research whiplash

Abolish middle school? Not so fast, new study says.

PHOTO: Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post

The push to combine elementary and middle schools into K-8 schools has seemed like a heartening example of policymakers making decisions based on hard evidence.

Rigorous studies have suggested that scrapping traditional middle schools is good for students. And some districts like Boston have moved to merge schools, trying to eliminate some of the elements of middle school that make it miserable for many tweens.

New research says, hold on a second.

It suggests that past studies have overstated the benefits of K-8 schools, and offers a warning to districts moving to eliminate middle schools — as well as a parable of how complicated it can be to make decisions based on the shifting findings of education research.

The paper, published earlier this month in the peer-reviewed Journal of Urban Economics, uses school closures and shifting school zone boundaries in one district to isolate the effects of attending a K-8 school versus attending an elementary school until fifth grade and then a separate middle school.

Like past research, the study finds that transitioning to a middle school leads to a dip in test scores in math. But students in grades three through five do better at a stand-alone elementary school, making up for that sixth-grade dip. By eighth grade, attending a K-8 school has no effect in math.

The results in reading were even more surprising: students in separate middle schools made larger gains in seventh and eighth grade, and ended middle school with higher scores than their peers in K-8 schools.

“The adverse effects for elementary students in K-8 schools combined with the lack of long-term adverse effects for students attending separate middle schools does not provide support for K-8 configuration,” researchers Kai Hong, Ron Zimmer, and John Engberg write. “In fact, our results provide some evidence against K-8 schools as a policy.”

Other studies have come to a different conclusion. Research on Canada, Florida, and a number of studies in New York City point to benefits of K-8 schools, including in test scores, attendance, and even high school performance in one study. This has prompted headlines like “Why Middle School Should Be Abolished.”

It’s not entirely clear why the latest results are different. It could be that, through luck or other reasons, certain districts have better or worse K-8 schools. The authors of the latest study point to wonky methodological issues, arguing that past research isn’t able to capture the negative effects of K–8 schools on elementary students.

On the other hand, the recent paper is one study of just one (anonymous) district, so extrapolating from the results is a dicey proposition — particularly when the weight of the research is on the other side.

Amy Ellen Schwartz, a professor at the Maxwell School at Syracuse University, praised the latest research but noted an important limitation: it relies on the assumption that the redrawing of school boundaries is essentially random.

Schwartz, who has conducted some of the past research pointing to benefits of K-8 schools, says it’s important for policymakers to really consider the pros and cons of middle schools. Separate schools might be ideal for policymakers who want to emphasize school choice, but others “might particularly like a K-8 [school] in a world where kids have unstable lives and the stability might be good for them,” she said.

“What is important is to try to be a little more nuanced on this,” she said.

The New Chancellor

Tell us: What should the new chancellor, Richard Carranza, know about New York City schools?

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
A student at P.S. 69 Journey Prep in the Bronx paints a picture. The school uses a Reggio Emilia approach and is in the city's Showcase Schools program.

In a few short weeks, Richard Carranza will take over the nation’s largest school system as chancellor of New York City’s public schools.

Carranza, who has never before worked east of the Mississippi, will have to get up to speed quickly on a new city with unfamiliar challenges. The best people to guide him in this endeavor: New Yorkers who understand the city in its complexity.

So we want to hear from you: What does Carranza need to know about the city, its schools, and you to help him as he gets started April 2. Please fill out the survey below; we’ll collect your responses and share them with our readers and Carranza himself.

The deadline is March 23.

buses or bust?

Mayor Duggan says bus plan encourages cooperation. Detroit school board committee wants more details.

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Fourth-graders Kintan Surghani, left, and Rachel Anderson laugh out the school bus window at Mitchell Elementary School in Golden.

Detroit’s school superintendent is asking for more information about the mayor’s initiative to create a joint bus route for charter and district students after realizing the costs could be higher than the district anticipated.

District Superintendent Nikolai Vitti told a school board subcommittee Friday that he thought the original cost to the district was estimated to be around $25,000 total. Instead, he said it could cost the district roughly between $75,000 and a maximum of $125,000 for their five schools on the loop.

“I think there was a misunderstanding….” Vitti said. “I think this needs a deeper review…The understanding was that it would be $25,000 for all schools. Now, there are ongoing conversations about it being $15,000 to $25,000 for each individual school.”

The bus loop connecting charter and district schools was announced earlier this month by Mayor Mike Duggan as a way to draw kids back from the suburbs.

Duggan’s bus loop proposal is based on one that operates in Denver that would travel a circuit in certain neighborhoods, picking up students on designated street corners and dropping them off at both district and charter schools.

The bus routes — which Duggan said would be funded by philanthropy, the schools and the city — could even service afterschool programs that the schools on the bus route could work together to create.

In concept, the finance committee was not opposed to the idea. But despite two-thirds of the cost being covered and splitting the remaining third with charters, they were worried enough about the increased costs that they voted not to recommend approval of the agreement to the full board.  

Vitti said when he saw the draft plan, the higher price made him question whether the loop would be worth it.

“If it was $25,000, it would be an easier decision,” he said.

To better understand the costs and benefits and to ultimately decide, Vitti said he needs more data, which will take a few weeks. 

Alexis Wiley, Duggan’s chief of staff, said the district’s hesitation was a sign they were performing their due diligence before agreeing to the plan.

“I’m not at all deterred by this,” Wiley said. She said the district, charters, and city officials have met twice, and are “working in the same direction, so that we eliminate as many barriers as we can.”

Duggan told a crowd earlier this month at the State of the City address that the bus loop was an effort to grab the city’s children – some 32,500 – back from suburban schools.

Transportation is often cited as one of the reasons children leave the city’s schools and go to other districts, and charter leaders have said they support the bus loop because they believe it will make it easier for students to attend their schools.

But some board members had doubts that the bus loop would be enough to bring those kids back, and were concerned about giving charters an advantage in their competition against the district to increase enrollment.

“I don’t know if transportation would be why these parents send their kids outside of the district,” Angelique Peterson-Mayberry said. “If we could find out some of the reasons why, it would add to the validity” of implementing the bus loop.

Board member LaMar Lemmons echoed other members’ concerns on the impact of the transportation plan, and said many parents left the district because of the poor quality of schools under emergency management, not transportation.

“All those years in emergency management, that drove parents to seek alternatives, as well as charters,” he said. “I’m hesitant to form an unholy alliance with the charters for something like this.”