Revival of the K-8 School

Criticism of middle schools fuels renewed interest in a school configuration of yesteryear by Priscilla Pardini

Less than one year after signing on as chief executive officer of the 77,000-student Cleveland schools in late 1998, Barbara Byrd-Bennett came to the conclusion that the district’s 25 middle schools were failing. Overall, test scores plummeted once students reached 6th grade and absence and suspension rates soared.


Byrd-Bennett concluded that Cleveland’s middle school model, mandated by the courts to address overcrowding, had not been well thought out. The schools were too big. Teachers had not been adequately trained in, nor had the resources to implement, a true middle school philosophy. Beyond that, Byrd-Bennett had come to believe that the configuration of grades 6-8 that prevailed in Cleveland’s middle schools actually worked against the needs of young adolescents.

“Here we were,” she says, “taking children at 10—at their most delicate—and ripping them from a stable school environment. Then we put them in a new school where they had to move from class to class, learning to deal with a series of other adults while they were still learning to deal with each other.”

Her solution was this: Begin phasing out middle schools and replace them with K-8 elementary schools. Says Byrd-Bennett, “We wanted to extend the stability of the school environment, to address the needs of the kids rather than make them fit into a particular structure.”

Since the 1999-2000 school year, 21 Cleveland schools have been reconfigured or are in the process of being reconfigured to accommodate kindergarten through 8th grade. The results have been significant, with 6th graders in K-8 schools posting better attendance and higher standardized test scores than their peers in middle school. Down the road, predicts Byrd-Bennett, “We’ll basically be a K-8 district.”

A Trend Begins

Byrd-Bennett is not the only school system leader singing the praises of the K-8 model. In fact, more and more school districts—urban, suburban and rural—are scrapping their middle schools in favor of K-8s. The move is being prompted by several factors, including growing discontent with middle schools, the district’s own research on the link between grade configuration and academic achievement and the wishes of parents.

* The 43,000-student Cincinnati Public School District completed its five-year transition to K-8 schools in June 2000. Kathleen Ware, associate superintendent, says the move came largely in response to parental dissatisfaction with the district’s middle schools.

“It’s worked very well,” says Ware of the shift, noting that discipline problems and absenteeism have declined while overall student achievement has improved. She concedes that other variables prevent her from attributing all the student gains to the K-8 model. Yet, she says, “We’re very pleased with it. And parents here like it so much I don’t think they would give it up.”

* In Philadelphia, a school district empowerment plan calls for converting middle schools to K-8 schools where feasible. The move is based largely on the results of a school district study that found 8th graders in K-8 schools scoring significantly higher than those in middle school on standardized tests of achievement in reading, mathematics and science. The study is particularly noteworthy because researchers controlled for the effects of poverty and race.

* In the Everett, Mass., Public Schools, a district of 5,600 students in suburban Boston, all five elementary schools will have been converted to K-8s by next year. Superintendent Fred Foresteire says he is convinced K-8 schools provide “a better atmosphere where no child falls through the cracks.”

* In rural Fayetteville, Tenn., all 4,300 students will be attending K-8 schools by next fall. The move, which involves reconfiguring four K-6 elementary schools, is designed in part to address a nearly 30 percent dropout rate.

Under the new plan, middle-level students will attend schools closer to home. “We want them to stay in their own communities,” says Wanda Sisk, supervisor of instructional programs for the Lincoln County Department of Education. “In the elementary schools, the principals know all the kids and their families well.”

* In the Baltimore city system, a move toward K-8 schools is an integral part of a major school reorganization plan, which calls for doubling the number of K-8 schools to 34 over the next three years. In the words of Superintendent Carmen Russo, the district aims to “create smaller learning communities that would better meet the needs of our students.”

* Oklahoma City residents last fall approved the expenditure of $530 million over the next seven years to finance a school reform plan that includes renovating every school in the district. The plan, which is intended to stem the exodus of students from the district after completing elementary school, will reconfigure most district elementary schools into K-8 buildings.

To be sure, the middle school model still predominates. According to data from the National Center for Education Statistics for the 1999-2000 school year, the most recent available, a total of 26,130 elementary schools served students through either 5th or 6th grade, compared with 3,249 schools that top out at 8th grade. Still, several school leaders whose districts are returning to the K-8 model believe they are part of a growing movement.

“What we’re doing is not an indictment of middle schools,” says Russo, whose district enrolls about 96,000 students. “We have 6-8 schools that are fine and doing a wonderful job. But they are not in the majority. And we have found more and more districts doing what we’re doing. I believe it is definitely a trend.” Ware says she has received numerous calls from other superintendents curious about Cincinnati’s conversion to K-8 schools. “I think there must be a lot of interest out there,” she says.

William Moloney, commissioner of the Colorado Department of Education and a former district superintendent, has been trying to sell state legislators on creating more K-8 schools since 1998. It’s a move he believes can drastically improve schools at a relatively low cost. Meanwhile, he is encouraged by the resurgence of interest in K-8s elsewhere, calling the movement the “next big idea” in school reform.

The K-8 Tradition

Granted, there is nothing new about K-8 schools. They dominated the landscape of public education in America up until the middle of the 20th century and are still the norm for private schools, both religious and secular. K-8 schools are also popular overseas, something Moloney discovered during his four-year tenure as director of the American School in London. “They were doing things in Europe in a fundamentally different way and getting better results,” he says

One of the first things Moloney noticed was a preponderance of small K-8 schools where students stayed with the same teacher for more than one year. He came to find out that the United States is virtually the only nation where elementary school students spend time in a middle or junior high school before entering high school

But even here, some public school systems, such as the Chicago Public Schools, always have been primarily K-8 districts. James P. Maloney, a former executive deputy superintendent in Chicago, recalls only a few deviations from the K-8 model, prompted by a wave of migration from the South in the 1950s and ‘60s that resulted in severely overcrowded elementary schools. Relief came in the form of several upper grade centers, housing as many as 2,000 students in 7th and 8th grades. More recently, a few high schools, including Whitney Young, one of the city’s best, have expanded to serve students in grades 7-12.

Overall, says Maloney, junior highs and middle schools have never been popular in Chicago. A district employee for 48 years who now serves as a consultant to the Chicago school board, Maloney says officials stuck with K-8 schools largely because they cost less to build and operate than middle schools or junior highs. In addition, parents prefer “having their children in one school for that eight-year cycle.”

Chicago’s resistance to the middle school movement, however, was the exception, particularly among big-city districts. According to researchers William Alexander and C.K. McEwin, four of five high school students graduating in 1920 had attended a K-8 elementary school followed by a four-year high school. However, by 1960, four of five graduates reported attending an elementary school, a three-year junior high and a three-year senior high. Junior highs, which aimed to prepare students for high school, began disappearing in the mid-1960s. According to the NCES, there were 11,712 middle schools by 1993, about three for every junior high.

Under Fire

Still, the middle school’s star clearly has fallen. By the mid-1990s, schools that were once praised for their team teaching, flexible schedules and interdisciplinary instruction, found themselves under attack for placing too much emphasis on creating a nurturing environment for students and too little on their academic progress.

One red flag came in the findings of the Third International Mathematics and Science Study, which showed a sharp decrease in student achievement in mathematics and science between 4th and 8th grades. The study’s results prompted former U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley, in his 1998 state of American education speech, to declare: “While we do a very good job at teaching math and science in the early years, we begin to drift in the middle years and fall behind the international standard of excellence.”

Marc S. Tucker and Judy B. Codding of the National Center on Education and the Economy were much more blunt in their assessment of the problem in their book Standards for Our Schools: How to Set Them, Measure Them and Reach Them, proclaiming America’s middle schools “the wasteland of our primary and secondary landscape.”

“One thing is clear,” summed up Education Week’s Ann Bradley, in “Muddle in the Middle,” her 1998 seminal article on the subject. “The middle school movement is on the defensive.”

Sue Swaim, executive director of the National Middle Schools Association, says current dissatisfaction with middle schools and a shift to more K-8 programs may be based on faulty reasoning. “We have a strong body of knowledge, based on research and practice, that says when the middle school concept is fully implemented with consistency and over time, it works,” she says. “So the first thing I would have to ask is whether these districts that are returning to K-8 schools have fully implemented the middle school concept. Unfortunately, we know that a lot of places simply changed the name over the door and changed the grade configuration in the building. That doesn’t make a true middle school.”

In fact, Swaim says good programs for middle-level students can be found in schools spanning any number of grades. “You find them in K-8s, 5-8s and 7-12s,” she says. “The important thing is focusing on what’s right for kids from 10 to 14.”

Limited Research

David Hough, dean of the College of Education at Southwest Missouri State University and editor of the National Middle School Research Journal, has studied the relationship between a school’s grade span and its ability to implement programs characteristic of exemplary middle schools. The ideal setting for quality middle-level education is what Hough calls “elemiddle” schools—those that include both primary and middle grades where there is a specific focus on implementing effective middle-level programs.

According to Hough, most true elemiddle schools are K-8s, although some may be 4-8s or 5-8s. “We found that K-8 schools were better able to implement the so-called middle school program components than any other schools we looked at,” he says.

That’s largely because teachers working in K-8 schools, trained to teach elementary students, bring a student-centered approach to their teaching. “They’re used to teaming, planning together and working with the same group of students,” Hough says. “In secondary [school] situations, the math teacher doesn’t even know which students his colleague in the English Department has in his class.”

Foresteire, the superintendent in Everett, Mass., sees it all the time. “Teachers at the secondary level focus on content and don’t want to get into the personal stuff with kids. For elementary teachers, it’s just part of their day.” Now that elementary and secondary teachers are working together in two K-8 schools in his district, secondary teachers are observing firsthand “how much work, energy and spirit those elementary teachers have.” Adds Foresteire: “It’s rubbing off.”

Hough, who is familiar with the research on middle-level education, says no empirical, large-scale study has examined the relationship between grade configuration and student achievement. What research there is, qualitative and anecdotal, has found that 8th graders in K-8 schools and 6th graders in K-6 and K-8 schools outperformed their peers attending middle and junior high schools. Other researchers have documented a drop in student achievement during transition years.

Given the lack of definitive national research, school officials pondering whether to abandon their middle schools in favor of K-8s generally turn to local data. In Fayetteville, Tenn., the school board moved to K-8 schools in hopes of stemming a discernible drop in achievement between 6th and 7th grades when students moved from one school to another. In the 40,000-student Oklahoma City Public Schools, officials determined that one middle school failed to attract more than half of the elementary students feeding into it. The school eventually will be phased out, and its feeder schools reconfigured into K-8 buildings.

An analysis of data in Baltimore helped convince the board to support a move to more K-8s. Says Russo: “By and large, attendance, dropout rates and student test scores were better for children attending K-8 schools than for those in middle schools.”

In Cleveland, one year into the transition to more K-8 schools, a similar analysis confirmed for officials that they were moving in the right direction. While only 6.8 percent of 6th-grade students districtwide passed the Ohio Proficiency Test, an average of 31.5 percent of students in four newly configured K-8 schools passed the test. A year later, 6th-grade students in K-8 schools posted pass rates 18 percent higher in reading and 23 percent higher in math than their peers in 6-8 schools.

The most comprehensive local study may be the one run by Robert Offenberg, senior policy researcher for the 200,000-student School District of Philadelphia. The three-year study unearthed what he calls “statistically significant evidence” that K-8 schools were more effective than middle schools in terms of 8th-grade performance on the Stanford Achievement Tests, high school placement and freshman-year letter grades.

Offenberg says district administrators long had been aware that 8th-graders at K-8 schools typically outperformed 8th-graders in middle schools, but they had assumed it was because K-8 schools enrolled more middle-class students. Because his study controlled for socioeconomic status and ethnic background, Offenberg was able to prove that those variables were not responsible for all of the differences.

Further analysis suggested one explanation: the smaller number of students per grade in K-8 schools than in middle schools. “That means in a K-8 school, the teachers probably know more kids better than in a middle school,” says Offenberg. “They’re more likely to talk about the pool of kids coming up the next year and are better able to sort kids out and know them as individuals.”

More Intimate

Moloney, Colorado’s education commissioner, is just one official who believes K-8 schools succeed because they provide a more personal, intimate environment than middle schools or junior highs. As he likes to put it, “K-8s are the place where everybody knows your name.” That’s largely because the longer students stay in one school, the more relationships they form with teachers and other adults. And the more such relationships, the stronger a student’s support system and likelihood of success.

Baltimore’s Russo faults most middle schools because they are too big to fulfill one of their primary missions: to support and nurture young adolescents at a time in their lives when they need extra support. In fact, it’s much easier, she says, to nurture 10- to 14-year-olds in a K-8 setting “because you don’t have as many children in that age group.

Kay Hymowitz, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and author of Children and Popular Culture, points out that forces in today’s society are pushing 10- to 14-year olds to “grow up fast.” She believes K-8 schools “are in a better position [than middle schools] to remind us all, not just kids, but parents and the entire community too, that these are still children and should be treated as such.” Yet, at the same time, K-8 schools provide the ideal environment to begin fostering leadership in young adolescents. “Why not put them in a place where they can learn to be more responsible?” Hymowitz asks.

That’s exactly what’s happening in Fayetteville, where older children serve as bus monitors and undertake service projects, while “the little kids have someone to look up to,” says Sisk, the district’s supervisor of instructional programs. “The bigger kids love it, and it’s definitely stimulating leadership.”

Combining early elementary and middle grades in the same building also improves student behavior. Oklahoma City 6th and 7th graders now attending what once was a K-5 school have cleaned up their language. “It was an unintended consequence, but part of the impact of being around younger children,” says Weitzel, the superintendent.

Parent Support

The growing support for K-8 schools also extends to parents. In fact, Ware says parental dissatisfaction with middle schools was one of the main reasons for the shift to K-8s in Cincinnati. She describes a scenario common in urban districts. “We’d have families that stayed with us through the elementary years, but then leave when their children got to middle school.” The reason? Discipline problems, high suspension and expulsion rates, poor attendance, lack of achievement. Their destination? “To our parochial school counterparts,” says Ware, “which had always been K-8, 9-12 schools.”

Parents in Baltimore, often citing safety issues, were also instrumental in convincing school officials to create more K-8 schools. “Most K-8 schools are neighborhood schools, and parents felt more comfortable keeping their children closer to home,” says Russo.

Weitzel, in Oklahoma City, likes the fact that parents are more inclined to stay connected to and involved in K-8 schools than in middle schools—a factor that correlates highly with student success in school. “Typically, when a kid graduates from a K-6, parents disconnect,” he says. “That’s one of the strengths of the elementary structure we’re able to capitalize on.”

A New K-8 Model

If the K-8 school is a comfortable, familiar setting for students and parents, the curriculum in place at the new K-8s is far from traditional. “Just because we’re returning to K-8 schools doesn’t mean the way we deliver instruction is the same or that what we’re teaching is the same,” says Russo. “There’s no point in reorganizing the deck chairs on the Titanic unless you deal with the real meat of what we’re trying to do, which is improve instruction.” Jeanne Vissa, director of teacher education at the University of Pennsylvania and a consultant to the Philadelphia School District, agrees. “I’d have concerns if the structure of the middle grades mimics the elementary school,” she says.

In many cases, the new schools are being designed along the lines of Hough’s elemiddle model, or as more than one official put it, a combination of the best of both the elementary and middle school worlds. So while students get the support and nurturing they need, they also are being prepared to make a smooth transition to high school.

That means middle-level students change classes, generally working with a team of three or four teachers, each of whom teaches one or two subjects. The new schools also provide facilities and programs once considered middle-school fare: science labs, foreign language classes and algebra in the 8th grade. And classroom lessons focus more on project-based learning and problem-solving activities than in the lower grades.

Vissa, who is helping design a middle-grades teacher education program at the University of Pennsylvania, hopes such practices become the norm. The program, planned to debut in the summer of 2003, aims to “champion the kind of teacher education needed for middle grades [and] attract a prospective teaching force that appreciates the wonder of those middle years.”

Sundry Challenges

Addressing the academic needs of middle-level students in a K-8 school calls on teachers to pay more attention to curriculum content, says Vissa. “And it is the rare elementary-certified teacher who can do that.” Nevertheless, she says, it still can be easier to staff K-8 schools than middle schools, which are often viewed by teachers as less-desirable places to work and therefore subject to far greater teacher turnover than K-8 buildings

K-8 schools also need to provide strong co-curricular programs that give older students the chance to produce a newspaper or participate in a band or drama program. “Sometimes in a small neighborhood school environment that’s hard to do,” says Vissa. “So as districts face these decisions about whether to go to K-8, they need to look at how they can support these experiences.”

In some districts, the move to K-8 schools can be stymied by demographics and/or inadequate infrastructure. Joseph Jacovino, deputy academic officer in the School District of Philadelphia, says K-8 schools are not feasible in all neighborhoods. “You have to look at feeder patterns and ask whether a community can support a K-8.”

In some cases, existing elementary schools are too small to accommodate additional grades. In Cleveland, officials also had to determine if gymnasiums and bathrooms designed for younger children could be modified for older students.

Money also can be an issue. A $1 billion bond issue passed by Cleveland voters last May will be used, in part, to reconfigure and enlarge existing K-5 schools. On the other hand, such modifications can be far less expensive than building new middle schools. Foresteire expects that moving to K-8 schools in his suburban Massachusetts district, which will reduce the total number of schools from 11 to 6, ultimately will lower districtwide energy and maintenance costs.

Changing a school’s configuration can be done any number of ways. In most places, the new grade span is phased in over several years, usually with K-5 and K-6 schools adding one grade a year. In Baltimore, Russo says one large 6-8 middle school will “work backwards,” one grade at a time, until it is a K-8.

Byrd-Bennett advises superintendents interested in returning to the K-8 model to start with a single school in need of improvement. “Confront the data,” she advises, “and then discuss what you want to do with the teachers, the parents, the community.”

Jacovino, in Philadelphia, says he would start with a successful K-5 or K-6 school where students are making good progress. “The ideal place to expand is one where the staff and parents see the value of extending a positive environment through the 8th grade.”

Priscilla Pardini is an education free-lance writer in Shorewood, Wis. E-mail: pardini@execpc.com