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Are we stuck in the middle? Should districts ditch middle school and return to K-8?


Ross Rubenstein is a professor and the Dan E. Sweat Distinguished Chair in Educational and Community with the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies at Georgia State University.

In this piece, Rubenstein discusses his research showing students attending K-8 schools tend to outperform students attending separate elementary and middle schools.

I've written about school structure based on my experiences attending a K-8 school and my children's very different experience going to a K-3 school, a 4/5 academy and then a middle school. I am not a fan of middle school, a model that has strong defenders despite increasing evidence suggesting students fare better in the K-8 settings favored by many private schools.

Proponents keep telling me middle schools aren't working because we aren't doing them right. We've had decades to get middle school right. If it's that hard to pull off, maybe the model ought to be junked.

With that, here's Rubenstein's piece.

By Ross Rubenstein

For the past 13 years, City Schools of Decatur has operated a separate 4-5 academy — a school for fourth and fifth graders only. Recently, there have been renewed discussions about returning to a K-5 configuration in Decatur.

Such debates aren’t unusual – in Decatur or in the rest of the country. While Decatur’s structure of three schools before high school is relatively rare, debates about the best grade span for elementary and middle school students have taken place in school districts around the country.

Perhaps understandably, much of the discussion from parents centers on issues of convenience: which configuration decreases traffic? Will sibling groups be in the same school? Other important considerations include which configurations will ease school-crowding.

One concern that is often absent from the discussion is student performance. This is surprising and unfortunate given that grade span configuration is one of the relatively few issues in education policy on which a strong consensus has emerged among researchers.

My own research found that students attending K-8 schools tend to outperform students attending separate elementary and middle schools. My colleagues Amy Ellen Schwartz, Leanna Stiefel, Jeff Zabel and I compared the performance of New York City 8th graders attending schools with a variety of grade spans, controlling for many other factors that could affect student performance.

We found strong evidence that students attending K-8 schools had larger test score gains between 3rd and 8th grade than did students in schools with other grade spans.  For students who made transitions, earlier was better.  In other words, changing schools between 6th and 7th grades is worse than changing between 4th and 5th.

Since then, a number of other studies have found similar results. Most notably, these results have been replicated in different school systems, states and countries. All have reached essentially the same conclusion: student performance suffers after transitioning from an elementary to a middle school, and does not fully recover by the time students are in high school.

Although we can’t know for sure why the grade configurations for schools matter, we suspect that what really matters is how often students change schools. In short, students perform worse when they must enter a new school – whether it is because of moving or because of the grade configuration of schools.

Parents sometimes have to move and we can’t change that. We can do something about changes due to the grade configuration of schools.

Policymakers, educators, and parents should push for schools that requires fewer transitions for students. This is good policy, especially given that schools with longer grade spans are not more costly than separate elementary and middle schools.

Although K-8 schools are not a “magic bullet” to cure low student performance, they are one of the relatively few issues on which a strong consensus has emerged among researchers and one that is within the control of school district policy makers. Choosing grade span configurations, therefore, provides a wonderful opportunity for research to inform real-world policy decisions affecting children and their families.


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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.