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  • Writer's pictureAllan J. Mucerino


Updated: Mar 22, 2018

In my current course, Transforming Teaching and Schools through Resource Optimization, we tackle the challenge of transforming PK-12 education (we are unbounded!). I originally had written a “Goliath challenge of transforming…..” in an earlier draft of this essay only to be reminded by my editor that giantism may be a handicap, as Malcomn Gladwell proposed, and the metaphor would be useful, but misused based on my original intention (full disclosure). In fact, it would be a perfectly useful metaphor because as a social structure education is monolithic, impersonal, immutable to change, intractably indivisible, and incredibly vulnerable - an easy target.

This blog will serve as a primer on grade-level configuration to provoke thought as my students and I embark on a project-based learning unit revolving around optimizing facilities as a comparatively inexpensive reform policy lever. We will study the work of Dhuey (2013), who found that rearranging grade-level configurations are becoming more common. We will also study the work of Schwerdt & West (2013); Clark (2012); Jacob & Rockoff (2012); Carolan & Chesky (2012); Rockoff & Lockwood (2010); Sanders-Smith (2009); Mizell (2005); and others.

Less common professional journals for education leaders, such as School Planning & Management, Sociology of Education, The Canadian Journal of Economics, The Journal of Economic Perspectives, and The Journal of Public Economics are among the peer reviewed journals commonly found on the reading list relative to this topic.

If you set out to optimize facilities, the first thing that comes to mind is capacity, which leads to grade-level configuration. What does it look like? What could it look like? What should it look like? Those are the questions we will ask. Among the menu of configurations in practice today, the two most common models are K-5, 6-8, and 9-12 and K-6, 7-8, and 9-12. In the San Gabriel Valley (SGV), where I am employed as a Superintendent of Schools, the K-5, 6-8, 9-12 configuration is the common model, followed by K-6, 7-8, and 9-12. Variations abound, and have most often been the result of school choice and declining enrollment (see Rowland, Pomona, Azusa, Pasadena districts). Configurations including 6-12, 7-12, and K-8 are not commonly found in the SGV. In surrounding counties, regions, and states, numerous variations exist. In Oklahoma, K-6, 7-9, and 10-12 are common. In Texas, K-5, 6-8, 9-10, and 11-12 schools, all separate schools in separate locations, are common. In New York City, there are 28 different paths to the 9th grade. New York City is among the multitude of reform-minded urban districs currently challenging the notion that grouping students in the middle grades in their own school buildings is in the best interests of students, after all. In Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Maryland, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Philadelphia, and Baltimore conversions are underway, generally from grades 7-8 or 6-8 to K-8 or 7-12 schools.

Among model urban districts to have aggressively pursued this conversion to K-8 is Long Beach Unified School District, a K-12 school district held up as the gold standard in urban education nationwide.

In a recent detailed study, Carolan and Chesky (2012) found there was no consensus as to which grade configuration best serves young adolescents (10-15 years-olds). They discovered that states and school districts across the country have been reconsidering the practice of educating young adolescents in stand-alone middle schools, due primarily to improve academic outcomes for young adolescents. Numerous studies have found that students, particularly historically lower achieving students, are more successful in K-8 models versus 7-8 or 6-8 models. In contrast to grade-level conversions for facility optimization (fiscal reasons), many districts today are converting due to reasons related to student acheivement. The primary reason for converting to K-8 schools is to reduce or eliminate transitions (from primary school to upper elementary or elementary school to middle school, or both in some cases). According to Dhuey (2013) grade-level configuration may have an effect on student achievement, as it can impact schools’ practices and policies such as curriculum development and delivery. It can also have an effect on school and cohort size, and it determines the number and timing of structural transitions a student takes during his or her educational career. Finally, it can affect peer composition and age distribution within schools. All of these factors can greatly influence student achievement. In a 2013 article in Education Leadership, Richard Rothstein wrote, “Segregated schools with poorly performing students can rarely be turned around while remaining racially isolated. The problems students bring to school are so overwhelming that policy should never assume that even the most skilled and dedicated faculty can overcome them.” Reconfiguring grade-levels could be part of a strategy to integrate students into higher performing schools and eliminate what may have been created by defacto segregation. To that end, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer argued that school districts should be permitted to address de facto racial homogeneity voluntarily, even if not constitutionally required to do so.

In my career I have worked at both 6th through 8th grade and 7th through 8th grade middle schools. I have worked in districts with multiple configurations, including K-2, 5-8, K-8, and 7-12. In my experiences, the multiple configuration districts were conceived purely out of necessity for economic reasons, usually when dramatic shifts in enrollment occurred. Most school configurations, however, are by design and are based on evidence that a certain model creates the conditions that would best foster a culture to support the social milieu, and the unique psychological and social dimension of preadolescents. In California, K-5 followed by 6-8 accounts for about 7 of every 10 unified districts. The movement to 6th through 8th was inspired by a California Department of Education publication titled, Caught in the Middle, published in 1989. Many intermediate and junior high schools were converted to 6-8 as a result of this seminal document. In addition to the social, psychological, and physical dimensions, many conversions to 6-8 were born out of the desire to offer a more rigorous curriculum, given the staffing complexities and costs associated with offering stand-alone courses in a K-8 setting, particularly in a state of declining enrollment.

While there is not enough empirical evidence to suggest that the configuration alone will improve academic performance, there is evidence that suggests that the conditions created by certain configurations impact how young adolescents are being educated in these schools. The current movement behind the return to K-8 schools is to create true neighborhood schools. Issues such as student control, discipline and safety, truancy, violence, and substance abuse are more easily mitigated by K-8 models. Why? The research attributes it to sustained parent involvement. While many families are quite involved in their children’s elementary schools, their participation declines dramatically when their children enter middle school.

Researchers and practitioners alike agree that regardless of the grade configuration, a school’s environmental characteristics determine what makes a school work. And since school attachment is the primary environmental characteristic, it stands to reason that a K-8 model provides the best conditions for that characteristic to flourish.

Finally, this essay would be incomplete if I failed to mention the mounting empirical and anecdotal evidence that middle schools (6-8) have not fulfilled their promise to provide a better preadolescent climate and, in tandem, raise the academic rigor not always found in K-8 settings. Why? In my experiences, it’s a case study in failed implementation. Look no further than Fullan's change concepts of restructuring and reculturing. The middle school movement restructured schools (i.e. changed structure, roles, and related elements of a school organization) without reculturing them. Fullan describes it as going deeper which means changing the very conditions, contexts and cultures at all levels of the system.

According to George (2005), who studied the 6-8 movement, relative to restructuring, the cultural shift is a far more complex, in-depth, sophisticated, and difficult change. It involves full attention to and careful implementation of professional practices and attitudes designed to influence the outcomes of achievement, development, and citizenship. Reculturing requires the development of long-term professional development communities within each school where substantial change is attempted. The history of middle level education is a case study of the rush to restructure, without equal attention to recreating the culture within those schools.

For public school students who leave school districts for charter schools, private settings, or 7-12 configurations, it is at the transition to middle school that the exodus is greatest. The argument, then, is eliminate the transition and eliminate (or reduce) the exodus. With increased enrollment comes increased revenue and a facility optimization solution to an education problem. As easy as 1-2-3, ur...6-7-8.


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