K-8 beats middle school in study

Students in K-8 schools do better than students who move from elementary to a stand-alone middle school, according to a Columbia University study published in Education Next. The study followed New York City students from third through eighth grade.

In the year students moved to middle school — sixth or seventh grade — math and English scores fell substantially compared to K-8 counterparts. Their achievement continued to decline through eighth grade.

The gap isn’t explained by spending or by class size, researchers Jonah Rockoff and Benjamin Lockwood write. Cohort size — the number of students in the same grade — was a factor. The K-8 schools averaged 75 students in the same grade; the middle schools averaged more than 200.

Developmental psychologists have shown that adolescent children commonly exhibit traits such as negativity, low self-esteem, and an inability to judge the risks and consequences of their actions, which may make them especially difficult to educate in large groups. The combining of multiple elementary schools and their students also disrupts a student’s immediate peer group. And middle schools often serve a more diverse student population than many students encountered in elementary school.

Rockoff and Lockwood aren’t sure why the transition to a larger middle school is so difficult. But they believe New York City children aren’t much different from students elsewhere.

After interviewing the study’s lead author, Columbia Business School professor Jonah Rockoff,  Martin West observes that Americans rate their local middle schools far lower than elementaries in the EdNext-PEPG Survey. “Rockoff and Lockwood’s research suggests that parents are onto something – and that the emerging trend toward shuttering middle schools and replacing them with K-8s is an encouraging development.”

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  1. And this raises a difficult issue, a sort of “you can’t go back” issue. Having created middle schools where the kids are permitted to act more like high schoolers than grade schoolers, many parents have a hard time envisioning adding those adolescents (particularly 7th and 8th graders) back into their younger children’s environment. It will take some careful planning to pull that off.
    In addition, some of the parents will bemoan the lack of advanced classes for their kids, and some will miss the interscholastic sports that some middle schools support.

  2. Is it reasonable to extrapolate these findings on the transition from middle school to high school? If a K-8 school is better than separate elementary and middle schools, is it reasonable to generalize and say a K-12 school would be the best of all?

  3. Mark Roulo says:

    If a K-8 school is better than separate elementary and middle schools, is it reasonable to generalize and say a K-12 school would be the best of all?

    Probably not. Taking it further, one would envision a single K-PhD school. This seems unlikely to be “best of all.” 🙂

    K-12 *might* still be better than separate K-8 and High School, but not because of the generalization. One would need to try it and see (the empirical approach).

    What would almost for sure make sense would be for the various schools in a given chain to coordinate so that the, for example, 8th graders were learning what the 9th grade teachers wanted as a foundation. I get the impression that this sort of coordination often does not happen.

    -Mark Roulo

  4. I wonder if this has something to do with middle-child syndrome. I know that there is a lot of focus on elementary and high schools as they represent the two ends of the educational system. People focus on elementary schools because the elementary schools are introducing education to mommy and daddy’s little darlings. High school, of course, is the final crack that school district get at preparing students for college and graduation is seen as a coming-of-age event in America. Middle school… what the heck do they do there?

    The one common thread in many district’s explanation of their goals for middle schoolers is that students are to mature emotionally and socially. Huh? What about academics? Even NY, with its vaunted standards, treats middle school like a middle child, taking a little bit each of high school and elementary standards and throwing them together into a pot.

    From my own personal experiences I have seen a larger number of burnt-out and ineffective teachers in the middle schools probably due to a lack of interest by parents and assessment by the district or state. Recent changes introducing yearly assessment for middle schoolers are changing this, but like a large ship, the course does not change instantly as it takes time for burn-outs to retire and ineffective teachers to be remediated.

    Having a two-school system, where the middle years are simply attached to one of the other two schools (or split between them), prevents middle schoolers from getting lost in the mix.

  5. Sujata Krishna says:

    This result is not at all surprising to me. The students entering 6th grade are much more at ease if it is on the same campus and if they have seen other 6th graders around. It also helps if they’ve seen the middle school teachers around campus. At most elementary schools the students simply do not know what to expect at ‘middle school’ hence there is a high level of anxiety. This, after having toured the middle school campus at least once.
    Additionally middle school is too short. First year you are ‘new’, 7th is a normal grade and then you are going out by the time you are in 8th. Very little time to settle down and feel any sense of belonging to such a school. Best to merge it K-8 or K-6 and 7-12.

  6. Richard Aubrey says:

    When my kids were getting ready to go to seventh grade (7-8 called jr. hi.), we had a parents’ meeting with the principal.
    He explained part of the issue, various behaviors to be expected and needing to be dealt with.
    I was surprised, asking my wife if kids lost ground in maturity when they went to jr. hi.
    She, a high school teacher, thought they did.

  7. I don’t know about the academics of middle schools, but I do like the social/family aspect of being at a K-8 school for 9 years. I’ve got 3 kids ages 3, 5 and 8. Because the school they’re at (or will be at) is K-8, all 3 kids will be in the same school for many years. In the case of the 5 and 8 year old, they’ll be in the same school for 6 years, but even the 3 year old will be in the same school with his oldest sister for 4 years. Having the kids in the same school makes it more homey and less institutional. All the 3rd graders know our youngest child and he hasn’t even started school yet. He hangs out with them during the 20 minute “recess” before school starts and when I volunteer for lunch duty.

  8. My older kids went to a 7-8 JHS, which was in HS format and had a very academic orientation. Over community opposition, it became a 6-7-8 MS by the time my younger kids arrived. The focus had completely changed; the academic focus was gone and had been replaced with a touchy-feely, artsy-crafty, groupwork approach that blanketed everything. NEST (nurture, encourage, support, ?) met every day; it was navel-gazing to the max. It also seemed to encourage all the worst aspects of young adolescent behavior, especially the drama-queen, mean-girl variety. Both my son and my daughter hated it and couldn’t wait to get into high school.

    Although I liked having the JHS/MS share a campus with the HS, since it allowed some 7-8th graders to take HS classes, I would not be happy with a single 7-12 school. I have experience with such schools and there is a tendency for HS guys to be dating 7th-8th grade girls, many of whom are physically fully mature (not emotionally) and likely to be flattered by and gain status by such attention. Since the trend of redshirting boys has accelerated over the past couple of decades, it’s not unusual to see guys of 19 or 20 in the high schools. Putting all 7th-8th grade girls into that environment is just looking for trouble.

  9. I went to an academically oriented (not a lot of touchy-feely stuff) middle school back in the 80s. I loved it, since it was the first time that I thought school was challenging (we changed classes on a bell schedule like the high school). I loved being treated like an adult, and was very confused by all of the talk at the start of the year about 6th graders being overwhelmed. That being said, my younger brother was much more sensitive and probably would have found the adjustment more difficult had we not moved in the interim.

  10. bill eccleston says:

    One of the most neglected studies in education, the Rand Corporation’s 2004 examination of middle schools, “Focus on the Wonder Years,” concludes that from the perspective of developmental psychology alone, middle school is a stupid idea. You bet anxious parents of 6th graders are onto something! Get that report and read it.

  11. Mark R, you are probably correct… my comments were both serious and not. I agree that the generalization of what happens in the transition from 5th to 6th (or 6th to 7th) is not the same as the transition from 8th to 9th (or 9th to 10th); however as you point out, there is a disconnect between what is emphasized in middle school and what is emphasized in high school.

    I’m just skeptical that some of these assumptions are correct; I don’t think the solution to fixing how one adapts to new environments comes from avoiding change.

  12. One transition between middle and high school that I think is often overlooked is accountability on the student’s part. Our district right now is having problems with this. Middle schoolers are often given multiple opportunities to complete their work… they never really get a 0 for an incomplete assignment. Also, there have been numerous instances of social promotion despite failing grades because the district does not want an 8th grader who can drive to school in the morning.

    9th grade teachers complain every year about the lack of effort and accountability with their new students, who are now faced with 0’s for incomplete work and NY Regents exams at the end of the year. Many students who relied upon the endless make-up attempts and social promotion in middle school end up frozen in 9th grade classes until they are old enough to drop out.

  13. Wait a minute: wasn’t the switch from elem/jr high to middle school supposed to usher in a great improvement in kids’ social well-being? Isn’t that what EVERY ed leader was saying 15 years ago? Wasn’t this idea “supported by research”? Are you saying that the grand Middle School Movement was a fraud? Is there any chance these mis-leaders will ever be held to account? When are we going to get smart to these dim careerists who advocate every half-baked, unproven reform du jour?I don’t think it’s too much of an exaggeration to say that pretty much every idea that comes from our education commissars is just as bogus. I wish our ed leaders swore to do no harm. As it is, they do more harm than good.

  14. Two of the districts in our area have a 6-7 school and a 8-9 building. I always thought it was crazy to have that many transitions. However, it does allow more class choices in 8th grade. It’s hard to compare academic achievement because they are both wealthier districts than the surrounding area.

    I personally would prefer my daughter to go to a k-8 or the old junior high (7,8,9).


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