Should We Eliminate Middle Schools? One Study Says 'Yes'

by Jerriann Sullivan
top dog
Photo via Shutterstock.

‘Top dog’ experiences mean less bullying and better grades

Ah, middle school, typically the most awkward batch of years for kids. There’s a lot to deal with: hair in weird places, burgeoning crushes, facial features they haven’t grown into yet. The list is different and endless for each child, but the struggle remains real for kids. A new study shows that we can make it easier on tweens by not sending them to separate middle schools.

The solution? More K-8 schools, eliminating the “middle school” experience. Instead of sending our kids to a different middle school we stretch our their elementary years and have them attend the same school until eighth grade. In doing so we’ll produce less stressed kids, according to a student published in the American Educational Research Journal.

The researchers, from Syracuse and New York universities, looked at sixth- through eighth-graders in New York City and their experiences. They compared kids who attend K-8 vs. 6-8 and 6-12 and the role of the top dog/bottom dog phenomenon that, according to the authors, “states that students at the top of a grade span have better experiences than those at the bottom.” What they found is that our tweens are much happier in the K-8 schools because they aren’t the bottom dogs.

In the K-8 schools, tweens are “top dogs.” They know the campus, teachers, rules, and other students better. They’re naturally more confident, and their routine is altered less. When they attend a separate middle school (6-8) or one that combines middle and high school (6-12), they’ve got to deal with the “bottom dog” status. The students that didn’t have to live through that in sixth grade felt safer in addition to a greater sense of belonging. They also had fewer instances of bullying and fighting, which is music to any parent’s ears.

The study showed that one-third of sixth-graders in 6-12 schools reported that kids threatened or bullied other students “most or all of the time.” But only one in four students at the K-8 schools had the same experience. Grades and test scores were better for the kids at the K-8 schools as well. So they’re tortured less, have better grades, and do better on tests. What isn’t to like about this?

“We, in fact, are the first to find that your position in the school affects your experiences, as opposed to some other explanation,” study author Michah W. Rothbart shared with NPR. Because their study was so large – they studied 90,000 kids in more than 500 schools over a three-year period – they were able to rule out other factors like height and weight. Even new students — kids who transferred into a K-8 program — reported better situations than students who started at 6-8 schools.

Can’t say I’m surprised by the study’s findings. I attended a K-8 school and distinctly remember the “bottom dog” experiences that came with high school. But by that time I was more prepared for it. Having to deal with those same things while in the sixth grade would’ve been too much for me. While we can’t totally eliminate the “bottom dog” phase of our kids’ lives, we can at least push it back a few years. And in the process, we’ll ensure our kids have a better time growing up.