No middle school magic

January 17, 2007

Anew study by researchers at the Johns Hopkins University found that pupils in many K-8 schools in Philadelphia did not perform significantly better than those in traditional middle schools. The research calls into question the movement by some school districts, including Baltimore, to foster more schools covering elementary and middle school grades. But the study also suggests that there is no magic bullet for reconfiguring middle schools and that districts should pay as much attention to what goes on in classrooms as to school structure.

The Hopkins research team focused on 40 relatively new K-8 schools in Philadelphia and how well pupils performed as they progressed from fifth to eighth grade. Although middle-schoolers throughout the city showed improvement on state tests, there was no appreciable difference in achievement between pupils in these schools and those in traditional middle schools. Researchers emphasized the importance of factors such as whether the surrounding neighborhood is stable and whether teachers are adequately prepared.

Baltimore has jumped on the K-8 bandwagon, adding 18 last fall to more than 30 existing schools. The move has been based largely on some better test scores. For example, 54 percent of sixth-graders in established K-8 schools passed the state reading test, compared with 36 percent in traditional middle schools.

But in addition to creating K-8 schools, administrators have also combined successful elementary and middle schools, keeping the respective academic leaders in place, and they've tried to strengthen existing middle schools through personnel changes. School officials have also been beefing up academic content and support for all middle-grade pupils, providing more reading and math coaches as well as more social workers to deal with emotional issues that can impede academic progress.

These are the kinds of additional elements, along with quality teaching and curricula, that the Hopkins researchers thought were critical to improved performance. The study is a reminder that although there's no one-size-fits-all solution for fixing middle schools, these ingredients can bring success to any setting.

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