Saturday, September 2, 2006

Connecting Students to the Best Transitional Model - Why the K–8 Model Works

            There is ongoing debate in education regarding the most appropriate configuration of grade levels in schools to best serve students. What is the best model for the most students? Is it K–5 or 6? Is a K–12 school the right model for the most students, or is a K-8 or K–9 school the best fit? To be sure, there are many options, especially when one considers other variables such as all-boys, all-girls and coeducational options. There is research on all sides, but a significant amount of evidence suggests that the K–8 model of independent school education is often the better environment in which to support the emotional, developmental and academic transitional needs of a child.
            In the 19th century the K–8 school configuration was the standard model. Over time, and as educational theory and population trends changed, the middle school model was created to form a separate, developmentally appropriate setting in schools. The result was a loss of one of the significant advantages of the K–8 model: a child-centered focus.
There is an increasing amount of current research that supports the integrity of the K–8 model. That body of evidence suggests that adolescents in a K–8 setting have improved grades and fewer disciplinary problems than their counterparts who transition into a new middle school. A child-centered focus includes developmentally appropriate teachers at every grade level. The notion that a teacher could be expected to be developmentally aware and savvy about a myriad of ages and subjects in order to give each student the best possible experience is a reach, at best. How often is a high school teacher’s schedule ‘rounded out’ by teaching a middle school class or two? Though this model can work effectively, there are far too many cases where it’s clear to the students (and most likely the parents) where the teacher’s passion truly lies. It’s ironic that we compartmentalize elementary teaching into a single grade-level (appropriately so), and most often do the same for high school, and yet we frequently do not have the same expectations for the middle school at an age when there are so many inherent developmental changes to begin with.
In K–8 schools, we most often see teachers at the grade level that is most developmentally and professionally appropriate for their interests and for the children’s developmental needs. Though there are often crossover teachers in physical education and perhaps some other special area subjects, the core classes are usually taught by teachers with particular expertise in the subject and age.
School size and grade levels are also an important characteristic of many K–8 schools. The ability of students and faculty to feel ‘known’ by their peers, administrators and teachers creates a culture of ‘connection’ that is, unfortunately lacking in many aspects of society today.
Dr. Ned Hallowell is a noted child psychologist and author of many books including Connect. This idea of connection is defined by Hallowell as “feeling a part of something larger than yourself, feeling close to another person or group, feeling welcomed or understood-with contacts.”
In a 1989 study, Dr. Hallowell looks at American adolescents and time and time again the theme of connection becomes obvious. He states, “From the huge amount of data, one factor emerged as the most telling: connectedness. Those students who did well had it, while those who didn’t lacked it.” He also found that the connected students “were the least depressed, had the highest self-esteem, felt most comfortable with their families, were the most positive about their education and had the highest grade point averages.”
The two most important sources for connection among the adolescents in Hallowell’s study were, not surprisingly, family connections and school connections. He states, “No one kind of school was best. All that mattered was that the student felt connected.”
There is no blueprint for helping adolescents to feel this sense of connection, but a culture can be created where it’s difficult for a student not to find a way to achieve the contact Dr. Hallowell writes about, and this can often be found in K–8 schools as a result of the opportunities available to students, the limited size, and the broad scope of the programs.
Statistically, there was a 17 percent increase in K–8 schools between 1993–2005 in significant districts such as Cincinnati, Ohio; Orange County, California; Brookline, Massachusetts; Baltimore, Maryland and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Additionally, a number of studies track the academic success of students in the traditional middle school model vs. the K–8 configured schools.
One such study in Milwaukee compared students who switched to a different middle school in grade seven with other students who did not, and found that those who switched schools more often had negative attitudes toward school and lower grades in their middle school. Interestingly, they also found that girls following the same pattern wrestled with self-esteem issues and their participation in extracurricular activities was affected.[i]
In Philadelphia, which has made significant structural changes to its schools, standardized test scores in both reading and math increased from 2000–2003 in K–8 schools when compared to their middle school counterparts. Additionally, the National Assessment of Educational Progress reported a downward trend in students’ academic progress after they reached middle school.[ii]
Quite often, students in K–8 schools have opportunities in the arts and athletics that may not be as accessible to them in high school. There are more opportunities to be involved in interscholastic athletics when there is not the added pressure of the win-at-all-costs mentality that is becoming more and more prevalent in high schools today. Additionally, the K–8 independent schools that have requirements in music, art and drama seek to engage students at a time in their lives when they are just as eager to pronounce that they are not, in fact, an artist, musician or actor. K–8 independent schools frequently require students to take art, to choose choir or band and increase the roles in the musical to allow students to shine in different ways. Creating an atmosphere in which students are required to try things they otherwise wouldn’t, often results in them identifying hidden skills or talents.
In a review of middle schools, RAND Corp., a nonprofit organization, concluded that states and schools should “consider alternative structures that allow them to reduce multiple transitions across grades K–12” for continuity and gradual change.[iii]
In another study by John W. Alspaugh, published in the Journal of Educational Research he found “A statistically significant achievement loss associated with the transition from elementary school to middle school at sixth grade” compared with schools that encompass K–8.[iv] In his study he compared three groups of 16 districts and found “The transition loss in achievement was larger when students from multiple elementary schools were merged into a single middle school during transition.” He also reported that while both middle school and K–8 students had an achievement loss when transitioning to ninth grade, the loss was greater for the middle school students.
Developmentally, there is possibly no other time in a child’s life when there is more happening for a student socially, intellectually and physically. Aside from infancy, no other phase of life is characterized by greater, more rapid, and diverse development than early adolescence.[v] Having a school with limited transitions that provides a comfortable atmosphere, and where a child is known by their teachers, provides the opportunity to transition through a challenging time in adolescence with the best chance of success.
The opportunity for leadership for middle school age children should be a significant focus at a time in children’s lives when they are feeling the most self-conscious. Eighth graders, in particular, who have the opportunity to captain teams, to play the lead in the musical and to lead student assemblies and programs, tend to become young adults who are eager to be involved in student government and other organizations when they move on to high school.
            The K–8 model provides the opportunity for younger students to have role-models that are developmentally appropriate. Middle schoolers sharing a locker room with high school athletes, for example, can often lead to an exchange of information or ideas that may not be messages that we would intentionally promote. Of course, these are often developmentally appropriate for high school seniors, but this may not be the case for the younger audience.
            Choosing any school is a challenging decision for parents. When we look at kindergartens, we often make a decision on our instincts and what we feel are the best values and philosophy. Students at that age can absolutely verbalize their feelings about the visit or the teachers or students they meet, but their input can be somewhat limited. In the K–8 school, students are given the opportunity to develop their academic and extracurricular interests and have had the time to mature before making the decision about what high school may or may not be the best school for them. The high school decision is an incredibly important one, and few, if any, of us can accurately say who our children are really going to be when they get to that point in their lives. The ability of students to figure out who they really are, and then choose a high school that is right for them is a gift.
Whether K–6, K–12, public, private, all-boys, all-girls, coeducational or K–8, in the end, there may not be one solution for the best way to educate all children, as children and their needs are as varied as their educational choices. It is more and more clear, however, that the ability of an intentional K–8 independent school to offer opportunities to children when they are at such a critical transitional stage in their development is an important consideration.

[i] The Wall Street Journal, April 6, 2005 “Middle School Goes Out of Fashion”
[ii] The Wall Street Journal, March 1, 2006 “Superintendent Plans to Eliminate Middle Schools”
[iii] Ibid
[iv] The School Board News, July 31, 2001 “School Leaders Tout Benefits of K-8 Model”
[v] Pruitt, D. (2000). Your adolescent: Emotional, behavioral, and cognitive development from early adolescence through the teen years. Washington, DC: American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry