Stuck in the Middle

Jonah E. Rockoff and Benjamin B. Lockwood, Stuck in the Middle: How and why middle schools harm student achievement (Cambridge, MA: Education Next, Fall 2010)

Do middle schools hurt student achievement? Seems so. Jonah Rockoff and Ben Lockwood compare middle schools (grades 5-8 or 6-8) to K-8 configurations in New York City by examining student-level achievement data for students in grades 3 to 8 from 1998-99 to 2007-08. They find that English and math achievement falls the year a student starts at a middle school, compared to his or her counterpart who remained at a K-8 school. Transition to a new place obviously plays a role, so what’s more troubling is that the declines persist at least through eighth grade (the highest year in which they had data). Moreover, this “middle school achievement gap” cannot be explained by a scarcity of resources, since New York’s per-pupil expenditures are roughly the same in both types of schools. They did find some evidence, however, that grade size impacts achievement. Since middle schools combine students from multiple elementary schools, they typically have over 200 students in every grade, while the average cohort size in K-8 schools is seventy-five. Large numbers of pupils in the same grade negatively affects achievement, though not overwhelmingly. Rockoff and Lockwood also found that parents with children in middle schools tend to give their schools lower marks on education quality and school safety than those with children in K-8 settings. In the end, we don’t know whether academic declines such as these persist through high school and we also don’t know whether these findings would hold up in more rural or suburban locales. But we do know that these results put another nail in the coffin of the “middle school movement,” which held that pubescent adolescents needed a softer, gentler landing pad between elementary and high school. Maybe not.

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