Elementary School Model Better Than Middle Schools?

Recent research suggests that middle schools are not the ideal model for students.  Students who participate in K-8 elementary schools do much better in math and reading.  Why might that be?

by Scotty Reifsnyder

by Scotty Reifsnyder

An article called Do Middle Schools Make Sense? by Mary Tamer, highlights recent research in Florida middle schools. The article explains that children who go through the transition of middle school lose ground in math and reading. These kids are also a lot more likely to drop out by 10th grade. The study suggests that this might be due to the corresponding social transition that occurs:

“kids tend to say they feel safer [in K-8], so there is less of a Lord of the Flies environment at a critical stage when they are “navigating through social currents. For many kids, it’s distracting.”

K-8 school children also experience a drop when they enter Highschool. However, the drop is quickly recovered and they come back up by 10th grade. Children who go through middle school experience a sharp drop and continue to decline through middle school–some even into Highschool. This implies that its middle school, not just the transition, that is affecting students. The question that remains is, why?

When assistant principle Joseph Bumsted stated,

“The things that make it especially difficult moving from grade five to grade six is the students go from a self-contained, supportive atmosphere where they have one teacher they know … to sixth grade and they are confronted with seven different [teachers’] personalities. They don’t know how to handle it,”

I think he noted a very important distinction between middle school and elementary (K-8) school in a way that he might not have intended. Perhaps, the elementary school model is better from a student perspective because of the reasons he stated: “supportive atmosphere where they have one teacher they know.” This allows a student to have a very individualized education. Teachers only have to handle 30 students per year, instead of more than a hundred. Teachers get to know each of their students rather than just their favorites. With this in mind, teachers in a K-8 school can easily adjust their curriculums and teaching styles to fit each of their students.

Another benefit is that there are no set time constraints per subject as there are in middle school, where every class is held for about 50 minutes. In class with one teacher who teaches all of the subjects, the teacher can adjust how much time is spent on each subject in reference to how much time the teacher’s individual class needs. So if the class understands fractions easily, they can spend less time on it and more time on understanding geology. This also allows the teacher to set time aside for a free period, as needed, where students can work in groups and ask the teacher questions.

However, one major setback to having one teacher is the problem of expertise.  The major benefit to requiring students to switch classes every 50 minutes (in Highschools with block scheduling, about 1.5 hours) is that they get to experience a teacher who is an expert in the field.  One single teacher probably cannot teach physics while teaching other subjects as well as a teacher who only teaches physics.

Is there a way to integrate the specialized teachers from Highschool and the individualized structure of elementary schools?