I am not a fan of the middle school concept, believing that the traditional k-8 model deserves another look. Compared to elementary school, I found the academics in middle school weak, the rules oppressive and the socialization/connections classes just time fillers.
Rather than smooth the rough spots of adolescence, middle schools intensified them by herding too many kids together in schools that were regarded as holding pens until their hormones settled down and they were fit for polite society or at least for algebra I.
Now a new Columbia University study of New York City schools concludes that students fare better in k-8 schools.
“How and Why Middle Schools Harm Student Achievement” is the work of Jonah E. Rockoff and Benjamin B. Lockwood of the Columbia Graduate School of Business. They tracked students in grades 3-8 over a 10-year period (1998-99 school year to the 2007-08 year) and found a decrease in math and reading scores and an increase in absenteeism for students who enter New York middle schools compared to students who continue in k-8 public schools. The drop-off did not have any connection to class size or per-pupil spending.
According to the report, academic achievement, as measured by standardized tests, falls substantially in both math and English among students in their first year in middle school compared to peers who continue to attend a k–8 elementary school in the first year. And achievement continues to decline throughout middle school. This negative effect persists at least through 8th grade, the highest grade for which researchers could obtain test scores.
The study states:
Why the turn against middle schools?
For more than three decades, American public education embraced this organizational model. Between 1970 and 2000, the number of public middle schools in the U.S. grew more than sevenfold, from just over 1,500 to 11,500. These new middle schools displaced both traditional K–8 primary schools and junior high schools (which first appeared a century ago and served grades 7–8 or 7–9). From 1987 to 2007, the percentage of public-school 6th graders in K–6 schools fell from roughly 45 percent to 20 percent.
Neither the middle school nor the junior high has ever been popular among private schools, which educated only 2 percent of their 6th and 7th graders in these types of schools in 2007. And maybe the private schools have had it right all along. For the last two decades, education researchers and developmental psychologists have been documenting changes in attitudes and motivation as children enter adolescence, changes that some hypothesize are exacerbated by middle-school curricula and practices.
No matter whether students enter a middle school in the 6th or the 7th grade, middle-school students experience, on average, a large initial drop in their test scores. Even after accounting for a host of other factors that influence student achievement, students who eventually attend middle schools go from scoring better than their counterparts in k–8 schools in the year prior to transitioning to middle school to scoring below where we would expect if they were not attending a middle school. Math achievement for 6th graders transitioning to middle school falls by 0.18 standard deviations, and English achievement falls by 0.16 standard deviations.