among researchers and one that is within the control of school district policy makers. Choosing grade span configurations, therefore, provides a wonderful opportunity for research to inform real-world policy decisions affecting children and their families.

Reader Comments 0

37 comments
newsphile
newsphile

This is simply another red herring.  Whether grades 6-8 are housed in elementary or middle school buildings has very, very little to do with students' success or failure.  The building does not ensure they have good teachers, good parents, good study habits, or any of the other requirements for a good education.  We're kidding ourselves if we believe today's problems will be resolved by relocating the furniture.

Justin
Justin

Under this premise we should simply have one large school that spans K-12. 

BurroughstonBroch
BurroughstonBroch

This is a prime example of how educational leaders fail. We used to have K-8 but these leaders said it wasn't working and we should go to middle schools. So we went to middle schools. Now they say middle schools aren't working and we should go to K-8. If we go back to K-8, in a few years they will say K-8 isn't working and we should go back to middle schools.

They don't take the time to identify why middle schools aren't working and remedy the problems; instead, they just want to take the easy way out and change course 180 degrees in the middle of the road. The situation is similar to the multiple times we have been in and out of the New Math in the last 50 years.






dekalbmom
dekalbmom

The system I attended was unusual. There were two very small (120 children) primary schools, one k-2 and the other k-3. The students from the k-2 school then attended a larger 3-5 school along with children who came out of a small parochial school (so we were still all together), and those from the k-3 school went to another larger 4-6 school (they stayed together). Both groups went to the 4-6 school for grade 6, so we met new people.

There was a 7-8 junior high, and then everybody went to a 9-12 high school (1500 students) where we were joined by a neighboring district that only had a k-8 school.

It was done to save money, and was a cooperative deal among three small districts, each of which had experienced population growth, and could not afford to build to accommodate. They pooled their money, and built two primary schools and a high school, and continued to use the original buildings for the combined grades.

We stayed with all our classmates, and each time we moved on, we were joined by new ones, in a bigger school. It worked well, and each time we changed schools, we felt as if we were stepping up. We were never separated from classmates, but we're joined by new ones.

teachermom4
teachermom4

@dekalbmom We had something kind of similar. Kindergarten in one of the town's original 2 room school houses, half days, so 4 classes daily. Grades 1 and 2 were in a '50s era building down the road. Grades 3-4 were next door to kindergarten, and at 4th grade we were joined by the town next door who had their own school that was k-3 and then 5-6. They came to us for 4th so we could mingle, then we all went to their school for grades 5-6. After that we all came back to our town for junior high (7-8) and high school. I don't know if it was a conscious effort to group same-age kids, or it was cheaper to do this than build a giant mega-elementary. We were, and are, one of the highest achieving systems in our state. 


Today, they have a k-3 and 4-8, plus the high school. When the new middle school opened, a lot of people were worried about grouping 9 year olds with 14 year olds, but I guess it's working and everyone is happy.

Stephanie Sears
Stephanie Sears

Isn't that what most private schools are? I know most of the Catholic elementary schools go until 8th grade. I went to Catholic school in Pennsylvania, and it was PK3-8. I loved it. It was very comforting to spend a large chunk of my school years in the same building and not subject to the craziness that seemed to be middle school.

Another comment
Another comment

All Catholic Elementary Schools seem to be K-8 through out the country. Many have had the mission of educating the first generation immigrants. With the parish and dioseses picking up the majority of the costs rather than the parents. The costly Atlanta Dioseses is the exception still to Catholic education. In most areas of the country Catholic K-8 schools are still affordable for working families ( not $8k per child like in atlanta. They are $2-4K even in the DC suburbs and in NY and PA., with multiple child discounts).

EdJohnson
EdJohnson

“Although we can’t know for sure why the grade configurations for schools matter, we suspect that what really matters is how often students change schools.”

Might what really matters be that of stunting especially the more vulnerable children’s social and emotional development caused by grade spans too short to provide for the children to form meaningful human relationships with teachers as caring adults?

“Policymakers, educators, and parents should push for schools that requires fewer transitions for students. This is good policy, especially given that schools with longer grade spans are not more costly than separate elementary and middle schools.”

Sadly, it will take framing the need to return to K-7 then 8-12 in terms of saving money instead of doing so out of caring about the children.  Why would anyone think the children do not observe, learn from, and then act in accordance with not being cared about? 

Kristy Ulrich Papczun
Kristy Ulrich Papczun

Although I agree a little, keeping the structure k-8 almost exclusively throughout CPS has, in practice, resulted in the neglect of the specific needs of middle school students and staff. Particularly when it comes to PD. there isn't enough of our leadership "left" to differentiate within the structure, they're spread too thin already. Implementing a middle school structure would focus these moments more readily.

Rebecca Hendrix
Rebecca Hendrix

Absolutely not--if looked at closely, many middle schools do no follow the true middle school concept in its fidelity. While the piece cited here does make a compelling argument, I would be interested to see if middle schools that have been included in this sample are following the concept. Often, many middle schools divert from practices such as teaming and clusters/pods that support student transitions, provide developmentally-responsive instruction and support, and nurture young adolescents. With as much research that fails to support middle schools, there is an equal body of expansive research that does support them and has cited their success. https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&source=web&rct=j&url=https://www.amle.org/portals/0/pdf/twb/TWB_colorchart_Oct2013.pdf&ved=0ahUKEwibzJDO7aXPAhUGPz4KHS5dDLAQFggdMAE&usg=AFQjCNGBkjMKXtGBL3V8_2cWUXkSCzWQWQ&sig2=CuhZrbf7oFiPKtepIOk03A

Rebecca Hendrix
Rebecca Hendrix

And yes, I'm one of the strong proponents of middle schools mentioned in the piece.

Molly Bardsley
Molly Bardsley

If the middle school concept is so difficult for schools to implement with "fidelity" , it would seem that the concept is inherently flawed.

Molly Bardsley
Molly Bardsley

Even if a school follows the middle school concept in fidelity, you are still taking students out of an environment where they have been known for years and plopping them into an environment where they are strangers to faculty and staff. Makes it much harder for teachers to recognize when a kid is off the rails vs normal adolescent nonsense, and makes it so much harder for parents to have a useful relationship with the school.

misswhit
misswhit

I attended Atlanta Public Schools years ago when there were K-7, and 8th-12th grades.  At that time middle schools did not exist.  After college I started teaching in Atlanta schools.  To me, middle schools should be abolished.  Students are separated, grouped, and are not responsible enough for the challenge. Many are not mature and not accountable for their actions.  I declare "Let's return to pre K-7th grades and 8th-12th grades. Learning and teaching will be more effective."

Kathleen Carpenter
Kathleen Carpenter

Did I hear pendulums swinging? This debate has popped in and out of the conversation so many times over the years that I think it's kind of a moot point. It's what you're doing with the children not how your buildings are configured

Teresa Wilkinson Pawlik
Teresa Wilkinson Pawlik

I have said this for years. K-8 schools should never have been ditched. I know it is a logistical nightmare, but it would be like 1970 all over again when we began switching to the middle school format.

L_D
L_D

I attended a K-7 elementary and 8-12 high.  Reality was that grades 6 & 7 were effectively sequestered from the rest of the school; we may not have changed schools, but we definitely had a different experience.


If changing schools earlier is less disruptive, is anyone doing a K-2 or 3 and then a 3 or 4 through 8?  If so, what are the results?

Wascatlady
Wascatlady

Among what was controlled for, statistically, was size of school part of it?


My system is now more like Decatur's. For most of the kids, we have a Prek-1, 2-4, 5-6, 7-8, and high school.  The rest of the kids go to a Pre-k-5 school. The demographics are about the same. The prek -5 school does better, academically.  Our top school, however, till it was closed, was prek-7.  It produced much stronger students in all ways.  Why?  Parental buy-in and support. It was much better all around for there to be one class per grade.  And, at a critical time, the 6-7 graders were the seniors of the school, and were conscious of being the role models.


I think the small schools are the schools of the future, IF what we are about is increasing achievement and saving money!  At least for our population (70%+ free lunch), the accountability, structure, and parental engagement are critical.  One day perhaps those who want to "save money" will see that avoiding dropouts, premature family formation, and even perhaps crime is the way to go.


If you have never experienced it, it DOES make a difference!

BANSHEE296402
BANSHEE296402

And how do we configure the buildings to handle this many students?  Build all new schools big enough to handle k-8?  Not going to happen.

teachermom4
teachermom4

@BANSHEE296402 The middle schools could be used for k-8, as well. In my cluster, for instance, we have 4 elementary, 1 middle, and one high school. If the kids were redistricted, the middle school could just be converted. The same number of schools would be used, the kids would just be rearranged.


I grew up with k-5, 7-8, and 9-12. It worked fine. I student taught in a district that was k-2, 3-8, and 9-12. That was neat, too. In this area, I think the schools would still be huge; newer, smaller schools would probably not be built. I think 'big' is as much of a problem as the ages of the students in the building.

teachermom4
teachermom4

@Wascatlady @teachermom4 @BANSHEE296402 I meant K-6. I'm so used to being in K-5, I lost my head. I posted later the exact break down. We actually had K separate in an old 2 room schoolhouse with 4 half day classes rotating through daily. 1-2 was in another building, 3-4 in another, 5-6 in the town next door in their k-6 building (we consolidated and their kids came to us for 4th), junior high of 7-8, and then high school. Complicated, but it worked. I was never in school with my brother who was 2 years older until high school. I was never in the same school as my younger brother.

channum
channum

What about "junior high" — 7th and 8th grades — as the middle between K-6 and 9-12 high school?

Astropig
Astropig

@channum


You're 100% right.We should go back to an Elementary,Junior High and High School configuration.If we would treat some of these kids with a little more maturity and raise our expectations for them academically and socially,I believe that we'd see improvement in behaviors,academics and adjustment to young adulthood.


The Junior High arrangement of my youth was perfectly good for many reasons,not the least of which was a heightened sense of my place in the world and what milestones that I had to pass to be accepted as a member of a larger society.It's a shame that we had to get away from that.

Wascatlady
Wascatlady

@redweather @channum The junior high I grew up in was 7-8, but it was on the high school campus, and some of us got to take high school classes in 8th.  I got a year's credit in Algebra 1, and in Spanish 1.


I think it was the best of both worlds.  We were mostly separate, but had some points of contact with the older students and their leadership.  We also had the identification of being Black Bears, which cemented us into the school culture and spirit.


Here where I live now, 8th grade used to be at the high school and there were many pregnancies of 8th grade girls, particularly beginning in the spring as we approached prom.

teachermom4
teachermom4

@Wascatlady @redweather @channum Ours was like that, too. We also got to do more with art, band, and chorus because we could use the same teachers and facilities. The junior high didn't have them. The high school also had an indoor pool, so we swam for PE during the winter. We could just walk across the parking lot to get there.

redweather
redweather

Every time I see a discussion of this topic it seems like a case of rearranging deck chairs.

Melissa Payne
Melissa Payne

While it sounds alright in theory, this would be a logistical nightmare for districts to implement.

Beth Culverhouse
Beth Culverhouse

This was what was in place when I was in jr high/ high school and it worked well.

Robin Crews Culver
Robin Crews Culver

In DeKalb, we had K-7 then 8-12. Would love to return to that model.

Blair Thompson
Blair Thompson

I'm all for going back to P-6, 7-9, 10-12. I just don't think my 4 year old needs to be in school with 8th graders..... And I teach them and mine love her.