Study: Florida students flounder in transition to middle schools
Florida students entering middle schools in grades six or seven experience big drops in academic performance relative to K-8 students, and the decline continues through the middle school grades, concludes a new study by Harvard researchers. Written up in the latest Education Week, the study suggests revamping middle school grade configurations should be a higher priority for education reformers.
"The economic importance of these effects is evident from the fact that they are comparable to or exceed the magnitude of other educational interventions that have been studied in the literature," says the study, published in September as a working paper by Harvard's Program on Education Policy and Governance. "Taken as a whole," it also says, "these results suggest that structural school transitions lower student achievement but that middle schools in particular have adverse consequences for American students."
The researchers said they found little evidence the decline in performance was tied to funding levels, class size, school size or "educational practices." But they pointed to surveys of middle school principals which suggested the "overall climate for student learning is worse in middle schools."
"This suggests a final potential interpretation of our results that is directly related to the choice of grade configuration," they continued. "Students may benefit from being among the oldest students in a school setting that includes very young students, perhaps because they have greater opportunity to take on leadership roles. This interpretation could account both for the gains in relative achievement made by K-5 and K-6 students prior to entering middle schools and for the superior performance of K-8 students relative to their middle school peers."
Pinellas recently decided to again put more focus on middle schools. But the Harvard study warns that reform efforts might not bear fruit if they don't address structural issues.
"More research is needed to explain the negative effects of middle schools," it says. "In the meantime, however, the lack of a definitive explanation should make policymakers cautious about their ability to take steps to mitigate these effects while maintaining existing grade configurations."