Is Middle School All About Grade Configuration?

There is a new study out which concludes that students take an academic plunge when they go to a 6-8 school rather than a k-8 school. The article is called The Middle Level Plunge.

At first glance, it seems to be a reasonably well designed study comparing student performance in a 6-8 school to those in a k-8 school (the old grade configuration dilemma!). Their fallacy is in essentially equating the 6-8 grade configuration to “middle schooling,” and actually say “Our results cast serious doubt on the wisdom of the middle-school experiment that has become such a prominent feature of American education.”

Here is the response that I posted as a comment on their article:

Thanks for adding to the research on the impact of school grade configuration. I especially appreciate that you didn’t just study the grade configurations, but also tried to control for various explanations, including teacher experience, school characteristics, and educational practices. You have defined each of these clearly in your article.

I am concerned, however, with your using the term “middle school” to mean the 6-8 configuration schools. You are clear that this is your definition in the article, but in middle level education circles, the term means something very different, and I fear your conclusions about 6-8 grade configuration will be misinterpreted as conclusions about middle school practices. Readers should be able to make their own distinctions, especially when the writing is clear, as your article is, but you and I both know that in our “sound bite lives” there are too many people who will see the words “middle school” and think that your definition is the same as my definition.

For middle level educators, “middle school” is essentially a set of developmentally appropriate educational practices applied in the middle level grades (generally considered grades 5-8), without regard to the grade configuration of the school housing those grades. Readers may find helpful the numerous resources available on the Association for Middle Level Education website (

Further, the school characteristics and educational practices you examine are not those that define middle school practices. I would have looked for the characteristics defined in AMLE’s This We Believe (, or the Turning Points 2000 recommendations (

Again, I am not criticizing your study or the clarity of your writing, but simply sharing the unfortunate possibility of confusion for school decision makers trying to make informed (especially research informed) decisions based on your article and the use of the term “middle school.”

Perhaps, I could invite you to refer to the schools in your study as “6-8 schools,” instead of “middle schools.”

So, my big objection is defining “middle school” as a grade configuration, and seeming to conclude that “the middle school experiment has failed” and the possibility that decision makers will interpret this as if it were our definition of middle school…

I want to be clear, though. It is right and proper for researchers to select a term, define it, and use it in their article as they define it. It is expected that the reader will read such an article closely and critically. The authors of this study have done nothing wrong. Could it have been better (more clear to a wider audience) if they had done it differently? Yes.

But it is also right and proper for a reader to add their critique (politely and professionally) to the conversation though avenues such as comments on posts.

(For those of you exploring the Lead4Change model, this is a Branding and Buzz issue. Situations like these go directly to the issue of public perception of our initiatives and what role we play in communicating our vision. It is on us to try to correct misperceptions and to work toward the integrity of models we subscribe to.)


It’s Your Turn:

Are you a middle level educator or advocate? What are your thoughts about this study? I often ask you to post your comments here, but perhaps this time, you could post your comments on their article. And maybe you’d pass the word to your circle of middle grades contacts and they could comment, too…


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About Mike Muir

I'm an educator, teacher trainer, and educational developer interested in creating multiple pathways to learning and helping people figure out how they are smart.
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