Stuck in the Middle: Impacts of Grade Configuration in Public Schools

Jonah E. Rockoff & Benjamin B. Lockwood
Columbia Business School
Fall 2010

Middle schools aren’t working. At least, that’s the conclusion made by Jonah E. Rockoff and Benjamin B. Lockwood in their new study “Stuck in the Middle,” featured in the latest edition of Education Next. The pair tracked data from approximately 200,000 of New York City’s middle schoolers on their journey from grade three through grade eight during the 1998-99 through 2007-08 school years. They found that both mathematics and English language arts test scores of students who had attended K-5 or K-6 schools, then went on to attend a middle school, dropped significantly in both English and math in the students’ first year of middle school compared to their peers who attended K-8 schools. Their scores continued to drop at least through grade eight, the highest grade level the study covered, although at the significantly lower rate per year.

The researchers suggest two reasons for this disparity. First, cohort sizes (the number of students in a given grade level at a particular school; note – this is not related to class sizes) in middle schools were more than double those in K-8 schools, and the researchers hypothesize that large cohort sizes may therefore be detrimental to student achievement. Further, surveys of parents and students at the schools examined in the study indicate that both the students at K-8 schools and their parents were more satisfied than their middle school counterparts with the safety, academic rigor, and educational quality provided by their respective institutions. The researchers suggest this is indicates an inherent flaw in the middle schools studied, but they speculate little about the reasons for the existence of this flaw.

These findings – though based on achievement data of New York City students – have parallels in other places. For example, Columbus City Schools was frustrated last year with the performance of its own middle schools, as more than 70 percent of them received a D or an F on the 2008-09 report card. This study confirms that K-8 buildings – for whatever reason – may serve urban students better than middle schools. The Cincinnati and Dayton city school systems have implemented the K-8 model over the last several years. Perhaps Columbus would do well to consider similar changes to its model. Read about Rockoff’s and Lockwood’s findings here.

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