When do students decide to drop out of high school? According to a new study of Florida schools by a team of Harvard researchers, a student begins to give up on education well before she sets foot in a high school classroom. The study found a strong correlation between a student’s middle school experience and whether she ends up doing well academically in high school.
According to the researchers, the transition from fifth grade at an elementary school to sixth grade at a separate middle school is especially critical. Students in the study experienced a “sharp drop” in math and language arts when they moved to sixth grade—unlike their peers who attended the same school from kindergarten to eighth grade.
So why does sixth grade—and middle school in general—represent such a cataclysmic shift for students? The study found that "structural school transitions—or being in the youngest cohort in a school—adversely impact student performance." Researchers also found that the negative effects of entering sixth grade at a middle school are most pronounced in urban areas.
That makes sense given the size of urban middle schools—some of the largest can have 2,000 students or more, making it easy for 10- or 11-year-olds who attended significantly smaller elementary schools to get lost in the shuffle. Overburdened middle school staff—who may teach 150 students or more every day—often don't have time to get to know each child at a time when students most need to know that someone cares about them. For students who enter middle school already behind academically, the inability to forge personal relationships with teachers creates an even greater disadvantage. If a student falls behind in sixth grade, that trend is likely to continue throughout middle and high school, making her more likely to dropout.
Another concerning factor is that school principals "expressed significantly lower levels of agreement with statements indicating that their ... teachers were excellent, suggesting that teachers in these schools may be less well equipped to deal with the challenges presented by their students." Many of the best teachers seek to avoid middle school because those students have a reputation for being difficult—hormones are flowing and violence is a problem at many schools.
Because students attending K-8 schools don't experience negative consequences when they transition to high school, the researchers suggest that school districts re-examine how they separate grades in different school buildings. If it's not working for students, it may well be time for a change.