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April 1, 2006
Vol. 63
No. 7

Guess Again: Will Changing the Grades Save Middle-Level Education?

Educators need to look beyond grade configuration to the real problems plaguing middle schools.

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Judging by some recent newspaper headlines, middle schools in the United States are once again under attack: “Mayhem in the Middle,” “Are Middle Schools Bad for Kids?”, and “Muddle in the Middle,” we read. Middle schools have been accused of everything from stunting students' academic growth to ruining their self-esteem. What's going on here?
Policymakers and the public have always had an uneasy relationship with middle schools, just as they have had with young adolescents themselves. No one seems to know quite what to do with either one. No wonder, then, that the history of middle schools has been a roller coaster of reform. In the latest dip, school officials in several large urban areas, such as Baltimore, Maryland, and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, beleaguered by poor test scores and unmanageable student behavior, have decided to abandon 5–8 and 6–8 grade arrangements and return to K–8 schools. As a result, the media and middle school critics have gleefully declared middle schools a failure. That obituary comes as something of a surprise to many middle-level educators who thought their work was headed in a healthier direction. Could they have been so wrong?

The Middle School Concept

  • Improve academic achievement for all students.
  • Understand young adolescence.
  • Provide a challenging and integrative curriculum.
  • Create supportive and safe environments through such structures as small teaching teams.
  • Ensure better teacher preparation for the middle grades.
  • Improve relationships with families and communities.
Interestingly, virtually all iterations of the middle school concept recognize that high-quality schools for young adolescents exist within a variety of grade configurations, including 5–8, 6–8, 7–8, K–8, 7–12, and K–12. And obviously, most of the components of the middle school concept are appropriate for any grade level. Why, then, would advocates of the concept specifically tie it to the middle grades? Quite simply, because they intended to implement it as an alternative to the impersonal, inequitable, and irrelevant structures and curriculums that characterized many junior high schools (and still, today, many middle schools).
Advocates of the middle school concept usually argue their case on the grounds that this approach is developmentally responsive to young adolescents. For example, they link small teaching teams to young adolescents' need for a sense of belonging and security; improved family relationships to their need for a support system through puberty's ups and downs; an integrative curriculum to their need for meaningful contexts for learning; and more appropriate teacher preparation to the many ways in which young adolescents differ from younger children and older adolescents.
Meanwhile, some studies have looked at what happens when schools actually implement the components of the middle school concept as a complete set, over time and with high fidelity (Anfara & Lipka, 2003; DePascale, 1997; Felner et al., 1997). The results? Increases in academic achievement and decreases in behavior problems, including among students who typically struggle with both. Moreover, various practices promoted by the middle school concept have independently shown considerable promise for improving achievement, engagement, and relationships: small teaching teams, authentic instruction, integrative curriculum, service learning, and affective mentorship (Beane & Brodhagen, 2001; Juvonen, Le, Kaganoff, Augustine, & Constant, 2004; National Middle School Association Research Committee, 2003).
But therein lies the real problem with the middle school concept: On the whole, its components have not been well implemented over time and rarely as a complete set of principles and practices. Most often, the title of “middle school” has had less to do with implementing the concept and more to do with changing the name on the front of the building.
In the unlikely event that the media and critics retract their obituary for the middle school concept, they might well title their correction “Sorry, Mistaken Identity.” For they have indeed mistaken the practices found in too many middle schools for the middle school concept itself. But then, so have many middle-level educators, who thought that simply putting grades 5–8 or 6–8 together without implementing the middle school concept would ensure a better education for young adolescents. Both groups were wrong.

What Research Really Shows

The 5–8 and 6–8 grade configurations most widely associated with middle schools emerged mainly as a result of two trends that took place in the 1960s and 1970s. First, as baby boomers poured into elementary schools, school districts found that moving the 5th and/or 6th grades to a “middle school” was more cost-efficient than building extra elementary schools. Second, in many northern cities and southern states, the new configuration helped move students out of segregated neighborhood K–8 schools into more integrated middle or intermediate schools (George, 1988). Advocates of reform at the middle level argued for aspects of the middle school concept from the start, but those arguments would not have produced the large-scale move to middle schools without the presence of such factors as overcrowding and desegregation.
Given the relatively poor record of full implementation of the middle school concept and the enormous difficulties facing urban schools, it is not surprising that urban school officials would envision returning grades 6–8 to the elementary school. Moreover, some evidence seems to support the K–8 model with regard to enhancing academic achievement, encouraging parental involvement, and reducing affective difficulties for students in this age group (Abella, 2005; Baltimore City Schools, 2001; Juvonen et al., 2004; Offenberg, 2001; Simmons & Blyth, 1987).

Guess Again: Will Changing the Grades Save Middle-Level Education?

The top five things children ages 9 to 13 worry about are

  • Grades.

  • Looks or appearance.

  • Problems at home.

  • Being liked and fitting in at school.

  • Being out of shape or overweight.

Time for Kids and KidsHealth.org survey of 1,004 U.S. tweens

At the same time, however, the research comparing K–8 and middle school configurations includes important caveats. First, although achievement test results for students in large urban districts may favor K–8 arrangements, such scores still fall short of state and national averages (Balfanz, Spiridakis, & Neild, 2002), and the K–8 advantage seems to disappear in the 9th grade (Abella, 2005). Second, the key difference between K–8 schools and middle schools seems to be the smaller size of the former, enabling teachers, students, and families to build better relationships. Third, virtually all of the studies caution that the middle schools involved have not done a good job of implementing aspects of the middle school concept. Fourth, K–8 schools do not necessarily outperform middle schools when both serve high-poverty students (Balfanz et al., 2002).
We are left with two key points. First, the advantages of K–8 schools over middle schools in urban areas reside largely in smaller class and school size, which enable these schools to support better relationships with all of their constituencies. K–8 schools remove the transition from elementary to middle school, which for unexplained reasons seems to coincide with decreasing parental involvement both in school and in the lives of their children. Second, however much improved achievement test scores appear in urban K–8 schools, such scores still do not rise to state and national averages for this age group. This is not difficult to understand when we remember that a school's poverty index is the strongest correlate and best predictor of achievement test scores (Bracey, 1997). And no matter how much the media and middle school critics want us to believe otherwise, school grade configuration is not a remedy for the rising tide of poverty in our nation's urban centers.

The Fuss Over Grade Levels

Proponents of the middle school concept have long cautioned against equating the concept with grade configurations. Almost 20 years ago, Paul George (1988) suggested thats lavish adherence to one grade configuration or another continues to obscure the need for substantive change and draws our attention away from potentially viable alternatives, such as K–8 and K–12. (p. 17)
In the early 1990s, Lounsbury and Clark (1991), two widely known middle school advocates, reported that 8th graders in K–8 schools reported more favorable experiences than their counterparts in 6–8 schools. Middle School Journal published Offenberg's Philadelphia study showing higher achievement in K–8 schools than in middle schools (2001). And the September 2005 issue of that journal focused almost entirely on research and policy questions related to K–8 schools.
No matter which grade configuration school districts choose, the most important decision is what kind of education they will offer young adolescents. Research on both middle schools and K–8 schools clearly suggests the importance of creating small learning communities, high-quality relationships, and strong transition supports. It may well be that attaching grades 6–8 to the elementary side of schooling proves more effective in implementing these principles and practices than does treating these grades as a junior version of high school. In this case, moving to K–8 schools might actually save the middle school concept from the more dangerous trend toward inflicting on middle schools the kind of structures more usually associated with junior high school setups, such as tracking and strict subject departmentalization.
Those considering K–8 schools must understand, however, that this configuration comes with its own set of potential problems. For example, resource reductions accompanying smaller middle-grades enrollments would likely reduce the number of specialized electives, services, accelerated courses, and extracurricular activities that some parents want for their children. And creating neighborhood K–8 schools may actually add to the resegregation of urban schools already in progress. Finally, there is certainly no guarantee that the middle grades placed within a K–8 school will implement all or any aspects of the middle school concept shown to work well with young adolescents (McEwin, Dickinson, & Jacobson, 2005).

Looking Beyond Configuration

The large urban school districts at the center of the move toward K–8 schools are complicated systems. Their sheer size may well work against creating the smaller school communities that the middle school concept promotes. Moreover, diminishing state and federal resources make school success more difficult for urban students, many of whom already suffer the injustice of having to live in poverty (Kozol, 2005). And the moves to punish struggling schools and students, sterilize the curriculum, and demand unattainable test results come down especially hard on large urban districts.
It is misleading for middle school critics to suggest that poor achievement and difficult conditions in our urban schools result from a particular school configuration. This sleight-of-hand rhetoric does a disservice to young adolescents and their schools by diverting attention from the powerful effects of poverty and the unsavory resegregation of our nation's communities and schools (Kozol, 2005).
Rather than debate which grade configuration is best for the middle grades, we would be better off expending our energy creating a curriculum that intellectually engages and inspires young adolescents, pushing for organizing structures that support high-quality relationships, and finding better ways to reach out to families and communities. If we really want to do something worthwhile for young adolescents, we should work to overcome the poverty and prejudice that relentlessly work against many of these students' chances for success inside school and for a decent life outside it.

Abella, R. (2005). The effects of small K–8 centers compared to large 6–8 schools on student performance. Middle School Journal, 37(1), 29–35.

Anfara, V., & Lipka, R. (2003). Relating the middle school concept to school achievement. Middle School Journal, 35(1), 24–32.

Balfanz, R., Spiridakis, K., & Neild, R. (2002).Will converting high-poverty middle schools facilitate achievement gains? Philadelphia: Philadelphia Education Fund.

Baltimore City Schools, Division of Research, Evaluation, and Accountability. (2001). An examination of K–5, 6–8 versus K–8 grade configurations. Baltimore: Author.

Beane, J., & Brodhagen, B. (2001). Teaching in middle schools. In V. Henderson (Ed.), Handbook of research on teaching (4th ed.) (pp. 1157–1174). Washington, DC: American Educational Research Association.

Bracey, G. (1997). Setting the record straight: Responses to misconceptions about public education in the United States. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development. (1989).Turning points: Preparing American youth for the 21st century. New York: Author.

DePascale, C. (1997). Education reform restructuring network: Impact documentation report. Cambridge, MA: Data Analysis and Testing Associates.

Felner, R. D., Jackson, A. W., Kasak, D., Mulhall, P., Brand, S., & Flowers, N. (1997). The impact of school reform for the middle years. Phi Delta Kappan, 78(7), 528–550.

George, P. (1988, September). Education 2000: Which way the middle school? The Clearing House, 62, 17.

Hough, D. (2003). R3 = Research, rhetoric, and reality: A study of studies addressing NMSA's 21st Century Research Agenda and This We Believe. Westerville, OH: National Middle School Association.

Juvonen, J., Le, Y., Kaganoff, T., Augustine, C., & Constant, L. (2004).Focus on the wonder years: Challenges facing the American middle school. Santa Monica, CA: Rand Corporation.

Kozol, J. (2005). The shame of a nation: The restoration of apartheid schooling in America. New York: Random House.

Lounsbury, J., & Clark, D. (1991). Inside eighth grade: From apathy to excitement. Reston, VA: National Association of Secondary School Principals.

McEwin, K., Dickinson, T., & Jacobson, M. (2005). How effective are K–8 schools for young adolescents? Middle School Journal, 37(1), 24–28.

National Middle School Association. (2003). This we believe: Successful schools for young adolescents. Westerville, OH: Author.

National Middle School Association Research Committee. (2003).Research and resources in support of This We Believe. Westerville, OH: National Middle School Association.

Offenberg, R. M. (2001). The efficacy of Philadelphia's K-to-8 schools compared to middle grades schools. Middle School Journal, 32(4), 23–29.

Simmons, R., & Blyth, D. (1987). Moving into adolescence: The impact of pubertal change and school context. New York: Aldine de Gruyter.

James A. Beane has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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