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Should Sixth Grade be in Elementary School or Middle School?
Detail: The middle school intends to create a transitional period between the sheltered elementary school and the more demanding high school. However, is the current national trend of middle schools serving grades 6-8, the “best” grade configuration for schools to serve early adolescence? A recent study using administrative data on public school students in North Carolina (NC had led the national trend of incorporating sixth grade in middle school with 90 per cent of the state’s 379 middle schools serving grades 6-8 by year 2000), has found that sixth grade students attending middle schools are more likely to be cited for discipline problems than those attending elementary school. That difference remains after adjusting for socioeconomic and demographic characteristics of the students and their schools.

The culture and environment of the elementary school and the middle school are different and are relevant to explaining the higher infraction rates recorded by sixth graders placed in middle school. The middle school provides more freedom to students who typically move from classroom to classroom during the course of the school day interacting with different teachers and different groups of students. In contrast, the elementary school provides continuity and close connection with one teacher where the same group of students spends much of the day in the teacher’s classroom. But most obviously, middle school exposes sixth graders to older adolescents who as a group are more rebellious, and more likely to be involved in activities that violate school rules. The results of this study show that the negative influence (behavior problems, reduced academic performance etc.) of middle school on sixth grade lingers through ninth grade.

The best school configuration in which to incorporate the adolescent grades needs to be reconsidered by policy makers and experts. The results of this study suggest separating sixth graders from older adolescents.

This study is published by the Terry Sanford Institute of Public Policy, Duke.

Cook, P. J. et al (2007). Should Sixth Grade be in Elementary School or Middle School? An Analysis of Grade Configuration and Student Behavior. The Sanford Institute Working Papers Series SAN07-01.
Date: December 20 2007