Research, Different Approaches, and What it Means for Students
Grade-level configuration and school restructuring policies are less common topics of debate when compared to other educational reforms. Still, grade-configuration decisions merit serious attention. School leaders are tasked with creating a positive environment in which students can transition from childhood to adolescence to young adulthood, and grade configuration is a major part of that process.
A common approach the middle grades has been to have a middle school for students in grades 6 to 8, with students in prekindergarten/kindergarten through 5th grade in elementary schools. However, this is not uniform across the state or country.
In Missouri, the most common grade configuration is prekindergarten (PK)/K to grade 5 in elementary, grade 6 through 8 in middle school, and grade 9 to 12 in high school. However, multiple districts across the state offer alternative configurations. This includes Normandy and Ferguson-Florissant, which are both undertaking major changes to their grade configuration policies.
Prior Research on Grade Configuration
The existing research on grade configuration often examines the impacts of transitioning from one building to another, with a particular focus on the middle grades. Often, studies examining the effects of K-8 schools versus other middle school models find that students in K-8 schools outperform their peers in middle school (grade 6 to grade 8) settings. Researchers have hypothesized this advantage for K-8 schools is due to students attending these schools in the middle grades avoid the challenges and stresses of the transition associated with moving from a K-5 elementary to a 6-8 middle school.
A few more recent studies of grade configuration’s impact on student achievement are showing these advantages for K-8 schools may be less conclusive than previously thought. One study finds that students who transition to a middle school for grade 6 do experience some learning loss compared to students who attend a K-8 school, but these effects do not linger once these students are in grade 9, while elementary students who attend a separate (K-5) elementary school experience better academic achievement compared to elementary school students who attend a K-8 school. Another study using the nationally representative Early Childhood Longitudinal Study-Kindergarten Class (ECLS-K) data that differences in math achievement are likely driven more by the quality of classroom instruction and the classroom environment than grade configuration, finding no consistent benefit in math achievement for eighth grade students in any school model when compared to schools using a grade 6 to 8 configuration.
Normandy’s “EleMiddle” Approach
Normandy students are experiencing a new model of elementary and middle school starting in the 2019-20 school year. Previously, Normandy offered elementary schools serving grades 1 through 6 and middle schools serving grades 7 through 8. The district chose to alter their approach following the proposal of building a new school. As the district says, “[W]hen carefully weighing all of the options, we saw this as an opportunity to help make a shift in the overall academic performance for our children.”
Normandy made the decision based on their district’s performance since 2002. They found that their students struggled upon reaching middle school. After a research review of the middle school and “EleMiddle” models, the district determined their best option was to implement the “EleMiddle” model, where elementary schools would serve grades 1 through 8. This removes what the district has flagged as a problematic transition from grade 6 to grade 7, keeps middle grade students in a smaller, more developmentally appropriate setting, and still exposes students to course rigor and extracurricular opportunities expected in middle school. In addition to focusing on meeting the developmental needs of students in the “EleMiddle” schools, teachers in these schools have better opportunities for vertical alignment across grade levels. Additionally, students, teachers, and families are also able to develop stronger relationships as a result of having more time together in the “EleMiddle” buildings.
Ferguson-Florissant’s Restructured Approach
Ferguson-Florissant School District (FFSD) has undertaken an ambitious approach to its grade configurations with the intent of providing all students with a developmentally appropriate learning environment. Superintendent Joseph Davis described their approach as a “total view starting at age 3 and providing students a high-quality education at all levels with the goal of preparing students for life after they leave Ferguson.”
The district has created PK through grade 2 schools, elementary schools with grades 3 through 5, middle school campuses with grade 6 in its own building and students in grades 7 and 8 in a separate building, and high schools to serve grades 9 through 12. The early grades are better able to focus on the developmental and social-emotional needs of young students
While some might question the number of transitions, the justification offered is that school leaders and teachers are better able to meet the social-emotional needs of all students in FFSD, and they have implemented multiple structures to help smooth these transitions. For example, the PK through grade 2 campuses allow teachers to focus on the necessary social development and baseline skills without the prospects of standardized testing, as state testing starts in grade 3, removing test-based accountability from the concerns of leaders in the new primary schools. Elementary school leaders in FFSD are then better able to focus their attention on helping prepare students for the shift to a more academic-based program in grades 3 through 5. FFSD students then begin middle school at one of the district’s new sixth grade centers, which share a campus with the middle schools serving grades 7 through 8. The purpose of offering a sixth grade center separate from the other middle school grades is to “ease the transition to middle school” and is more appropriately aligned to the developmental and socio-emotional needs of students. Following grade 8, students in Ferguson transition to one of the district’s high schools, which serve grades 9 through 12.
As an additional support for the class of 2021 and beyond at McCluer High School, the district’s comprehensive high school, ninth-grade students will start high school in the Freshmen Academy within the high school. The “school-within-a-school” model is meant to ease the transition to high school by keeping ninth-grade students in an environment that supports their academic and emotional needs and prepare them for the rigors of high school.
Where Do We Go Next?
How do we make sense of the inconclusive results of research on grade configuration with the new initiatives in districts like Normandy and FFSD? In short, transitioning to a new school building is a difficult task for students, and districts should make every effort to smooth these transitions as much as they are able. Approaches for how to configure grades in schools or districts are likely not going to be one-size-fits-all When districts take on ambitious changes like altering grade-level configuration, it is important to evaluate the impacts these decisions and subsequent changes have on schools and students.