Back to the Future: The Shift to K-8 Schools

by Leslie Blair
Published in SEDL Letter Volume XX, Number 1, April 2008, Making the Most of Middle School

It may not be extensive enough to be called a trend, but there has been a definite shift in the number of schools containing kindergarten through grade 8 in the United States. In urban areas especially, districts have been doing away with middle schools, which traditionally contain grades 6–8, and moving toward K–8 schools. A national database maintained by Missouri State University indicates that since 1994, 1,759 schools in 49 districts throughout the country have either adopted, are preparing to switch to, or have considered switching to a K–8 or 1–8 configuration. Most of these are academically struggling schools in inner cities (Viadero, 2008). Since the late 1990s, Baltimore, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Milwaukee, New Orleans, New York, and Philadelphia have blended middle schools and elementary schools. Those cities will soon be joined by Washington, DC, which recently announced plans to convert middle and elementary schools to preK–8 schools.

Why is this shift occurring? And is there evidence that the K–8 configuration is better for students in the middle grades?

Both Middle School, K–8 Configurations Have Advantages

Middle schools first evolved in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The middle grades movement extended into the 1980s in an effort to better meet the needs of young adolescents, who face a unique set of psychological, emotional, and social challenges. By the late 1990s, however, many districts were dissatisfied with achievement levels and discipline problems in their middle schools. Districts began to look for guidance from successful private schools—many of them Catholic schools—that had K–8 configurations.

Dr. Anthony Recasner, former SEDL board chairman and principal of a K–8 school in New Orleans, believes both configurations have their advantages. Recasner should know—he has been a principal for 15 years, operating New Orleans Charter Middle School, which serves grades 6–8, and S. J. Green Charter School, which serves grades K–8.

“The main advantage of a middle school is you can focus on the nature of adolescence, which is consuming because to be effective you have to respond with the right strategies to meet students’ academic, physical, social, and emotional needs. These strategies take time to figure out because they depend on unique needs of the students and the skills and knowledge of the faculty and staff,” Recasner said.

The focus of a K–8 school, he explained, is different, and therefore so is its primary advantage. “When you have kids who make it all the way through your K–8 school, you provide a wonderful sense of continuity. You can create a family environment, a community environment around kids you know really well. You can get optimal emotional and social outcomes because you know them and their families really well,” he said.

There are challenges with the K–8 model, though. Recasner noted that few teachers can teach the complete range of grades, and often teachers of young children feel uneasy interacting with the older students. “The challenge is that a K–8 school can really spread you thin,” Recasner said. “Everyone has to attend to the needs of big kids—even kindergarten teachers.”

SEDL program manager Dr. Robin Jarvis, who formerly served as the head of New Orleans’s Recovery School District (RSD), believes the middle school model—properly implemented—is best for middle-grade students.

“The middle grades are critical for preparing students for high school and college,” said Jarvis. “This is the time students begin to go deeper into each content area and to apply the reading, math, organizational, and study skills they learned in elementary school to the content area courses. It is really important at this point that the teachers have strong content knowledge in the subjects they are teaching.”

Jarvis said the well-implemented middle school model should include community-building strategies that help children feel like they are part of a smaller community within the larger school and develop trusting relationships with adults in the school. While she was conducting research for her dissertation, Jarvis worked with several successful middle schools. She noticed that these schools split faculty members into cross-content area teaching teams, with each team teaching a specific group of students.

What Should Parents Look for in a Good Middle-Grades School?

Nancy Ames, a senior advisor at the Education Development Center (EDC) and an active member of the National Forum to Accelerate Middle-Grades Reform, said that parents should know that high-performing middle-grades schools need to be academically rigorous, responsive to the needs of young adolescents, and socially equitable. “These qualities are possible in any grade configuration,” she said. “Simply changing the school’s structure will not guarantee their presence.”

Ames explained that schools that are highly tracked, where some students have access to a rigorous curriculum while others do not, are not socially equitable. “Too many so-called good schools are failing significant numbers of students,” she said. “Typically these are English language learner students, students with disabilities, students from poor families, or students that simply fall through the cracks. If parents look at everybody’s child as their own, they’ll have a better way of judging the overall quality of their child’s school.”

Both Ames and SEDL program manager Robin Jarvis say that parents should look for an advanced curriculum that helps prepare students for high school. “Algebra or pre-algebra should be the norm in eighth grade, along with exploration of geometry and statistics,” said Ames. Students should be studying science in the middle grades, too—not just mathematics and language arts. Good middle-grades programs should also include counseling in preparation for high school and career exploration.

High on Jarvis’s list of things parents should look for in a good middle-grades setting is the opportunity for such extracurricular activities as academic clubs, intramural sports, music/band programs, and art/drama programs. “Students at this age need opportunities to develop their other interest and talent areas, so if these are not provided in school, parents may want to look for them elsewhere,” said Jarvis.

Ames said that it is also important that students have multiple ways to learn and multiple ways to demonstrate what they have learned. “Students should be able to tell their parents what they are learning and why,” she said.

“The intent is that these teams will meet frequently to discuss strategies they have used successfully in working with students who may be having difficulties or posing problems in the classroom,” Jarvis said. “Where I have seen this model work best, the team concept was taken to the point where each team was housed within the school building in a common area that is painted in a specific color signifying that team. Each team has its own colors, mascots, and mottos. While this may seem a bit extreme, these types of strategies help young adolescents who are moving from the elementary school setting where they pretty much spent all day with one or two teachers to the larger middle school setting where they move from class to class throughout the day and may have difficulty connecting to and developing relationships with the adults there—adults with whom they spend much shorter periods of time each day than they did their elementary school teachers.”

Recasner, on the other hand, prefers the K–8 model if the facility is suitable. He believes separating the children into groups of K–3, 4–6, and 7–8 is the best way to group students in a K–8 school. “Kids in those age groups are more alike than they are different,” said Recasner. At Samuel J. Green, the children are divided into those grade-level units.

“This school design gives us the benefit of being able to work with smaller numbers of students within an academic unit,” he explained. “As a result we are better able to create the unique experience that best meets the needs of those students. This approach is consistent with the way successful independent schools are organized.”

Recasner’s ideal K–8 facility would include separate buildings for each of the units. Each building could create the ideal environment for its particular grade-level unit. “Because of the difference in sizes and developmental needs of students in a K–8 school, it is nearly impossible to create a single environment that meets all of the needs of every grade,” Recasner said. He added that students could still share some common areas. He also believes that the percentage of students at each grade level is important. Many schools that have begun using the K–8 configuration have struggled as students in the middle grades have overtaken the lower grades in number.

photo of a mother and her two middle school age daughters

Jarvis observed a related issue at the K–8 schools in New Orleans’s RSD. Many students in the RSD were out of school or moved numerous times during the tumultuous months following Hurricane Katrina. Students were older than normal when they returned to school and picked back up at the grade level where they left off.

“One of the biggest concerns parents and teachers had was based on the fact we had a large number of overage students in the middle school grades,” Jarvis said. “This meant our preK–8 schools included students ranging in age from 4 to 15 or 16 years old. It is very difficult to have an age range this broad in a single school, and that can create some potentially unsafe situations for the younger children.” Regarding the safety issue, she said the K–8 model works better if the different age groups are housed in separate buildings on the same campus, the same physical setting that Recasner advocates. Jarvis said this had been done in New Orleans at those schools where the facilities allowed it.

A recent study (Weiss & Kipnes, 2006) noted that students in K–8 schools felt safer than they did in middle schools. This is consistent with fewer discipline problems seen at K–8 schools.

“When you’ve got little kids, their presence tends to temper a lot of the more robust adolescent issues that can consume a school staff. And in general, issues of student safety is also given more attention,” said Recasner. “For example, in most K–8 schools, significant planning time is devoted to making sure that the two trains miss by a few minutes each day, thereby providing each group its own room to roam. This may be a large part of why kids feel less vulnerable.”

photo of five children standing and reading in a hallway

Implementation is Key

According to Hayes Mizell, senior fellow with the National Staff Development Council (NSDC) and former director of the Program for Student Achievement at the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, many of the middle schools that consider switching to a K–8 configuration never actually changed from being a junior high school. Often school systems were not truly committed to the philosophical, educational, and operational reasons for establishing a middle school. “The district leadership in most school systems does not provide the clear direction and oversight that middle school educators deserve and must have to educate young adolescents effectively,” Mizell said.

Other school systems implemented structures and processes that are associated with middle schools but didn’t have the needed focus on student learning or pay attention to the fundamentals. “By fundamentals,” Mizell said, “I mean meeting the academic and developmental needs of students; increasing the expectations, support, and accountability of teachers and administrators; and engaging students in meaningful learning experiences.”

Dr. David Hough, who is the dean of the College of Education and director of the Institute for School Improvement (ISI) at Missouri State University, agrees with Mizell that the effectiveness of the school—whether K–8 or middle school—lies in implementation. Hough has studied middle-grades education and existing research related to the middle grades for more than 15 years. He coined the term “elemiddle” in 1991 while a research scientist at the University of California to denote K–8 schools that effectively implement best practices for middle-grades students who attend school alongside elementary-grades students. In a 2005 School Administrator article, he wrote:

My position is that schools more fully implementing the middle-level concept are the ones outperforming those that are not. I believe the successful K–8 elemiddles are the ones buying into this philosophy most fully and completely, and that’s why their test scores are higher, their attendance rates improved, discipline referrals reduced and dropout rates lowered.

A current ISI research project examines data for more than 500 public schools that contain grades 6–8 and more than 500 public K–8 schools. Hough’s team has found that the primary reason schools are considering the conversion to a K–8 configuration is because they have not met Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) benchmarks.

“The few schools that have studied the pros and cons of switching to a K–8 and have stayed with the 6–8 have made the decision because they didn’t have the facilities to accommodate the K–8 conversion and/or the community didn’t want to make the move,” Hough said. “Interestingly, in the states of Georgia, Florida, and Texas, the most common reason cited for not switching to K–8 often has to do with sports programs that they don’t want to change.”

“This is not a movement of suburban America or rural America. It is happening in cities like Portland, New York, Kansas City, Cleveland, and Cincinnati.”
— Dr. David Hough, Missouri State University

Hough has found that districts studying the issue and making the conversion are largely high-poverty, inner-city communities with large ethnic populations. “So this is not a movement of suburban America or rural America. It is happening in cities like Portland, New York, Kansas City, Cleveland, and Cincinnati,” he said. “They believe the K–8 configuration provides smaller learning communities, fewer and more supportive transitions, and a more nurturing learning environment—all the so-called ‘soft stuff’ that critics have used to blame middle schools for their relatively poor student outcomes. My data suggest, ironically, that if middle schools were actually doing what they were being criticized for, they might be producing more positive results.”

In the ISI study, the population of K–8 schools is generally smaller than that of 6–8 schools. Though the schools in both groups they have studied range in size from 200 to 2,000 students, the size is skewed for each configuration. The 6–8 schools tend to be larger schools with 900–1,200 students; the K–8 schools tend to be much smaller (there are some very large K–8s). Hough has also found that the K–8 schools tend to have more economically disadvantaged students, higher attendance, fewer discipline problems, and higher academic achievement overall, considering AYP and other factors. However, Hough noted that the K–8 schools in the database have been K–8 schools for an average of 2.6 years; the 6–8 schools have been around more than 9 years. “It would be reasonable to assume that these relatively youthful K–8s might produce even better student outcomes over time. Most whole-school reform initiatives need to have a few years’ practice, say 4 or more, before reliable outcome measures can be documented. This is why we have already begun a 2008–2010 longitudinal follow-up study replicating the same data collection methods used for the 2004 data,” he said.

What Does Recent Research Tell Us?

photo of a teacher and a series of students, each with a laptop computer

Although it seems there has been a recent wave of conversions to the K–8 model, there hasn’t been a great deal of “gold-standard” scientifically based research (i.e., research that uses randomization and controls) comparing middle schools with other configurations. As Hough wrote (2005):

This is not to say that middle schools have not been the subject of study. To the contrary, my research team spent almost two years examining 3,717 studies that addressed a variety of middle-level education issues, topics, and questions over a 12-year period from 1991–2002.

Two recently published studies have employed sophisticated statistical analysis, including multilevel modeling, however. Weiss and Kipnes (2006) used data from the Philadelphia Education Longitudinal Study (PELS), an ongoing study of public high schools students. Using the first wave of data collected in the PELS, the researchers compared eighth-grade students from middle schools to those from K–8 schools. Philadelphia was an ideal district to study because not all of the middle schools in the district were converted into K–8 schools: some of the middle schools were left intact. The findings of Weiss and Kipnes did not support improving achievement in the middle grades by eliminating middle schools. According to the authors, “The environment of the middle school is no more detrimental to students’ performance than that of the K–8. Although much has been made about the negative consequences that middle schools have on students’ performance in the middle grades, we find little effect” (p. 264). However, Weiss and Kipnes found statistical differences in feelings of self-esteem and safety between the two groups of students. The middle school students had lower levels of self-esteem than those who attend K–8 schools; they also perceived their school environment as significantly more threatening.

Byrnes and Ruby (2007) also studied the Philadelphia City School District, comparing middle schools to K–8 schools to determine if the two different configurations had any effects on students’ reading and mathematical achievement. They found that the older, more established K–8 schools did outperform the middle schools but the newer K–8 schools did not. Similar to Hough’s early findings regarding K–8 schools, Byrnes and Ruby note “. . . smaller size may also enable K–8 schools to more effectively implement the very set of ‘best practices’ that were originally thought to be an advantage of middle schools, and the greater use of these practices may also be the reason why K–8 schools tend to perform better” (p. 107). The two researchers plan to follow up on the newer schools in time.

Schools to Watch Program
The National Forum to Accelerate Middle-Grades Reform has established a set of criteria for identifying high-performing middle-grades schools and has set up a “Schools To Watch” program. The program includes schools serving a variety of grade spans, including K–8, 6–8, and 7–9. These are schools that are academically excellent, responsive to the developmental needs of young adolescents, and socially equitable. The forum also calls for enlightened leadership, use of data for decision making, a professional learning community, and other supports to enhance teaching and learning. Later this spring the forum will release a policy statement.

Although Byrnes and Ruby found that K–8 schools on average have higher levels of achievement, they state the advantages were due partially to differences in the populations of the K–8 schools and partially to the structural differences. They conclude:

In the end, the advantage is multifaceted and not easily replicated. Districts and schools eager to convert to the K–8 structure because of this advantage should not rush into any such policies but rather should reflect upon history. K–8 schools, once the dominant school structure in the U.S. middle-grades landscape, have fallen out of fashion before, and they may yet do so again as the rush to revert to them is likely to leave many reformers disappointed. (p. 134)

Perhaps they are right. Michael Fullan has written a great deal about how it is much easier to restructure a school than to reculture a school. Just moving the middle-grades students into a K–8 setting won’t help unless unwavering attention is paid to high standards, aligning curriculum and instruction with those standards, making sure there are good teachers, and creating an atmosphere conducive for learning with a strong sense of community.

As Mizell said in a speech before the National School Board Association’s Council of Urban Boards of Education (2004), “There is reason to worry that these school systems may be no more conscientious and vigilant about meeting the unique needs of young adolescents in K–8 schools than they have been about meeting the needs of this age group in 6–8 schools. . . School boards and superintendents need to know that the wholesale conversion to a K–8 structure is not a matter of ‘set it and forget it.’ Under any grade configuration educating young adolescents well is hard work.”


photo of a girl using a laptop computer
  • Byrnes, V., & Ruby, A. (2007, November). Comparing achievement between K–8 and middle schools: A large-scale empirical study. American Journal of Education, 114, 101–135.
  • Hough, D. L. (2005, March). The rise of the ‘elemiddle’ school: Not every K–8 school truly applies best middle-level practices and deserves the designation. School Administrator, 62. Retrieved February 6, 2008, from
  • Mizell, H. (2004, October). Still crazy after all these years: Grade configuration and the education of young adolescents. Keynote address presented to the National School Board Association’s Council of Urban Boards of Education.
  • Viadero, D. (2008). Evidence for moving to a K–8 model not airtight. Education Week, 27(19). Retrieved February 7, 2008, from
  • Weiss, C. C., & Kipnes, L. (2006, February). Reexamining middle school effects: A comparison of middle grades students in middle schools and K–8 schools. American Journal of Education, 112, 239–272.
  • Yecke, C. P. (2006, April). Mayhem in the middle: Why we should shift to K–8. Educational Leadership, 63(7), 20–25.

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