A study in Education Week makes the case for districts to get rid of middle schools in favor of K-8 schools. Harvard University researchers Guido Schwerdt and Martin R. West looked at public schools in Florida. They used statewide data to track kids in grades 3 through 10 from 2000 to 2009.
The study found “that students moving from elementary to middle school in grade 6 or 7 suffer a sharp drop in student achievement in the transition year.” The achievement drops continue through grade 10, “by which time most students have transitioned into high school. We also find that middle school entry increases student absences and is associated with higher grade 10 dropout rates.” By comparison, the data show the transition into high school in the ninth grade typically brings a brief and small drop in achievement.
Most kids in America attend elementary school, switch to middle school in the sixth or seventh grade, and then move over to high school in grade 9. Researchers found that prior to the early 1900’s, schools that covered Kindergarten through eighth grade and schools that housed grades 9-12 were the norm. Growing enrollments led to the creation of junior high schools, which soon gave way to middle schools as a means of preparing kids for the rigors of higher grade levels.
The authors say their analysis indicates “the negative effects of transitioning to a middle school persist through the first two grades of high school. We find very little support for the hypothesis that students who attended middle schools benefit at the transition to high school.”
The authors say the negative effects seem to be largest in urban areas, but are also substantial in rural settings. They saw the biggest impact when students moved to a school in which they became the youngest on campus. Older students, they note, can do well “because they have greater opportunity to take on leadership roles.”
It certainly could be a funding issue. The research showed Florida middle schools spending 11 percent less per student with more students per teacher than K-8 schools. Yet the teachers had similar salaries and years of experience across school types.
During the study, charter schools accounted for almost half of the K-8 schools in Florida and less than 10 percent of the middle schools.
In conclusion, the authors write, “We find that Florida students entering middle school in grade 6 or 7 experience a large drop in student achievement in math and English relative to their peers who do not enter middle schools. Taken as a whole, these results suggest that structural school transitions lower student achievement, but that middle schools in particular have adverse consequences for American students.
Our findings clearly support ongoing efforts in urban school districts to convert standalone elementary and middle schools into schools with K-8 configurations. They are also relevant to the expanding charter school sector, which has the opportunity to adopt alternative grade configurations without the potential disruption caused by school conversions.
More research is needed to explain the negative effects of middle schools. In the meantime, however, the lack of a definitive explanation should make policymakers cautious about their ability to take steps to mitigate these effects while maintaining existing grade configurations.”