“What’s the only thing worse than being the new kid in 8th grade? Being the new kid in 6th grade.”
Amy Ellen Schwartz’s quip sounds like a joke, but it’s not.
The Syracuse University economics professor and her colleagues have found there’s truth to the old “top dog, bottom dog” theory of the campus pecking order: A school’s grade structure significantly affects its student hierarchy. As students move through grades, they gain social power, becoming more likely to take on leadership positions and less likely to be bullied. There’s evidence that separating students into a shorter 6-8 grade span in middle school intensifies bullying of lower-grade students and makes them feel less connected to school.
Educators have known middle school is a problem area for a long time; prior studies have found the transition from elementary to middle school can be harder on students than the transition to high school. When students move from 5th grade to 6th, they report higher rates of bullying, drops in math and reading achievement, more absenteeism, and less of a sense of connection to school.
But why? Is it just the perfect storm of raging hormones meeting rising standards?
“If it’s just miserable to be 12 and better to be 15, that’s not about the school,” Schwartz said. “But that’s not it. It matters where you stand in the grade span. And part of the reason grade span matters is you are grouping kids together in ways that create a top and a bottom.”
Who’s Top Dog?
In their new study in the latest issue of the American Educational Research Journal, Schwartz and colleagues at Syracuse and New York University studied 500 New York City schools, which in the mid-2000s, created hundreds of small schools in K-8, K-6, 6-8, 5-8, and 6-12 configurations.
The researchers analyzed reports of bullying, feelings of belonging, and engagement in schools by more than 90,000 students in schools of different grade spans. They tracked students who transferred between schools as well as those who progressed through grades at one school or feeder pattern, to compare the differences between being a new kid at school generally to being a member of an entry grade. They also looked at students’ relative height, weight, and age, to determine whether school hierarchy was influenced by a student’s experience in school or level of physical development.
They found that even after controlling for students’ background characteristics, class sizes, and school types, 6th grade students at K-8 and 6-12 schools were less likely to report bullying, fighting, and gang activity, and more likely to report feeling safe and welcome at school and that they participate in school activities than did 6th grade students at 6-8 schools. As the chart below shows, the fewer the grade levels below the “top dog” grade in a school, the bigger the gap between students in the top grade and bottom grade on the school pecking order when it came to bullying, fights, gang activity, and whether students felt safe, welcome, and known at school.
The researchers also separately compared students who were new in any grade, and students who were relatively taller than other students. While being the new kid did seem to lower students’ sense of belonging at any grade, a student’s grade level had a stronger effect than whether he was new or smaller than other students.
“It could just be that you are bullied by other kids when you start, and over time you develop stronger social relationships in your school,” Schwartz said. “By the time you get to the top, you have developed bonds that protect you.”
That could also help explain why, in schools with a larger grade span, 6th and 7th graders felt better about the school environment, but the youngest students didn’t have a worse experience. Students might be kinder to students far below them than those who are only slightly beneath them on the pecking order:
“Eighth graders are not going to pick on a bunch of 1st graders; 12th graders are not going to pick on 6th graders, because they are just so much younger,” Schwartz said.
The findings build on a 2010 study, also in New York City schools, which found that students who attended K-8 schools were higher-achieving academically by the end of 8th grade than those who attended K-5 and then 6-8 schools.
It’s not clear from the findings how much the age range of the grade span makes a difference; there were not enough 6-12 schools to analyze whether 6th graders would be better off in a K-8 versus a 6-12 school. But the findings do suggest that a school’s grade structure could play a bigger role than previously thought in the volatile climate of middle school.
Chart Source: Amy Ellen Schwartz, American Educational Research Journal.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.