Mary Tamer, Ed. The Magazine of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Fall 2012
"New research finds that keeping students in K–8 schools has benefits.
"Not all students are so fortunate, as West discovered last spring when he released a study that explored the achievement and dropout rates of students enrolled in grades three through 10 in Florida’s public schools. The findings? In sum, students who left elementary schools for middle schools in grades six or seven “lose ground in both reading and math compared to their peers who attend K–8 schools,” he wrote in “The Middle School Plunge,” published in the spring 2012 issue of Education Next. Additionally, Florida students who entered middle school in sixth grade were 1.4 percentage points more likely than their K–8 peers to drop out of high school by 10th grade — a whopping increase of 18 percent.
"“Intuitively, I had not expected this to be an important policy lever, but there are a lot of indicators that things are not going well for students in the middle school grades in the United States,” says West, who serves as executive editor of Education Next. “If you look at international comparisons, kids in the United States perform better at elementary school than the later grades … so it made sense to look at whether grade configuration influenced this.”
"West decided to take a closer look after he read a 2010 study out of New York City by two Columbia University researchers that “produced compelling evidence that the transitions to middle schools were harmful for students in that setting.” That research found that students entering grades six through eight or seven to eight schools experience a “sharp drop” in achievement versus those attending K–8 schools. West wondered whether the same patterns would be evident elsewhere and, if so, whether the drop in achievement was temporary or persisted into high school.
"Important, yes, but while West hopes that his research will open the door for districts to take a closer look at more K–8 models, the configuration alone is hardly a magic bullet or panacea for success.
"“I happen to agree with the idea that it’s good to have K–8 or seven through 12 schools, but this is not based on data,” Rogers says. “Small schools, with less than 400 kids, can make a difference, as can having children over a longer period of time. None of these things, alone, makes a difference. The question is, what are the practices that are occurring to make some schools successful?”
"While some earlier studies questioned the role of grade configuration in school success and student achievement, including the 2008 National Forum “Policy Statement on Grade Configuration” and a 2010 study by EdSource, “Gaining Ground in the Middle Grades: Why Some Schools Do Better” in California, “the evidence on academic benefits has become much stronger in the past two years,” West says.
"“I’m generally sympathetic with this argument, especially to the extent that it points to a set of practices that middle schools could adopt to address their performance problems given that wholesale changes to grade configuration are unlikely to occur overnight,” he says. “That said, our evidence indicates that effective school practices are more common in K–8 schools than in middle schools and that the transition to middle school itself is detrimental for students and should be eliminated wherever possible.”
"Perhaps most importantly, Rogers says the one consistency she has found among K–8 schools is that “kids tend to say they feel safer, so there is less of a Lord of the Flies environment” at a critical stage when they are “navigating through social currents. For many kids, it’s distracting.”
"So whether the reasoning is leadership, safety, or the lessening of transitions that may affect academic achievement, West hopes policymakers will continue to review grade configurations for the benefit of all students.
"“The flip side of the point I’m making is that there is not one grade configuration for everyone,” says West, “but I think for policymakers, it is too easy to say we know there is a problem with middle schools and we can mitigate those problems. I don’t think my research or anyone else’s gives us the steps to take to mitigate them.”"