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Local parents worry about 6-8 transition

Are sixth graders ready for middle school? It's a valid question considering most adults' own experience of that tumultuous time involved awkward school dances, trying to 'fit in' with a new peer group and self-consciousness at every turn.

Many local parents are leery of launching their young ones into that environment too early and have thrown as many vetted arguments as they can at the Lake Oswego School District, which is currently making a workable plan for transitioning sixth graders into the junior highs in response to a tightening budget.

According to the group LO United for Schools' research, 6-8 middle school across the country are now changing back to K-6 elementary schools or to the original K-8 configuration. Even Portland Public Schools recently transitioned some of its schools into K-8 configuration.

'I don't think we're advocating that the district stop and look at K-8, but K-6 is better,' said Forest Hills parent Nicole Seawright.

Another Forest Hills parent, Phil Hyun, who is a medical researcher in his career, has been studying any research he can get his hands on. He has concluded: 'Transition itself causes a problem, and the earlier it happens, the worse it is.'

None of the studies have been able to identify why. Some speculated reasons include less supervision, less parental involvement, a larger peer group and maybe even exposure to electives too early.

Forest Hills parent Greg Tansey has been in contact with one researcher at Harvard University, Martin West, the deputy director for the program on education policy and governance at Harvard Kennedy School and assistant professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

West studied schools in Florida and found a sharp student test score drop in the year of the move to middle school.

His research, which has not yet been formally released, provides a unique contribution in that the achivement decline caused by moving to middle school persisted through grade 10.

He wrote some comments for the Lake Oswego discussion: 'It is tempting to suggest that districts extending middle school exposure could simply adopt a plan to mitigate any negative consequences. Importantly, however, this same body of research has been much less successful in explaining why the transition to middle school is so hard and why middle schools are less effective. Absent such an explanation, educators should not be confident in their ability to address the underlying problem.'

The school district, however, cites its excellent results year after year as a reason Lake Oswego may be exempt from such a drop in student outcomes.

'The district has believed that it's not the configuration; it's what you do with the kids,' said Superintendent Bill Korach.

He says that the sixth graders will have more opportunities in junior high.

The district has discussed providing core education to sixth graders with one main teacher and in one main classroom, much like subjects are taught in elementary school. The only classes the students would move for would be electives such as art, music or physical education. Additionally, they would be able to participate in a competitive athletics program a year earlier.

'I'm … very excited about allowing the sixth graders to explore those creative interests that they have (but) … currently don't have that many opportunities in,' said Jennifer Schiele, Waluga Junior High School principal.

But the parents worry that separating the students will simply create another transition point for them in seventh grade.

Schiele said that she looks forward to working with staff and parents to help them make that transition if the board moves forward with a new configuration. She would work on '… creating that one-of-a-kind program that has a strong commitment to academics, to having a sense of belonging and to building their social and emotional relationships,' she said.

In comments to the Lake Oswego United for Schools group, West wrote, 'I had long been skeptical of the idea that school grade configurations could have an important influence on student outcomes. Over the past several years, however, a series of rigorous studies conducted in multiple settings convinced me that I was wrong.'

In particular, three other recent studies in New York City and North Carolina as well as a nationwide look at high-school completion rates - contribute to the body of research that supports the notion that the middle school model does not produce the best student outcomes.

Columbia Graduate School of Business researchers Jonah Rockoff and Benjamin Lockwood published a study in 2009 that followed New York City students who entered grade 3 between the fall of 1998 and the fall of 2002 until each cohort had completed eighth grade. The students attended school in a variety of configurations, including a K-5 school, a K-6 school and a K-8 school.

Researchers found that no matter when transition was made - sixth or seventh grade - middle-school students experienced on average, a large initial drop in their test scores. Also student absence rates increased.

A collaboration between Duke University and University of California researchers in 2007 yielded similar results in North Carolina, where more than 90 percent of students already attend a 6-8 middle school.

The study found that behavioral problems of sixth graders 'persist beyond the sixth grade year' and that 'exposing sixth graders to older peers has persistent negative consequences on their academic trajectories.'

Kelly Bedard and Chau Do, who are associated with the University of California at Santa Barbara, studied nationwide data from 1987-2001 from the National Center for Educational Statistics through the U.S. Department of Education and came to the conclusion that on-time high school completion rates decrease for students who attended a 6-8 middle school.

Hyun and Tansey claim that they have not left out studies that show there are positive academic or behavioral results from having sixth grade in middle schools. And they have submitted everything they found to the school board and the district administration in an effort to work with the district to help find a different solution to the budgetary crisis.

But the district administration feels that the studies are not applicable to Lake Oswego.

Korach spoke about the middle-level changes at a public hearing earlier this year. Specifically he did not think that the Duke study was a scientific research study.

'It lacks the qualities that we could say will hold up to a scientific analysis,' he said. 'It's all done with no observation other than reported data.'

He pointed out that sometimes data does not portray an accurate picture of a situation because it may not always get reported correctly.

Additionally, he felt that students in North Carolina were not a similar enough demographic to Lake Oswego to warrant comparison.

Entering into the discussion, the district has provided a number of other studies supporting 6-8 models to put parents' minds at ease.

The National Forum to Accelerate Middle Grades Reform released a policy statement on grade configuration in July 2008. The statement purports that grade configuration is not as important as what takes place inside of each middle school.

It included two studies done in 2006. One paper, presented at the American Educatioal Research Association annual meeting, examined data from 35,000 Arkansas students in grades 4, 6 and 8 from 2001-2005. They found that grade configuration was not a statistically significant predictor of student academic success as measured by the state's AYP exams.

Another published in the American Journal of Education, studied the effect of grade configuration on student outcomes in Philadelphia. It found that larger schools had a more detrimental effect on student outcomes regardless of grade configuration.

The school district also gave parents from LO United for Schools another body of research published in 2010 by EdSource, a nonprofit research group providing information about Califirnia's K-14 system.

Though the research includes review of reports, recommendations and research from over 30 years, it mainly consulted with many people and surveyed educators about best practices. It found no association between student outcomes on standardized tests and school grade configuration or school organization of teaching and instruction.

The LO United from Schools parents weren't too happy with the research the school district presented them.

'There is research out there that advocates for (middle schools),' said Tansey, 'and some that (doesn't) have an ideological ax to grind and is truly in the middle.'

The research the district presented them primarily came from middle school advocacy groups or those representing them, said Tansey.

'I'm not trying to minimize concerns,' said Korach. 'I think we should look at it. I don't want to dismiss it… As superintendent, I'm not sure what's best for us to do. There are so many different factors … it isn't just one.'