How Middle Schools Hurt Student Achievement
Today’s Wall Street Journal reports on a new Education Next study showing that, at least in New York City, attending a standalone middle school rather than a K-8 school has a big negative impact on student achievement and attendance rates. Recently I had the chance to interview the study’s lead author, Columbia Business School professor Jonah Rockoff. Here are a few things I took away from our conversation:
1. Can we believe the results? It’s a fair question, as there is no lack of lousy research on middle schools. As it turns out, though, New York is an ideal laboratory in which to study this question – and Rockoff and co-author Benjamin Lockwood know how to take full advantage. First, the grade configurations of the city’s public schools vary widely: some students move to middle schools in grade 6, some do so in grade 7, while still others attend the same school from kindergarten through grade 8. Second, the district’s vaunted data system makes it possible to track the achievement of individual students over time as they move from one type of school to the next (or remain in a K-8 school). Doing so reveals that students experience a drop in achievement (relative to other students remaining in K-8 schools) in the very same year they move into a middle school: in the 6th grade for students making the K-5 to 6-8 transition, and in the 7th grade for students moving from K-6 to 7-8 schools.
And Rockoff and Lockwood go one step further: rather than look at the schools students actually attended in the middle school years, the authors assign students to the type of school they would have been expected to attend based on the grades served by the elementary school they attended in grade 3. In order to explain away their findings, one would therefore have to argue that parents who chose elementary schools with different structures differed in some way that caused their child’s achievement to drop in the exact year that they moved to a middle school (not before or after). As the authors put it, “While we cannot definitively rule out the existence of such factors, we do not know of any plausible alternatives that would explain our findings.”
2. Why are NYC middle schools less successful? Here’s where the study’s evidence is less definitive. Standalone middle schools in New York look pretty similar to K-8 schools in terms of spending, class sizes, and academic offerings. The one difference that does seem relevant is the number of students at each grade level. Because most NYC schools are roughly the same size, middle schools have many more students in each grade cohort than K-8 schools. And this difference does appear to account for about 25 percent of the negative effect of attending a middle school. But clearly that leaves a lot of room for other explanations.
3. Would we get the same results elsewhere? Again, it is difficult to say. But there’s no obvious reason why NYC would be unique. At a minimum, it seems safe to conclude that the same patterns would hold in other large urban districts.
As I read the study, I was reminded of the 2009 EdNext-PEPG Survey, which asked Americans to identify and assign grades to their local elementary and middle school. We found that Americans rated their middle school far lower than their elementary school, even taking into account the fact that student proficiency rates tend to be lower in middle school. In fact, the grades parents assigned middle schools were about 40 percent of a letter grade lower than elementary schools with similar student bodies and similar levels of student achievement. Rockoff and Lockwood’s research suggests that parents are onto something – and that the emerging trend toward shuttering middle schools and replacing them with K-8s is an encouraging development.
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