Because middle school education (grades six through eight) in the United States has struggled in terms of academic achievement, school districts in several states are returning to the K-8 model. Reform is underway in Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee, and districts in at least eight other states across the nation are considering merging their middle schools and elementary schools into K-8s.
The authors of a new study comparing academic achievement in K-8 schools with middle schools in Philadelphia note that the resurgence of the K-8 model is based on research showing that K-8 students have higher levels of math and reading achievement. They caution, however, that these conclusions are based on case studies and anecdotal evidence and not enough on actual comparative studies of the two school structures.
Researchers Vaughan Byrnes and Allen Ruby from the Center for Social Organization of Schools at Johns Hopkins University took a more rigorous approach to comparing academic achievement between the K-8 and middle school models. They took advantage of a “natural experiment” in the Philadelphia City School District to investigate student achievement as the district implemented a K-8 conversion policy.
Employing a multi-level modeling approach and a substantially larger sample size than preceding studies, Byrnes and Ruby looked at math and reading scores on standardized tests for 40,883 Philadelphia 8th graders. These students came from 39 middle schools, 42 established K-8 schools, and 14 newly formed K-8 schools across five classes from the 1999-2000 to the 2003-2004 school years.
What they measured
The differences between students, classes, and school structures were observed, comparing the old K-8 and new K-8 schools separately to the middle schools. The study’s “outcome measure” was students’ 8th grade scores on the Pennsylvania State System of Assessment, one of the high-stakes tests used by Pennsylvania to evaluate school and district annual performance as mandated by the No Child Left Behind legislation.
The researchers controlled for a wide variety of factors, including prior achievement, time, demographics, teacher data, school transitions, average grade size, geographic region, attendance, mobility rates, and school structure.
What they found
As expected, Byrnes and Ruby saw significant differences between the old K-8 schools and middle schools. The old K-8s had higher levels of achievement in both the 5th and 8th grades. They also had much lower proportions of Hispanic, Black, and high-poverty students compared to Middle Schools, and much higher proportions of White and Asian students. Most students at the old K-8s have been in the same school from 4th through 8th grades, had much smaller average grade sizes, and lower rates of student mobility during the year. K-8 teaching staffs had more certified teachers, averaged 3-plus years greater experience, and had lower rates of teacher absenteeism compared to middle school teacher personnel.
The students at the new K-8 schools, like students at the old K-8s, experienced fewer transitions to new schools and on average attended much smaller schools when compared to middle school students. The new K-8s, however, served student populations with lower achievement levels and with larger proportions of Hispanic students (and fewer Asian and White students) than the middle schools. The new K-8 teachers also were much less experienced than their middle school counterparts.
When the researchers controlled for various factors, they found that the old K-8 schools did indeed have significantly higher levels of achievement. However, the new K-8s, with their more disadvantaged student and teacher populations, perform similarly in terms of math and reading achievement compared to the middle schools. After controlling for population demographics, the old K-8 advantage was reduced but still significant, while the new K-8 schools developed a significant advantage in reading but not in math. After controlling for school transition and average grade size, there were no discernable differences in academic achievement between K-8 schools and middle schools.
Weigh the costs before converting
Because the new K-8 schools did not attain significant mathematics achievement over middle schools, despite their smaller size and fewer school transitions, Byrnes and Ruby concluded that these features alone are not enough to replicate the old K-8 achievement advantage. Much of that advantage clearly is due to the different student populations served by old K-8 schools..
Therefore, as long as the new K-8 schools consist of the same high-minority and high-poverty student populations as the middle schools, a district is not likely to replicate the K-8 advantage based upon size and student transition. Byrnes and Ruby caution districts to carefully weigh the infrastructure costs of redistributing middle school students against the limited achievement gains they may make in new K-8 schools. They advise districts and schools eager to convert their middle schools to consider education history. The K-8 model, once the dominant middle grades school structure, has gone out of fashion before. It could do so again as the rush to revert to K-8 may leave many reformers disappointed.
Why Educators Think K-8s are Better than Middle Schools
The K-8 school structure dominated middle grade education in the U.S. at the end of the 19th century and through the first four decades of the 1900s. K-8 schools were supplanted by the Junior High model (grades 7-9), which was introduced in 1910 and firmly established by the 1960s. The Middle School structure, introduced in the 1960s and ‘70s, became the dominant school structure of the 1990s.
Educators promoted the Middle School model believing it would be better serve the academic and emotional needs of early adolescents. Isolating middle-grade students would allow schools to focus on the behavioral needs of 10- to 13-year-olds. Middle School teachers could engage in a set of best practices (small learning communities, team teaching, professional development geared to teaching middle grades) that would provide unique advantages in addressing middle grade academic achievement.
However, research has shown that K-8 students show higher levels of achievement in math and reading; have higher attendance rates; and display better self-esteem, leadership, and attitudes toward school, all of which affect achievement. Parents often praise the greater sense of community they feel exists in K-8 schools, and stronger relationships seem to exist between students, teachers, and parents in K-8 schools.
Other factors influencing achievement at Middle Schools versus K-8 schools:
- Demographics. Middle Schools in general serve higher-minority and higher-poverty student populations than K-8 schools.
- Teacher population. The lack of middle-level trained and certified teachers may have prevented the Middle School model from being properly implemented in the first place.
- School transition. Middle School students have an extra transition to a new school that K-8 students do not have. Some research has found that K-8 students benefit from spending the middle grades as the “top dogs” in their building, building greater confidence, maturity, and leadership.
- School size. The larger size of most Middle Schools is detrimental to academic achievement, attendance, and social engagement. The older—and smaller—K-8 schools allow students to get to know classmates and teachers better. Smaller size may be a factor in the stronger sense of community experienced in K-8 schools, and it may enable K-8 schools to more effectively implement the best teaching practices that were originally thought to be an advantage of Middle Schools.
—Debra Bell Geiser, BS
Freelance writer and editor Debra Bell Geiser holds a bachelor of science degree in agricultural journalism from Iowa State University. She is the mother of a seventh grader enrolled in a talented and gifted program and lives in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
“Comparing Achievement between K-8 & Middle Schools: A Large Empirical Study,” by Vaughan Byrnes & Allen Ruby, Center for Social Organization of Schools, Johns Hopkins University (To be published in the American Journal of Education)
“Guess Again Will Changing the Grades Save Middle-Level Education?” by James Beane and Richard Lipka, Educational Leadership: April 2006, Vol. 63, Issue 7, p. 26-30.
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