When 6th-graders move from the safe, familiar environment of the elementary school to a middle school, they become the bottom dogs in the new social hierarchy, a drop in status long suspected to be a culprit in the social and academic malaise of the middle-school years.
After analyzing extensive data from schools in New York City, the nation’s largest school district, a team of New York researchers concludes that the top dog/bottom-dog (TDBD) effect is real and that the data makes a strong case for the K-8 grade span rather than the more typical 6-8 middle school span.
“Despite the intuitive appeal, there [has been] little evidence to support the TDBD hypothesis, much less its effect on academic importance,” the researchers write in American Educational Research Journal. “In this article, we begin to close this gap, providing causal evidence on the effects of top or bottom dog status on student learning environments and opening the black box of grade span effects.”
“Using data on sixth, seventh, and eighth graders in NYC public schools, we find that top dogs are less likely to report problems with bullying or safety and are more likely to report feeling welcome and belonging in school compared to bottom dogs.”
The researchers say TDBD helps to explain the middle-school dip in achievement as well. Students who are top dogs in their school perform better academically, maybe because of a more positive perception of their learning environments, the study says. Eighth-graders in 6-8 schools had a better perception of the learning environment than 6th-graders.
For the study, researchers analyzed data on 90,000 6th-8th graders in 500 NYC schools that had a mix of grade spans. The NYC School Survey collects data on student experiences and the school environment, providing a rich source of longitudinal data on bullying, safety and belonging and allowed the researchers to control for many student characteristics including student height and whether the student is a new student in the school.
Sixth-graders benefit the most from top-dog effect, according to the study. One explanation is that they may simply be less equipped to be bottom dogs than 8th graders. Another is that 6th graders tend to be at it is not only one’s rank that matters but also the size of the heap. In a the common K-6 school configuration, for example, 6th-graders are at the top of a taller heap than 8th-graders in a 6-8 school.
Heap size, however, doesn’t seem to matter for bottom dogs (i.e. 6th-graders in schools with long grade spans don’t report bullying more than 6th-graders in schools with a 6-8 grade span).
“While wholesale school reorganization nationwide would be costly, there may be more opportunity to make such changes in urban areas, especially if such school districts are growing or declining and K-8 schools provide more efficient building use,” the researchers write.
Where reconfiguration is not practical, educators can focus on making learning environments more welcoming to “bottom dogs.”
“While new students and shorter students have more negative perceptions of the school learning environment, there is an independent top dog effect even once conditioning on these plausible moderators,” the authors write.
“Do Top Dogs Rule in Middle School? Evidence on Bullying, Safety, and Belonging,” by Amy Ellen Schwartz et al., American Educational Research Journal, October 2016, Volume 53, Number 5, pp. 1450-1484.