Middle Schools: A Failed Experiment?


The Payson Unified School District faces wrenching changes — and deep questions about how to accommodate both state and federal mandates. The resignation of Superintendent Ron Hitchcock, the search for an interim superintendent and the prospect of a sweeping change in direction and leadership next year has caused much soul searching and hand wringing on the school board.

Moreover, with unexpected crowding in the elementary grades and excess capacity in the high school and middle school — the school board will have to fashion a new plan for the future in coming months.

So while everything’s in flux, we thought this might be a good time to launch an intermittent column examining the latest research on reforms that might actually boost student achievement and success.

Today, we’ll report the results of some recent studies that compare the impact of students on organizing grades as K-8 schools, versus an elementary school and a middle school. Currently, Payson schools have a very unusual configuration that requires all students to attend four different schools within the course of their time in the district. Almost no research exists on the effects of that model since it’s so unusual. But at least two school board members have expressed interest in exploring the shift to a K-8 model, which would create two or perhaps three K-8 schools, which would all feed into the high school. The system would also match up with the grade configuration at Tonto Basin and Pine schools, both of which feed high school students in the Payson School District.

So in brief form, here’s a sampling of some of the research comparing K-8 schools with middle schools.

Effects of K-8 schools

By R. Abella, published in the Middle School Journal

This study of Miami-Dade schools compared 6-8th-graders in middle schools to a similar group of kids attending K-8 schools. The researcher found that K-8 students had higher test scores and attendance rates and lower suspension rates than students in middle schools. Moreover, the 6th- and 7th-graders had especially pronounced gains in mathematics — an area in which Payson schools have poor test scores. Abella cautioned that only long-term research will show for sure whether the short-term gains she documented will persist.

Efficacy of Philadelphia K-8 schools

by R.M. Offenberg, published in the Middle School Journal

Offenberg compared the test scores of 8th-graders in both middle schools and K-8 schools. He found that the students who attended the K-8 schools had higher scores in every category. However, he urged caution in generalizing on the results due to the relatively small number of K-8 students in the study.

Portland Public Schools Conversion


Researchers studied the effect of shifting 31 schools from a middle school model to a K-8 model between 2005 and 2009. The researchers found only minor differences in reading or math scores or attendance rates. Surveys reported more stability, fewer transitions, small student bodies and a wider ranger of connections with different students — but at least in the early years of the shift, those advantages of the K-8 schools weren’t reflected in higher test scores. The researchers haven’t yet assessed whether the K-8 students do better in high school.

The Middle School Plunge


Harvard Assistant Professor Martin West found sixth-graders in Florida schools that went to middle schools lost ground in reading and math compared to K-8 students. Moreover, the middle school students had an 18 percent higher dropout rate than the K-8 students. West then reviewed nine years worth of data from Florida’s Comprehensive Assessment Test, administered each year in grades 3-10. He used the data to study the impact of middle schools. The study found that test scores dropped significantly for the middle school students — and the lower scores persisted through high school. Scores also dropped when students moved from a K-8 school into high school in the ninth grade — but only one-quarter as much as the middle school drop. Moreover, the decline in the K-8 scores upon entering high school disappeared by 10th grade. West concluded that any transition from one school to another can lower scores, but that the middle school transition has a much more pronounced effect. In Payson schools, students must now go through school transitions at least four times between kindergarten and high school.


roysandoval 3 years, 1 month ago

Along about 1994 or '95 the PUSD School Board paid Dr. Donna Cranswick, then Superintendent of the Creighton District, $6000 (I believe) to do a study and present to the Board the reasoning behind changing from a 7-8 (Junior HIgh) to a 6-7-8 (middle School) model. At that time, the Middle School concept was all the rage around the country. It was to use a phrase, "The latest silver bullet." However, one of the complications associated with the model was (and is) that the staffing to run it properly is very costly. Consequently, the true model with pods and scheduling, counseling etc. etc. was unsustainable. Google it and you will find that a common complaint was, "Well we really didn't have the funding to implement a 'true' middle school model."
Fast forward to about 2002 in Payson. The subject of K-2, 3-5, 6-7-8 comes up. At the time I was an elementary principal. Our school had mentored six failing elementary schools around the state. Four of the six were in districts that had embraced a K-2, 3-5, 6-7-8 model. When we talked to teachers we found that in every case, the k-2 had embraced a certain instructional approach in reading while the 3-5 which was geographically separated had adopted another - and they were at odds. The result was, at time that was absolutely critical in terms of continuity for learning, students changed schools and the schools had different instructional approaches. Not only did the number of changes increase K-8 but the instruction changed, the geographical site changed and the support staff for the students and parents as well! This had a negative impact. Lo and behold, PUSD adopts the K-2, 3-5 school model in 2011! In the meantime, the K-8 model provides continuity of instructional and support services through every critical period in a child's development. It also provides opportunities for peer mentoring, in class tutoring and modeling. In a town like Payson which happens to be surrounded by two K-8's in Pine and Tonto Basin, it also creates an instant little interscholastic league of five schools. Look in the literature as I did in 2002 when K-2, 3-4-5 was first mentioned and you will find plenty about academic and social benefits of a K-8 model. You will find almost nothing regarding K-2, 3-5.

Just some thoughts and a challenge for people to do a literature search.


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