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.


‘Genius grant’ writer to Memphis: ‘We’re losing the only gains we’ve made’ against segregation

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Nikole Hannah-Jones, an award-winning New York Times Magazine writer, speaks on school segregation during her first public appearance in Memphis.

Memphis is a “perfectly sad place” to talk about school segregation, a nationally renowned journalist said while visiting the city this week.

Nikole Hannah-Jones, who writes about race and school segregation for the New York Times Magazine, was in Memphis as part of a speaker series sponsored by Center for Southern Literary Arts, Chalkbeat Tennessee and MLK50: Justice in Journalism.

She was among the 24 recent winners of a no-strings-attached prize known as the MacArthur “Genius Award.” (Read more about her work here.)

Her award-winning piece, the “The Resegregation of Jefferson County” was a deeply reported  article on how racially motivated school district secessions are contributing to school segregation in Alabama.

In her talk, Hannah-Jones compared what happened in her article with what happened in Memphis in 2014, when six mostly white municipal districts broke away from the large, predominantly black Shelby County Schools.

Listen to part of Hannah-Jones’s story:

“The resegregation in Jefferson County is exactly what’s happened here,” Hannah-Jones said.

“It’s white communities breaking off from school districts,” she said. “They can wipe their hands of it and say it’s not about race, we just want districts to represent my community. It is about race.”

Hannah-Jones said resegregation is a trend recently documented by national researchers — both in the relatively new trend of district sessessions and in white Americans moving into communities of color but refusing to send their children to neighborhood schools.

Schools were segregated in Tennessee during the first part of the 20th Century. After the U.S. Supreme Court declared in 1954 that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional, school districts in Tennessee slowly began to integrate and then stalled. Now, researchers and journalists say segregation is getting worse.

“As the south resegregates, we’re losing the only gains we’ve made,” Hannah-Jones said. “We want to pretend that our decisions aren’t impacting other kids, but they are.… You cannot say you believe in equality and seek to advantage your child every step of the way. ”

Hannah-Jones wrote in 2016 about choosing a school in New York City for her own daughter. She eventually settled on a neighborhood school — one that is majority black and poor. She challenged Memphians, in particular white, middle-class Memphians, to think more equitably about where they send their own children to school.

“White children aren’t hurt at all by going to these schools — their test scores don’t go down,” she said, a statement backed by research. “But look in Detroit, inner-city Memphis, Chicago. No one is coming.”

“The piece I did about my daughter, the reason it had such an impact is that I was honest. It wasn’t an easy choice when I had my own child. Morals and values in abstract are great, but reality is more difficult.”

She began the Tuesday night event with a story about a student she grew close to — and whose story embodies some of the issues of segregation —  before participating in a panel with MLK50 founder Wendi Thomas and Tami Sawyer, a Teach for America director and local activist.

Hannah-Jones said she’s now working on a book about Detroit — specifically looking at how poverty makes educating children “impossible.” (To learn more about schools in Detroit, go here).

In talks

Hopson asks state to let struggling Memphis school remain with local district

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson is in talks with state officials about the future of American Way Middle, a struggling Memphis school that the state has identified for conversion to a charter school under Shelby County Schools or takeover by Tennessee's Achievement School District.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson is asking Tennessee’s education chief to let Shelby County Schools keep control of American Way Middle School and place the struggling school in its own turnaround program, the Innovation Zone.

And Commissioner Candice McQueen is hinting that she’s willing to talk.

Hopson’s official request came this week despite McQueen’s plan for the Memphis district to convert American Way Middle to a charter school or risk having it placed in the state’s Achievement School District.

“Our Board voted to place American Way in the iZone next year,” Hopson wrote McQueen on Tuesday. “The Board was uncomfortable waiting for an additional year before taking action.”

McQueen wants the school to become a charter school in the fall of 2019 under the state’s new accountability plan. The board voted to place it in the iZone a year earlier than that.

But Hopson said the district’s concerns extend beyond timing.

“During its robust discussion regarding a district-led charter conversion, the Board was particularly concerned because we are unaware of any middle school charter operators who have strong track records of success in the turnaround space,” Hopson wrote. “For these reasons, the Board indicated that it will not approve a district-led charter conversation.

He added: “Given the I-Zone’s progress, we respectfully request that the State allow American Way to remain in the I-Zone for at least 3 years. Notably, one of American Way’s feeder schools is also in the I-Zone.”

McQueen said Friday that her office needs more information about the district’s proposal for American Way Middle before she makes a decision.

“We had a conversation with the district this week to make it clear that simply saying the school will be in the iZone next year does not tell us what the plan for that school is, and we still need more details on what it would look like for the school to be served by the iZone,” McQueen told Chalkbeat through a spokeswoman. “It is also not clear what charter options the district explored.”