We Know Nothing of Innovation

Some days it seems as though every hypothetical reform still wouldn’t be enough to bring about an ideal school system. At times like these it’s nice to be reminded that schooling is so institutionalized, we overlook many areas of potential innovation. Even when we believe we’re thinking outside of the box we are still stuck within a bigger box that’s stuck within an even bigger box. For example, a new study by Amy Ellen Schwartz, Leanna Stiefel, Ross Rubenstein, and Jeffrey Zabel finds that the rarely-questioned K-5/6-8/9-12 grade divisions are not a good way to do things.

This article examines how grade spans and the school transitions that students make between fourth and eighth grade shape student performance in eighth grade. The authors estimate the impact of grade span paths on eighth-grade performance, controlling for school and student characteristics and correcting for attrition bias and quality of original school. They find that students moving from K–4 to 5–8 schools or in K–8 schools outperform students on other paths.

Despite having the highest 3rd grade scores and lowest poverty levels students in standard K-5/6-8 schools posted the smallest 8th grade gains. The researchers believe the gains in K-8 and 5-8 schools come from more stable cohorts and an earlier introduction to junior high.

Grade divisions are just one example of something extremely influential that most people never give a second thought. Perhaps 60 years ago there was a good reason for having 5th graders with younger students rather than older students. In 2011, there isn’t.  The paper’s potential to reform grade divisions is important, but its true value may be in reminding us to continue to search for overlooked institutionalized aspects of schooling that are ripe for reform.


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