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Empirical evidence suggests that the K-8 school option is the smarter choice for children

By Mia Munn
Posted Monday, January 31, 2011

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Pittsboro, NC - There is a proposal to reorganize the Chatham County Schools to eliminate the five existing K-8 schools so all students in the county would attend an elementary (K-5) school and then a middle (6-8) school. Two K-8 schools, Perry Harrison and North Chatham, became K-5 now that Pollard Middle School has opened. The central responsibility of schools is to effectively educate their students, so it is reasonable to look at the achievement of our schools before making any changes.

Six of eight schools in Chatham County (out of 16 schools in total) with performance composite scores above 80% on last school year’s testing were K-8 (the other two were Northwood and Chatham Central). Six of seven schools that were NC Schools of Distinction for last year were K-8 (the other was Northwood). Four of five schools that met federal Average Yearly Progress were K-8 (the other was Virginia Cross).

Recent research suggests that K-8 schools may have superior student outcomes

Since our K-8 schools are pretty effective at that central responsibility. I would want to see a compelling reason to reorganize these effective schools into a different school configuration. I’ve looked for research on school effectiveness that would support moving from K-8 to an elementary/middle school model. I haven’t found any recent research. In fact, the recent research points the other way, suggesting that K-8 schools may have superior student outcomes. In fact, many school districts around the county are converting middle schools back into K-8.

Here is some of that research:

The K-8 Solution: The Retreat from Middle Schools

This is a summary report from the Center for Education Reform: The K-8 Solution: The Retreat from Middle Schools.


Middle schools, for one, have been called the “weak link” of public education. According to researchers, the transition to middle school is often a difficult one for students, and during these years, there is often a problem with discipline, absenteeism and low test scores.

Education researchers began looking at the middle school model and comparing it with the K-8 schools. They found that there are benefits to the latter model. Some of these benefits are:

o Safety – Parents and children feel safer in a K-8 school as they become older because they are secure in their location and enjoy continuity.

o Engagement – Studies have shown students do not suffer the same motivational
declines in schoolwork and extra-curricular activities when they stay in a K-8 school. Discipline problems and absences also are reduced.

o Achievement – Research has shown that students do not experience the same academic declines when the middle school transition is eliminated.

Stuck in the Middle: Impacts of Grade Configuration in Public Schools

To get to the actual study, go to then click on “An unabridged version of this article is available here”. That takes you directly to the full study. If that doesn’t work, articles about the study include:: Education Next article, with podcast and other links; Wall Street Journal article; and Ed Week article (requires subscription).

This seems to be a well-designed study, looking at student achievement over ten years for students in K-8 vs. elementary /middle schools (k-5 and 6-8 or k-6 and 7-8) in New York City. It controls for parental choice by looking at the grade span of the school the student attended in grade 3. The study shows a significant drop-off in achievement in both reading and math in grade 6 (for students in 6-8 schools) and in grade 7 (for students in 7-8 schools) compared to students in those grades in k-8 schools. The decline persists (and increases) over the 2 or 3 years the student is in middle school. There is also a decrease in attendance. The effects are more significant for low income students.

The study says the drop is not caused by funding or class size. The study says the cause is most likely the size of the grade cohort in the school, with the K-8 schools have about 75 students per grade and the middle schools having 200 students (or more per grade). In Chatham, our K-8 schools are running less than the 75 students (Bennett=29, Bonlee=47, JS Waters=41, Moncure=23, Silk Hope=43) though Perry Harrison and North Chatham would have been close to or a little above 75. Our middle schools are running higher than 75 but less than the 200 (Chatham Middle=136, Horton Middle=106, Margaret Pollard=158). Combining Bennett, Bonlee and JS Waters, would lead to a school with cohorts (single grade size) around 117. Combining Silk Hope with Chatham Middle would lead to a school with cohorts around 179. Combining Moncure with Horton would lead to a school with cohorts around 129.

Comparing Achievement between K-8 & Middle Schools: A Large Scale Empirical Study


The results find that older K-8 schools do perform significantly better than Middle Schools, and that this advantage is adequately explained by the two school type’s differing student and teacher populations, differences in average grade size, and the extra school transition that Middle School students must make from elementary to the middle grades.

When the Middle School model was first established, it was with the notion that by isolating those middle grades years, the schools would be perfectly suited to handling both the academic and emotional needs of those early adolescents to which they would cater.

Parents often praise the greater sense of community that they feel exists in K-8 schools, and several studies have noted the stronger relationships that seem to exist between students, between teachers, between students and teachers, and between parents and teachers in K-8 schools. That K-8 schools are often closer to home in terms of travel is also an aspect that parents appreciate, and that the schools are then even more of a local neighborhood school adds to their greater sense of community. In addition, parents also like that the longer grade span allows for families with several children to have siblings in the same school for longer periods of time.

If this proposal is adopted, it might save the district some money (Superintendent Logan has not yet detailed the source and amount of projected savings), but it won’t fix the budget shortfall for next year: the district will still need to make significant cuts. I think there are too many unanswered questions about the effect this change will have on students to make a decision on the timeline that is being proposed, a March 2011 decision for implementation in August 2011. I think this is the wrong move to make at this time.

(Source for Chatham school achievement above)

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Empirical evidence suggests that the K-8 school option is the smarter choice for children