Monday, April 11, 2005

Back To The Future: Are Middle Schools Becoming Obsolete?

I've been teaching in a junior high school for more years than I care to say here. Now I see The Wall Street Journal is reporting that middle/junior high schools are being phased-out in many school districts.

In a return to a more traditional arrangement, school districts are eliminating the middle school in favor of a two-campus configuration, where one school would be grades k-8 and the other 9-12:

The number of public K-8 schools still is relatively small -- around 5,000, according to the U.S. Department of Education. But that number represents a 17% increase since 1993-94. That compares with a 9% increase in the total number of public elementary schools, which now number about 65,000, most of which go up to grades five or six.

These so-called elemiddle schools took root in the late 1990s with a few large, urban districts such as Cincinnati, but the movement has been spreading. In affluent Orange County, Calif., officials with the Capistrano Unified School District are planning to convert as many as eight of their 36 elementary schools to K-8 schools. School officials in Bristol, Conn., last month visited Brookline, Mass., an entirely K-8 school district, to observe a K-8 school in action. School-board officials plan on proposing the idea of building two K-8 schools to the full board of education in the coming months. The Boston suburb of Everett, Mass., converted its junior high and elementary schools to pre-K through 8 schools and built three new pre-K to 8 schools from 1999 to 2003.

Parents have understandably expressed concern over the fact that most K-8 schools usually cannot offer the same variety of classes as can middle/junior high schools:
In Baltimore, which has created 30 new K-8 schools, a report showed that in K-8 settings, "students...had less opportunity to take Algebra 1 and a foreign language," which it says are "gatekeeper" courses, or courses that increase the likelihood that a student will attend college.
The Journal cites a study that would seem to support the idea that students who do switch to middle schools are more likely to develop long-lasting negative attitudes toward school in general.

An early study tracked hundreds of middle-school-age students in Milwaukee public schools, comparing those who switched to a new school in grade seven with their counterparts in a K-8 school who didn't have to make any switch. The research found that those who switched had more negative attitudes toward school and lower grades. Girls in particular didn't recover in middle adolescence (grades nine and 10) when it came to self-esteem and participation in extracurricular activities.

A number of districts that have recently begun converting to K-8 configurations say they have already noticed fewer disciplinary problems among students, as well as an increase in test scores.

The largest district that has made a concerted effort to change from a three-school to a two-school model is Philadelphia. According to administrators, the two school model produces higher test scores:

The School District of Philadelphia is in the midst of a five-year plan to do away with many of its middle schools -- reducing the number to 21 from 36 by 2008 -- and increase the number of K-8s to 137 from the current 61. The district's chief executive, Paul Vallas, says the district was emboldened by research and anecdotes from other school districts that pointed to the benefits of K-8 grade configurations. Particularly troublesome in Philadelphia was the noticeable decline in test scores after students graduated from elementary schools, which mostly went through the fifth grade. "Sixth-grade test scores were always our lowest," Mr. Vallas says.

Now, an analysis of standardized test scores from 2000 to 2003 shows that reading and math scores are consistently higher for eighth-grade students enrolled in some of Philadelphia's new K-8 schools compared with those in traditional middle schools. The average reading score for K-8 students was 1218 in 2003 compared with 1146 for students in middle school. Also, Mr. Vallas says, K-8 schools have higher attendance rates and fewer incidents of student discipline than do their middle-school counterparts.

You can read the entire piece by clicking here.

Meanwhile, in our little corner of the south-eastern California desert, I'm aware of no fewer than three middle schools that are either under construction or in the permitting/planning phase.
An Invitation: All writers and readers of education-related posts are invited to contribute to the ninth edition of The Carnival of Education. Please send your submissions to: owlshome [at] earthlink [dot] net. We should receive your contributions no later than 10:00 PM (Pacific) Tuesday, April 12, 2005. The Carnival midway will open here at the 'Wonks Wednesday morning. Get our easy-to-follow entry guidelines here. View the latest edition of the Carnival there.

Main Page/Latest Posts