Some extra input for the middle-school debate (and it’s all about ‘dogs’)

It’s a debate that can be very lively in e.g. our language regio (The Netherlands and the Flemish part of Belgium), but it’s also an issue in many other countries: is a middle school approach better? Findings from new research published in American Educational Research Journal suggest that longer grade spans that allow middle grade students to serve as relative “top dogs”—students in the highest grades—improve academic achievement and enhance their learning environment, including fewer instances of bullying and fights. But the study doesn’t limit itself to the middle school phenomenon.

Still the study has some limitations (e.g. very regional data collection) I would love to see some replication!

From the press release (in which the findings section is interesting):

Attending a K-8 school as opposed to a 6-8 school, for example, would benefit sixth graders because they would no longer be “new dogs” in the school, would benefit seventh graders because they would hold a higher relative position than had they attended a 6-8 school, and would benefit eighth graders because they would hold top status over a larger number of grades.

The study, published in the American Educational Research Journal, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Educational Research Association, is the first to provide credible causal evidence of the top dog/bottom dog phenomenon — verification that the oldest students in a school experience a more favorable environment than the youngest students in a school. Further, the study finds evidence that student position within a grade span also explains the achievement dip commonly seen among middle school students.

“Our findings offer the strongest evidence yet that declines in academic performance during transitions to middle schools are, in part, a result of transitioning from top dog to bottom — or middle — dog status,” said study co-author Michah W. Rothbart, an assistant professor of public administration and international affairs at Syracuse University. “Grade span matters to student experiences at schools.”

Rothbart and his co-authors, Amy Ellen Schwartz of Syracuse University and Leanna Stiefel of New York University, found that, when compared to middle dog students, top dogs were 4.6 percentage points less likely to report bullying and 7.7 percentage points less likely to report fights, as well as 10.5 percentage points more likely to report feeling safe in school.

Drawing on longitudinal data from the New York City Department of Education and the New York City School Survey, the authors examined two cohorts of New York City public middle school students, including roughly 90,000 sixth-to-eighth-grade students in over 500 schools from 2008 to 2011. The study authors assessed student reports of perceptions of bullying, school safety, and belonging, as well as state assessments of academic achievement in grades 6-8.

Among the findings:

• When evaluating the impact of top dog versus bottom dog status in sixth grade, students reported better learning environments as top dogs than as middle and bottom dogs. Sixth-grade top dogs (e.g., K-6 schools) were 7.6 percentage points and 5.1 percentage points less likely to report bullying than otherwise similar middle and bottom dogs, respectively, and 14.7 and 12.7 percentage points more likely to report that they felt safe in school than middle and bottom dogs, respectively.

• Conversely, eighth-grade students showed smaller differences in student experiences as top dogs (e.g., 6-8 schools) than they did as middle dogs (e.g., 6-12 schools). This indicates that moving from elementary to middle school hurts students because they lose the top dog status they previously held.

• The benefits of top dog status are larger in schools with longer grade spans. At the same time, sixth-grade bottom dogs in 6-8 schools do not report higher rates of negative experiences than bottom dogs at 6-12 schools, providing evidence that students may benefit from schools with longer grade spans, such as K-8 schools.

• Results also showed that for sixth graders, bottom dog status hurt academic performance and top dog status improved academic performance, indicating that declines in academic performance upon entering middle school are in part due to the top dog/bottom dog phenomenon.

• In particular, sixth graders who are top dogs experience a significant improvement on reading and math exams compared to those who are bottom dogs. In the 2011 academic year, the effect of top dog status for sixth graders was the equivalent of moving from the 44th to the 50th percentile in math and the 46th to 50th in reading. Top dog status did not improve reading exam scores in eighth grade, but it did increase math scores compared to those of middle dogs.

“Our results show that schools should be paying attention to this phenomenon,” said Schwartz, a professor of economics and public affairs at Syracuse University. “Ideally, school districts would organize school grade spans to minimize negative consequences of the top dog/bottom dog effects, and administrators can be more attentive to the inequalities that age and grade can engender.”

“In places where reorganization is not feasible, school administrators should commit resources to foster safe learning environments to students who are not top dogs,” said Stiefel, a professor of economics at New York University.

Rothbart added that “parents should also be attentive to their child’s relative position in school and be mindful that their child might be less comfortable when holding bottom or middle dog status.”

Study authors were also able to eliminate new student status and student height as causes of achievement dips and differences in school experiences. Students experienced more positive environments as top dogs regardless of new or returning status, and new students did not have significantly different experiences as bottom or middle dogs than their returning counterparts. Students also experienced the benefits of top dog status regardless of their height.

Abstract of the study:

Recent research finds that grade span affects academic achievement but only speculates about the mechanisms. In this study, we examine one commonly cited mechanism, the top dog/bottom dog phenomenon, which states that students at the top of a grade span (“top dogs”) have better experiences than those at the bottom (“bottom dogs”). Using an instrumental variables strategy introduced in Rockoff and Lockwood (2010) and a longitudinal data set containing student survey data for New York City public middle school students, we estimate the impact of top dog and bottom dog status on bullying, safety, belonging, and academic achievement. This article provides the first credibly causal evidence that top dog status improves the learning environment and academic achievement. We further find that the top dog effect is strongest in sixth grade and in schools with longer grade spans and that the top dog effect is not explained by new students to a school or student height.

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