The First Thing We Do, Let’s Close All the Middle Schools

(Guest Post by Collin Hitt)

The Chicago board of education has announced that it will close 61 elementary schools at the end of the year. This is the largest number of school closures by a district in a single year in U.S. history, according to some reports. And this is just the beginning. Chicago Public Schools reports that 330 of its schools are underutilized; 129 of those schools were finalists for closure this year.

Under its current enrollment, CPS has more buildings than it needs or can afford. Making matters more complicated, enrollment in district-run schools will continue to drop. The city lost 200,000 people over the last decade , and charter schools become more popular every year with families who stay in Chicago. So for years to come, the district will continually be faced with the need to close additional schools. My advice to the district: close your middle schools, for starters.

Recent research suggests that school districts should move away from middle schools, towards the K through 8 elementary schools that were once the norm across the country. The coming consolidation of CPS facilities would allow the district to go back to this model.

Middle schools became prominent in the 1960s and 70s. There was little academic justification for creating them; most of the middle school pedagogy found today was developed after middle schools were built. There wasn’t much anxiety about comingling adolescents and younger children; that was a post hoc justification. Districts simply built middle schools to house sixth through eighth graders from elementary schools that, after the Baby Boom, were actually overfull. Recent research shows that this was a huge unforced error. Districts should have just built more K-8 schools. For students, the transition from elementary to middle schools has negative, long-term impacts.

A pioneering study of middle schools was published in 2010 by Columbia University researchers Jonah Rockoff and Benjamin Lockwood. They compared New York City students at middle schools and K-8 elementary schools. They found that middle schools had a large negative impact on students test scores. Almost all of the learning losses were suffered by disadvantaged students with lower incoming test scores.

Harvard researchers Marty West and Gino Schwerdt have used the same methods to examine Florida middle schools. They found practically identical, negative effects in urban areas like Miami. These effects persisted into high school. Again, disadvantaged students were the ones who suffered the largest learning losses in middle schools, thus widening achievement gaps that reformers usually hope to close.

Middle schools were a mistake in New York and Miami. We have every reason to think they were a mistake in Chicago, too.

In Chicago, school buildings will be shuttered, an unpleasant fact. But the New York and Florida research suggests that there’s an opportunity at hand for CPS.

Consider a typical cluster of three half-empty elementary schools, all of which feed into a half-empty middle school. It’s unaffordable to keep all four schools open indefinitely. Under the status quo, if CPS was to stick with its current grade configurations at its elementary schools, the only feasible way to consolidate schools would be to close one of the K-5 feeder schools. Students would be forced to transfer to one of the other two feeder schools. Then those same students would soon feed into the middle school, which would remain under-enrolled. Some students at consolidated elementary schools will be forced to switch schools twice in as many years, first when their elementary school was closed, next when it was time to transfer to middle school.

The middle-school research points to a different strategy. The district should stop feeding students into half-empty middle schools. Instead, it should allow kids to stay at their current elementary schools by simply adding an older grade to the school. As elementary schools add one grade per year, they’d eventually become K-8 schools — they certainly have the space to do so. Middle schools would shrink in size and staffing levels, since they’d have no more incoming classes.* Eventually, the middle schools would have no more students left, since all of their present students will graduate to high school. In a couple short years, most underused middle schools could be closed.**

Under this scheme, no student would be forced to leave her current school. The district could close a large number of underused buildings. And student performance would improve.

Closing middle schools is not a cure-all. CPS will need to close more buildings than just its middle schools So goes its budget. And the district will need to pursue more than one reform policy – look at its test scores. But it should start with a no-brainer and phase out its middle schools.

* Jonah Rockoff made an excellent point to me when he visited the University of Arkansas, where I work and study, earlier this month. There are a few under-enrolled middle schools that might be led by a better staff than the elementary schools that feed into it. In that instance, you might consider letting that middle school grow from the bottom up, starting with kindergarten. That middle school’s feeder elementary school(s) would receive no new students, eventually phasing itself out as its kids grew into the rare under-enrolled but good middle schools.

** The question then becomes, what to do with the empty buildings? That’s a matter for a future post, though here are some clues.

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3 Responses to The First Thing We Do, Let’s Close All the Middle Schools

  1. Peter Meyer says:

    Nice job, Colin. See my Ed Next story — http://educationnext.org/the-middle-school-mess/ — wherein one superintendent calls middle school the Bermuda Triangle of education.

  2. [...] of this as the context for the research Collin Hitt cites in his sensible suggestion that Chicago close its middle schools before shuttering elementary [...]

  3. [...] the extinction of the contraints that led to their creation. While some are apparent, such as the proliferation of  middle schools is another, most are more subtle, such as the convention of placing a single teacher in front of [...]

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