Do middle schools result in higher achievement than junior high schools?

This question addresses the academic outcomes of students in junior high schools that are organized in a manner similar to large comprehensive high schools with departmentalization, 40-50 minute periods, subject area teachers, and competitive sports, as compared to middle schools using various degrees of the five commonly endorsed practices considered essential to the middle level model of schooling: teaming, exploratory courses, co-curricular programs, adviser-advisee arrangements, and intramural activities. These delineations, however, are not consistent, as many junior highs contain middle school components and vice versa.

The issue is complex for several other reasons. The research about achievement often relates academic gains to practices and programs (Levine, Levine, & Eubanks, 1984), not type of school. These programs may exist in junior high schools or middle schools, although “true” middle schools employ the recommended practices to a greater extent. Another factor is the paucity of research in the effectiveness of practices, the difficulty of comparing studies, and weak and conflicting research methodologies (Hough, 1989). Also, the aggregation of data may wash out the effects of variables such as organization issues and other inputs as teacher and student characteristics; as a result, many studies ignore the relationships between organizations, community, and teaching-learning outcomes (Hough, 1997).

Contextual factors may also confound the effects of a specific practice, and perceptions of teachers and principals may result in biased criterion measures (Van Zandt & Totten, 1995). For example, the research on teaming exemplifies both the complexity of numerous variables affecting outcomes, the challenges of collecting usable data from teams, and the various research methods that make generalizing from several studies difficult. As a final consideration, the assumption underlying achievement is its relationship to gains made by all types of students, making relevant programs and practices which keep at-risk students above their level of vulnerability and lowers absenteeism and drop-out rate.

It is therefore understandable that studies addressing the relationship between school factors (organization/programs/ practices) and achievement show mixed results.

Studies of Programs and Practices

Studies related to achievement and programs and practices yield varied results. Looking at the effects of teaming on achievement, two studies of the past two decades, Cotton (1982) and Armstrong (1977), concluded that neither interdisciplinary team organization nor the traditional departmental organization promoted greater student achievement. On the other hand, Bradley (1988) in an experimental study of 78 pairs of seventh graders, matched in interdisciplinary and departmental organizations, found math gains for interdisciplinary and equal reading achievement gains for both groups. Clark and Clark’s (1992) meta-analysis of studies related to interdisciplinary teams of the Pontoon Transitional Design cited nine out of ten studies conducted from 1964-1972. These studies indicated gains in achievement and/or affective outcomes, although conclusions about the model were unclear. Lee and Smith (1993) used a sub-sample of 8,845 eighth graders of the NELS:88 database and found modest positive gains in achievement and engagement in academic work for students in less departmentalized environments and “more team teaching in combination with heterogeneous groups” (Van Zandt & Totten, 1995, p. 10).

Researchers (Arhar, Johnston, & Markle, 1989; Mac Iver & Epstein, 1993; Walsh & Shay, 1993) pointed to the problems inherent in determining the effects of teaming, while Van Zandt and Totten (1995) noted inconsistent findings of team-related studies. There is also little conclusive research on the effectiveness of advisory-advisee programs on achievement.

School Studies

Two of three studies related to schools and achievement show gains for restructured middle level schools. Felner, Jackson, Kasak, Mulhall, Brand, and Flowers (in press) looked at the various stages of restructuring middle schools in a longitudinal study of 1500 students and 900 teachers in schools rated on levels of implementation of recommendations of the Carnegie Council’s report, Turning Points: Preparing American Youth for the 21st Century (Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development, 1989). The researchers found greater student outcomes in achievement, behavior, and socio-emotional factors in schools with higher levels of implementation of Turning Points recommendations as compared with the more traditional approaches of junior highs.

Referring to the eight site-visit schools, Keefe, Valentine, Clark, and Irvin (1994) in a national study of leadership in middle schools successfully restructuring their middle level programs concluded, “The average scores of the eight schools generally exceeded the national norms. Student achievement as measured by reading and mathematics scores tended to exceed the national average. The percentage of students passing all courses was higher than in the national normative group… The holding power of these schools was generally very high; five of the eight schools reported that all students completed the school year” (p.63). The significance of the holding power impacts achievement when value centers on the importance of achievement gains for all types of students.

Hough (in press) examined 80 community-based or consolidated rural schools for relationships between middle school and demographic variables. He found significant correlations between socioeconomic status of students and achievement, confirming previous SES achievement findings.

Restructuring High School Studies

Studies of high schools which are restructuring in ways similar to middle level schools conclude that more caring environments of communally organized schools as compared to bureaucratically organized schools affect achievement. These studies of equitable high achievement for all types of students indicate a dominance of practices which promote teacher commitment and student engagement (Bryk, 1994; Lee & Smith, 1994). Other researchers point to the importance of the school’s communitarian “ethos,” providing a blend of academic and social concerns in more personalized, communally organized schools and resulting in equitable student achievement (Bryk & Discoll, 1988; Bryk, Lee, & Holland, 1993; Chubb, & Moe, 1990).

The academic focus of the schools with higher achievement gains lies within a social context of caring individuals who make special efforts for all students to succeed and who share common beliefs and high expectations. McLaughlin (1994) noted, “Restructuring practices then make a difference in student achievement and engagement when they support personal and sustained connections between students and adults in the school setting, and when they facilitate the sharing of knowledge about students as individuals and learners” (p.9).

These studies confirm the findings of other researchers that, although specific practices, programs, and teachers may affect student achievement, it is more likely that the combination of teacher/student interactions, practices, and programs affect student outcomes. Mac Iver and Epstein (1991) concluded, “the combined benefits of using several responsive practices simultaneously are larger than the benefits of using any one practice by itself” (p. 611).

Future Research

Van Zandt and Totten (1995) pointed out the inconclusive nature of research findings related to the effects of middle school practices. Citing the causes as an insufficient number of studies, weak research designs, difficulties of comparing studies with conflicting designs, and the effects of extraneous variables on outcomes, they conclude with Strahan (1992) that investigations of patterns among practices and contextual considerations will establish a solid research base to substantiate recommended practices.


Conclusions: What We Know
  • The issue is complex because many factors affect each study.
  • Schools which implement more Turning Points recommendations show greatest gains in student outcomes.
  • The aim is equitable high achievement for all types of students.
  • The interrelationship of many factors affects student outcomes.
  • There is a strong link between socioeconomic status and achievement.


Related Articles
  • Hough, D., & Irvin, J. (1995). Does it work? Middle School Journal, 26(3), 69-70.
  • Lee, V. E., & Smith, J. B. (1994). High school restructuring and student achievement. Issues in Restructuring Schools (Report No. 7). Madison: University of Wisconsin-Madison, Center on Organization and Restructuring of Schools.
  • Levin, D. E., Levine, R. F., & Eubacks, E. (1984). Characteristics of effective inner-city intermediate schools. Phi Delta Kappan, 65, 707-711.
  • Van Zandt, L. M, & Totten, S., (1995). The current status of middle level education research: A critical review. Research in Middle Level Education Quarterly, 18(3), 1-25.
  • Arhar, J. M., Johnston, J. H., & Markle, G. C., (1989). The effects of teaming on students. Middle School Journal, 20(3), 24-27.
  • Bryk, A. S. (1994). More good news that school organization matters. Issues in restructuring schools (Issue Report No. 7). Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin, Center on Organization and Restructuring of Schools.
  • Bryk, A. S., Lee, V. E., & Holland, P. B. (1993). Catholic schools and the common good. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Bryk, A. S., & Driscoll, M. E. (1988). The high school as community: Contextual influences, and consequences for students and teachers. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin- Madison, National Center on Effective Secondary Schools.
  • Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development. (1989). Turning points: Preparing American youth for the 21st century. New York: Carnegie Corporation.
    Chubb, J. E., & Moe, T. M. (1990). Politics, markets, & America’s schools. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution.
  • Clark, S. N., & Clark, D. C. (1992). The Pontoon Transitional Design: A missing link in the research on interdisciplinary teaming. Research in Middle Level Education, 15(2), 57-81.
  • Cotton, K. (1982). Effects of interdisciplinary team teaching, research synthesis. Portland, OR: Northwest Regional Lab. ED 230-533.
  • Felner, R., Jackson, A., Kasak, D., Mulhall, P., Brand, S., & Flowers, N. (In press). The impact of school reform for the middle years: A longitudinal study of a network engaged in Turning Points-based comprehensive school transformation. In R. Takanishi & D. Hamburg (Eds.) Preparing adolescents for the twenty-first century. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Felner, R. D., & Adan, A. M. (1989). The school transitional environment project: An ecological interventions and evaluation. In R. H. Price, E. L. Cowen, R. P. Lorion, & J. Ramos-McKay (Eds.) 14 Ounces of Preventions: A casebook for practitioners. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
  • Hough, D. L. (1989). Middle level education in California: A survey of programs and organizations. Riverside, CA: University of California, Educational Research Cooperative.
  • Hough, D. L. (In press). Student achievement and middle level programs, policies, and practices in rural America: The case of community-based and consolidated organizations.
  • Hough, D., & Irvin, J. (1995). Does it work? Middle School Journal, 26(3), 69-70.
  • Johnson, D. W., Maruyama, G., Johnson, R., Nelson, D., & Skon, L. (1981). Effects of cooperative, competitive, and individualistic goal structures on achievement: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 89, 47-62.
  • Keefe, J. W., Valentine, J., Clark, D. C., & Irvin, J. L. (1994). Leadership in middle level education, Volume II: Leadership in successfully restructuring middle level schools. Reston, VA: National Association of Secondary School Principals.
  • Lee, V. E., & Smith, J. B. (1993). Effects of school restructuring on the achievement and engagement of middle grade students. Sociology of Education, 66, 164-187.
  • Lee, V. E., & Smith, J. B. (1994). High school restructuring and student achievement. Issues in Restructuring Schools (Report No. 7). Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin-Madison, Center on Organization and Restructuring of Schools.
  • Levin, D. E., Levine, R. F., & Eubacks, E. (1984). Characteristics of effective inner-city intermediate schools. Phi Delta Kappan, 65, 707-711.
  • Mac Iver, D. J., & Epstein, J. L., (1993). Middle grades research: Not yet mature, but no longer a child. The Elementary School Journal, 93(5), 519-533.
  • McLaughlin, M. W. (1994). Somebody knows my name. Issues in Restructuring Schools (Report No. 7). Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin-Madison, Center on Organization and Restructuring of Schools.
  • Strahan, D. (1992). Turning Points and beyond: Coming of age in middle level research. In J. Irvin (Ed.), Transforming middle level education (pp. 381-399). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
  • Van Zandt, L. M. & Totten, S., (1995). The current status of middle level education research: A critical review. Research in Middle Level Education Quarterly, 18(3), 1-25.
  • Walsh, K., & Shay M. (1993). In support of interdisciplinary teaming: The climate factor. Middle School Journal, 24(4), 56-60.

Copyright 1999 National Middle School Association. Used on NCMLE web site with permission of NMSA.