Effects of middle-school restructuring on achievement

iStock_000021006935XSmallUsing data from the 1988 National Longitudinal Study, Valerie E. Lee, University of Michigan, and Julia B. Smith, University of Rochester, analyzed a subsample of 8,845 eighth graders in 377 public, Catholic and independent schools to determine whether the organizational changes in restructured schools have resulted in higher achievement. The three types of schools differ greatly and, for this reason, Lee and Smith controlled for socio-economic status, minority concentration, size of eighth grade and academic heterogeneity in these schools before studying the effects of restructuring.


Restructured schools are defined as those that have reorganized themselves around a conceptual framework that favors less bureaucracy (less departmentalization, more heterogeneous grouping, more team teaching) and focuses instead on building smaller, cohesive learning communities. In support of restructuring, the Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development reports that interdisciplinary teaming in middle school reduces disciplinary problems and helps foster a sense of community among teachers and students. In addition, the Council believes that collaboration among teachers increases students’ engagement on academic tasks, helps clarify learning goals, and lead ultimately to higher achievement. But, other researchers warn that elements of restructuring need administrative support to produce positive results. For example, effective team teaching requires common planning time during the school day.


Lee and Smith report that this data shows that aspects of restructuring are positively related to modest improvements in academic achievement and engagement. Less rigid departmental structure and less grouping by ability appeared to account for greater social equality in achievement and a modest increase in students’ achievement overall. Unexpectedly, these researchers found that although students attending highly restructured schools were more engaged in academic work, they were also engaged in more at-risk behaviors.

Schools with the smallest number of eighth graders benefited the most from restructuring. K-8 schools (many of them Catholic schools) appear to be more personal than most junior-high and middle schools, an advantage for early adolescents. Independent schools had a great variety of grade groupings with K-12 common. Public schools which placed eighth graders together appears to limit the positive effects of restructuring.

These researchers were unable to determine if one form of restructuring was more effective than others. However, most successful restructuring programs were designed to make learning more meaningful for students. They decreased tracking, emphasized the quality rather than the quantity of academic products, integrated learning across disciplines, lowered hierarchial barriers between adults and students, and involved students in the evaluation of their learning. Students attending schools with such programs consistently show modest academic gains. Importantly, these programs also result in a more socially equitable distribution of engagement and achievement. (Minorities and low-achieving students show the largest achievement gains.) Lee and Smith conclude that these results lend support to the movement to restructure schools for early adolescents.

“Effects of School Restructuring on the Achievement and Engagement of Middle-Grade Students”, Sociology of Education, Volume 66, July 1993, pp. 164-187.

Published in ERN September/Octobert 1993, Volume 6, Number 4.

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