No middle ground

Middle schools may harm achievement
By

The idea that hormonally-challenged young teens need a school of their own between elementary and high school turns out to be bad academic policy, according to a new study from Harvard University.  Compared with students who attended kindergarten-through-eighth-grade schools, middle school students did worse on math and English language arts in high school, and were more likely to drop out.

Researchers analyzed data for all 3rd through 10th grade students in Florida public schools from the 2000-2001 academic year to 2008-2009 – more than 450,000 students. They used Florida because the state’s student data system is the most extensive in the nation, following students from kindergarten through college, using unique identifiers to protect privacy.

The report poses a noteworthy juxtaposition to “Gaining Ground in the Middle Grades,” a large 2010 California study by EdSource and Stanford University that examined the practices and policies of top-performing middle grades programs, whether they’re within a K-8 school or in a separate middle school. “Gaining Ground” studied 303 middle grades schools and surveyed more than 4,000 principals, superintendents, and math and English language arts teachers. It found “no clear association between grade configuration … and higher school performance on standards-based tests.”

Most significant policies and practices for middle school success. (Source:  EdSource) Click to enlarge

Most significant policies and practices for middle school success. (Source: EdSource) Click to enlarge

Matt Rosin of EdSource, the senior research associate on the project, said the findings painted a clear picture of what sets apart higher performing middle schools. “In everyday ways they were more intense and intentional about accepting and sharing accountability for results and setting measurable achievement objectives,” said Rosin.

But results of the Harvard study seem to suggest that the best middle school reform would be to close them down and put the students into a K-8 environment.

“We know there are high performing middle schools that are doing a great job, but that doesn’t mean that the choice of grade configuration is irrelevant,” said Martin West, an associate professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and co-author of the Florida study. “We find pretty compelling evidence that the transition itself does have substantial costs in terms of student achievement.”

Impact of middle school on student achievement to grade 10. (Source:  Harvard University) Click to enlarge.

Impact of middle school on student achievement to grade 10. (Source: Harvard University) Click to enlarge.

That evidence is disquieting.

  • Students who finish elementary school in 5th grade and move to middle school experience a significant decline in math and English language scores that continues into high school.
  • Even though middle school students enter 6th grade doing better than their K-8 counterparts, that advantage is reversed by 10th grade.
  • Florida students who attended middle schools were 18 percent more likely to drop out of high school than K-8 students.
  • High school absenteeism is higher for middle school students than K-8 students.

The Harvard study doesn’t have all the answers.  One of its conclusions is that “more research is needed to explain the negative effects of middle schools.” Few people disagree with that. Just last summer, at the National Forum’s Schools to Watch Conference, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan remarked that “the middle grade years have sometimes been called the ‘Bermuda Triangle’ of K-12 education” because too often they’re a time where students “sink or swim.”

At the same meeting, however, Duncan had strong praise for the EdSource/Stanford study for providing clear direction for improving middle schools. Stanford Professor Edward Haertel, the study’s technical director, said the Harvard evidence seems credible, and he doesn’t see a contradiction or connection between the two. “We didn’t look at movement to high school at all, and we weren’t focusing on transitions,” Haertel said.

Harvard’s West acknowledged that it’s still not clear what it is about the transition to middle school and the middle school environment that’s causing student achievement to fall. So he had some slightly equivocal advice for middle schools.

“I don’t think we understand what’s causing the problem well enough to mitigate it,” said West. “That being said, they should make efforts to actively do things.”

14 Comments

  1. It seems to me that this report is meaningless without information as to the demographics of students who attend K-8s and students who attend middle schools, and other confounding factors. Here in San Francisco, all the K-8s are alternative schools that students attend by request — there are no default assignments — so that would be a major confounding factor in comparing the two. Is that true in the schools studied by the Harvard researchers? That’s a flaw in the reporting of the study.
     
    I want to take a closer look at some of these claims:
     

    Students who finish elementary school in 5th grade and move to middle school experience a significant decline in math and English language scores that continues into high school.

    But how does that compare to students going through grades 6-8 in K-8s? This statement is meaningless without that information. And demographic information would also be essential.
    And for the two points below: Correlation or causation? Again, are there differences in the population of students who attended middle schools vs. those who attended K-8s?

    Florida students who attended middle schools were 18 percent more likely to drop out of high school than K-8 students.

    High school absenteeism is higher for middle school students than K-8 students.

    I think research like this needs to be reported (by everyone involved) more carefully and thoroughly, or the reports risk seriously misleading the public.

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  2. Is the data broken out between kids who go to a middle school grades 6-8 versus K-6 and a Jr. High of grades 7-8?
     
    I can’t imagine my 6th grader doing middle school this year.
     
    It always has seemed to me (intuitively, no data) that dividing kids into 7/8/9  and then 10-12 HS would make more sense academically. It was explained to me recently that this is impossible because of CIF (sports) rules. I’m so glad that CIF is more important than academic proficiency. (/rolleyes)

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  3. Caroline,
    It is a very rigorous empirical study that accounted for all factors including race, ethnicity, family income, and location (urban, rural and suburban).  As mentioned in the article, the comparisons are all between kids who transitioned from either grade 5 or grade 6 to middle school and then to high school, with students who attended middle grades in a K-8 environment and then went to high school.  The relationships are all causal.  Edward Haertel of Stanford, who was the EdSource/Stanford study’s technical director, is a leading psychometrician, and said the Florida study is credible because it compared outcomes for different trajectories that couldn’t be explained by other factors.
    That doesn’t mean that the reasons for the different outcomes can’t be mitigated for, but it does call out for more research perhaps along the lines of following students in the high-achieving middle schools that the EdSource/Stanford study identified into high school. That work hasn’t been done yet.

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  4. el, Yes, the study distinguished between students who entered middle school in grade 6 and those who entered in grade 7 and found that both “suffer a sharp drop in student achievement in the transition year.”

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  5. The Harvard research is a worthy reminder that changing an organization is very disruptive. Every time students advance a grade, from their perspective it feels like a reorganization. Even the small transitions (such advancing from 3rd to 4th grade) are equivalent to a change of management and team members.  The transition from elementary to middle school, meanwhile, is huge. Students who had one teacher now have many. Teachers who had 30 students now must keep track of 100 or more, with a continuous flow of new faces. Organizational changes of this magnitude are the stuff of Dilbert cartoons — and that’s in the adult world.
     
    The EdSource research, meanwhile, points to approaches that seem to mitigate the chaos, mainly by keeping a few things at the center of the target. Professor Haertel is right; these findings are not in conflict. For more on the analogy to business, see http://toped.svefoundation.org/2011/11/14/schools-are-like-businesses-–-with-students-as-knowledge-workers/

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  6. Ms. Baron,  thank you very much for the link you provided to the (49 page) study.  It has a wealth of information with tables, charts, and statistical analyses.  Anyone truly interested in the topic would be well advised to read it with some care before rushing to judgement.  Of course, that assumes sincere and objective consideration on the part of the reader.  You have highlighted a fascinating and important study which, regrettably, does not surprise me and does call out for more study as to the causes.
     
    My own gut take on it is that kids in the 6-8 grades are still very much kids and benefit from the closer relationship with a single teacher in a smaller school.  I think the current advent of more rigorous math and science in the middle school years could be made to work just fine with a math and science specialist in each K-8 school, or more training of primary school teachers in those subjects.  Some of the private K-8 schools have everyone finishing geometry by the 8th grade with “regular” teachers.

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  7. I don’t actually see how anyone could prove these two things were causal unless there was very accurate controlling for demographics and all other mitigating factors. How would that be done?
     
    Florida students who attended middle schools were 18 percent more likely to drop out of high school than K-8 students.
    High school absenteeism is higher for middle school students than K-8 students.
     
    (While I have two kids who had an amazingly good middle school experience, I don’t have any political agenda on this issue.)
     
    @MichaelG, a private school would be a whole different ballgame, though, as they choose their students.

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  8. CarolineSF:  I was referring to the ability of the regular teachers to handle teaching algebra 1 and geometry not the students ability to learn.  This was in order to point out that one of the possible advantages of middle school having specialists in math and science was not necessarily a limiting factor.
     
    BTW,  have you actually read the entire article Ms. Baron linked to?

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  9. It is important to note that all testing programs see drops in student performance when students change schools. There is a characteristic drop in performance at ninth grade because so many students change schools at this time. Call it the changing school effect. It has been hypothesized that this is due to social issues taking up alot of grey matter.

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  10. Jeff, I love your analogies to management of teams of knowledge workers inside a business. I think that is a very effective and very useful perspective.

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  11. The idea doesn’t seem to be new.  A quick google search finds the following from 2004, which claims this issue has been well known for over 30 years:
    http://www.amle.org/AboutAMLE/PositionStatements/SmallSchools/tabid/293/Default.aspx
    I suppose the data bases results is new, true?
     

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  12. As pointed out above, there is usually a decrease in performance do to any school change at any time. I wonder if it is possible (not sure if it is done as my children are in a neighborhood K-8), for incoming middle schoolers (be they 6th or 7th) to be placed in “home room” classes with their former classmates. Would having their former peer group in their first class of the day help with the transition (I’m going off memory of having a homeroom class first period in Middle School)?

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