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Ed. Magazine

Do Middle Schools Make Sense?

Illustration by Scoty Reifsnyder

New research finds that keeping students in K–8 schools has benefits.


[caption id="attachment_8622" align="alignleft" width="300" caption="Illustrations by Scoty Reifsnyder"]middle school illustration[/caption]

Transitioning from elementary school to middle school can be tough. Assistant Professor Martin West remembers the "shock" of the new environment he encountered at the larger, all-boys school when he entered the seventh grade.

Still, his transition was pretty mild, he says. He was lucky to have been the beneficiary of "outstanding" educators in his private K–6 school located within the beltway of Washington, D.C., and the fact that his new school spanned grades three through 12 meant he would avoid making another transition once he reached high school. It was even during this time that West decided he wanted to be a teacher one day.

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.

With a mass of Florida data from his prior research projects, West was able to review nine years of results from the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT), administered annually to students in third through 10th grade. West says that Florida's size and diversity allowed him to study the effects of middle school transitions for students of all kinds in urban, suburban, and rural districts. And because some Florida students attend schools with grade six through 12 or seven through 12 configurations, he was able to compare the effect of entering a middle school in grade six or seven to that of entering high school in grade nine.

"We do find clear evidence of a drop in achievement to high school, but it is one-quarter the size of the drop we see with the middle school transition," he says. "By grade 10, those students are back up" where they were expected to be before making the transition. "In middle school, the decline persists as long as they remain in a middle school and even into high school; they don't just have a one-time drop. That suggests to me … that while there is a cost with school transitions in general, the middle school transition is particularly tough."

So what does this mean for America's public middle schools? Possibly nothing.

While widespread consensus may be hard to achieve on whether middle schools work for the students enrolled within them, most people can agree on one thing: Regardless of one's zip code, there is a healthy amount of trepidation around middle school and the middle school years.

The question is, is this an indictment of the middle school model or of middle schools themselves?

"Obviously the transition years are very difficult for kids, so whether it's moving from grade five to six or eight to nine, it's a challenging situation," says Joseph Bumsted, Ed.M.'82, assistant principal of South Fort Myers High School in Florida. "The things that make it especially difficult moving from grade five to grade six is the students go from a self-contained, supportive atmosphere where they have one teacher they know … to sixth grade and they are confronted with seven different [teachers'] personalities. They don't know how to handle it."

The Middle School Movement

Trying to figure out how to meet the needs of young people isn't new, says Laura Rogers, Ed.M.'75, Ed.D.'87, a lecturer and codirector of the school psychology program in the Department of Education at Tufts University, and author of Fires in the Middle School Bathroom.

"Our education system has been grappling to meet the need of early adolescents for 100 years," she says.

What's changed is the configuration for how and where that age range is educated.

Until the early 20th century, U.S. schools were mainly K–8 models. By the midcentury, in response to growing enrollment, many places created junior highs which typically started in grade seven and served grades seven through eight or seven through nine. But, as cited on the National Center for Education Statistics website, school districts began moving away from the junior high model in the 1960s and rapidly toward the creation of middle schools starting in grade six or even grade five. These schools either replaced junior highs or were created where there were still K–8 schools. In 1970–71, there were 2,100 middle schools. By the 1998–99 school year, there were 11,200, an increase of more than 430 percent. During the same period, the number of junior high schools declined by nearly 54 percent, from 7,800 in 1970–71 to 3,600 in 1998–99.

Initially, middle schools tended to have a distinctive educational philosophy compared with junior highs. (West says that distinction is less clear today.) They would also, says Rogers, a developmental psychologist by training, "create a bridge" for students, one that would focus on the specific needs and developmental stages of children between the ages of 11 and 13.

In time, however, the effectiveness of the middle school model came into question. A 2001 article "Reinventing the Middle School," published in the Middle School Journal, spoke of the "arrested development" of this once-promising educational model. So too did a January 27, 2007, article in The Boston Globe, which mentioned that several districts around the nation were moving toward the return of K–8 schools. Affirming Rogers' earlier point, the Globe article noted, "Middle schools were conceived in the 1970s and '80s as a nurturing bridge from early elementary grades to high school, but critics say they now more often resemble a swamp, where urban youth sink into educational failure."

As a result of growing evidence, parental preference, and, in the case of urban districts, the continued loss of students in the middle grades to charter schools, West says in his article that several sizeable districts — Baltimore, Charlotte-Mecklenberg (N.C.), and Philadelphia, among others — have transitioned back to more K–8 schools.

Another district, Cambridge (Mass.) Public Schools, is trying an entirely new model: This fall it moved away from its long-held K–8 configuration with the creation of a lower school and an upper school, with sixth- through eighth- graders in the upper school still housed within four of the city's elementary buildings. Superintendent Jeffrey Young, Ed.D.'88, says he proposed the move in December 2010 to level the academic and socioeconomic field of Cambridge students as they enter the middle and high school years.

West says there is no one correct model.

"There are, no doubt, many highly effective middle schools and many ineffective K–8 schools," he says. "Our evidence suggests that, on average, students do worse academically when they attend middle schools than when they attend K–8 schools — and that this is true in urban, suburban, and rural settings. This suggests that it may be harder to create an effective middle school than an effective K–8 school, and that part of the challenge is simply that middle school grade configurations require an additional school transition."

Rogers says it's also important to take into consideration other factors — not just grade configuration — when it comes to achievement and determining "cause and effect" in education. This can be challenging, she admits, especially since other indicators are not always easily measured. But data like that from FCAT may not tell the full story.

"Things can be statistically significant but not educationally relevant," she says. "There are so many other social factors that influence these results. … It is hard to draw conclusions."

West says some middle schools have worked well, such as the KIPP charter school network, which includes 61 schools that house grades five through eight.

"But even many charter organizations like KIPP are now growing back toward elementary schools to provide more continuity of service," he says.

Jonathan Bush, Ed.M.'09, understands the value of that continuity. As a seventh- and eighth-grade math teacher in a K–8 charter school in Massachusetts, he points to several factors that he believes contribute to the success of his school, including ongoing communication and collaboration among staff of all grade levels, as well as the development of a curriculum that "ramps up" each year, preventing gaps or holes in nine consistent years of academic preparation.

"I think one of the most compelling reasons to support the K–8 grade configuration is the leadership aspect for students," Bush says. "We put an emphasis on our seventh- and eighth-graders to be leaders. … They are teamed up with the younger kids for tutoring, as one example, and that is a big element of our school. If [you] are not given those leadership roles and you're in the sixth grade in a middle school, you're at the bottom of the totem pole. From the leadership standpoint, the K–8 model is important."

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?"

Florida by the Numbers

Middle school illustrationWest's data on Florida includes annual FCAT math and reading test scores as well as two behavioral outcomes: days absent and a measure of whether they dropped out of high school by grade 10.

As West shows in his Education Next article, moving to middle school leads to a "substantial drop in student test scores" in the first year of the transition, and the "relative achievement of middle-school students continues to decline in the subsequent years they spend in such schools." Essentially, the longer students stay in a middle school, the lower their achievement. In addition, while the Florida study shows that although the "negative effects of entering a middle school are somewhat smaller outside of urban districts, … they remain substantial even in rural areas."

Among student subgroups, the study also finds that "grade configuration has a larger effect on the math scores of traditionally disadvantaged subgroups than on other students. Black students in particular demonstrate large relative gains in math achievement prior to entering a middle school but then suffer larger drops both at and following the transition."

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."

Ed. Magazine

The magazine of the Harvard Graduate School of Education

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