The middle school movement, which created separate schools for students in grades 6-8 or 5-8, originated in the belief that a special approach was needed to nurture young adolescents at a time they were going through profound physical and psychological changes. The idea was that learning would thrive in an environment geared to young adolescents' emotional needs. But many educators have questioned that notion, and now John Rockoff and Benjamin Lockwood have completed a study suggesting that separate middle schools harm student learning, at least in New York City.
The main study design was simple enough. The authors compared the academic growth trajectories, as measured by test scores, of New York City students who moved between elementary schools and middle schools to the trajectories of students who remained in K-8 schools. The results are pretty clear: when students move to middle school, their performance drops. Not only does it drop in the year after the move, which you might expect - new school, new friends, new challenges - it continues dropping each year.
How big is the drop? Well, it's significant, about .17 standard deviations by grade 8 if you move in grade 6. That's like 20 points on the SAT, which doesn't sound too bad. Put another way, it means that a student who started at the 50th percentile in 5th grade would have fallen to about the 43rd percentile by the end of grade 8. So it's a big enough drop to matter. What's more, the drop appears to be larger in students who had lower achievement to begin with.
The authors go on to explore some possible reasons for the achievement drop. It's not funding. A small factor may be attendance: kids in middle school miss two more days each school year than kids in K-8 schools. Another factor, accounting for about a quarter of the difference, is that middle schools have more students per grade, reflecting the fact that they draw from different middle schools. A new school, where kids are coming in with different educational experiences, will have to spend some time calibrating.
But why does the decline continue into a second and third year? My hypothesis is that the toxic aspects of middle school - the jockeying for social position, the focus on pop culture, the emotional turmoil - are magnified when young adolescents are the only kids around. In a K-8 school, students in grades 6-8 have a chance to be leaders and role models. They can take pride in the school that brought them this far. Sure, they'll still be distracted by fashion, the opposite sex, iTunes and texting, celebrities and rumors, but perhaps not so much as they would be without littler kids looking up to them and teachers who have known them for a really long time.