H. Jurgen Combs


Reasons for change in configuration

A change in the recommended grade level combination began on a large scale in the early 1960’s; this resulted in a shift from the 7-9 combination to a 6-8 or 5-8 configuration. This shift was based on:

  • increasing evidence that children matured earlier than before
  • in 1910 children reached puberty at approximately 12-14 years of age; today, most children reach puberty by age 11.
  • puberty appears to start approximately four months earlier every decade
  • Reasons for change in configuration
  • the belief that 9th grade was more attached to high school
  • more sophisticated evaluation and research methods and materials provided more accurate data

Instruction vs. configuration

Most researchers agree that GENERALLY the QUALITY of the school and the instruction was more important than the grade configuration in viewing academic progress of students.

According to Thompson, the following played a greater role in determining academic success than did grade configuration:

  • Instruction vs. configuration
  • educational level of teachers
  • experience of teachers
  • expenditure per student
  • education and occupation of parents
  • Instruction vs. configuration
  • length of school year
  • quality of instructional materials

However, the evidence strongly supports the social consequences of grade level configuration. For example:


The school should take note of the physical, emotional, and psychological changes these children undergo and new programs should be instituted to help these students deal with the problems and confusions they experience.... today’s youths interact differently with society than its counterpart did in the 1900 as a result of this dramatic trend toward earlier physical maturation coupled with the marked cultural changes that have taken place over the past sixty year period. (The Middle School.)


The learning environment prevalent in the elementary and high school does not lend itself to the peculiar needs and interests of early adolescents. What is needed is a middle level program designed to provide specifically for the transcescent youngster and staffed with sensitive, especially prepared personnel. (Tegarden)

Early adolescents share several characteristics

  • desire for independence
  • growth in importance of the peer group
  • sexual, emotional and social maturation
  • search for values and norms
  • resentment of authority figures
  • ambivalence concerning dependence
  • emancipation from the home
  • fluctuation of emotions
  • concern about physical growth and appearance
  • development of self concept

The Organization of the Middle Grades (p. 23)

The time of puberty is a time of intense learning when students must deal with a new body, a new world, new responsibilities, and new intellectual pursuits. The problems of puberty are compounded by periods of brain growth and plateaus; this creates difficulties for the student as well as the teacher.

Myers research (1969) supports a 6-8 middle school because of the more gradual transition from self-contained classrooms to departmental organizations.

Hillyer (1972) reported that 5th, 6th and 7th grade students (as well as 8) should be included in a middle school and that middle schools met student needs better than the elementary model.

Garner found that the largest number of students’ adjustment problems occurred in a 7-8 school.

Gateman and Creek report that 6th grade was the most appropriate entry level for the middle school. Additionally, the research recommends that 5th grade teachers adopt promising middle school approaches. Gateman and Creek further report that 6th graders more closely resemble 7th graders than 5th graders in areas of personal adjustment and sense of personal freedom. Consequently, the 6th grade is the most appropriate entry level for the middle school.

The New York Middle Grade Task Force states developmentally, students in grades 6, 7, and 8 have more in common in terms of physical, social, psychological, and intellectual variables than do those in other age-grade combinations. A three year middle grade time frame allows the opportunity for strong, positive relationships to be be built among students, teachers, counselors and administrators; this bonding is critical to healthy intellectual and emotional development and sets the state for future academic success and personal/social development for young adolescents. The task force recommends the ELIMINATION of fiscal incentives to build 7-9 schools and ESTABLISH incentives to build 6-8 schools.

The Mineola Union Free School District reported 11 to 14 year olds share broadly defined qualities the middle school combines into one organization and facility a school program that bridges, yet differs from the childhood (K-5) and adolescent (9-12) programs; they reported that the three grade combination provides more stability to the overall program; more time exists for the development of programs, promote teacher/pupil relationships, and provide individualized instruction to meet the highly variable needs and ability levels of this age group; the availability of guidance services is highly important; the emphasis on active student participation in interest groups and low-keyed athletics and social activities is important. Further, the report stated that the middle school facilitates the introduction in grade 6 of some staff specialization and team teaching the middle school provides an opportunity for gradual change from the self-contained classroom to complete departmentalization.

Mineola reports the following drawbacks:

  • some students in grade 6 are physically immature
  • some 6th graders may not be able to handle the social pressures coming from 7th and 8th graders
  • having to adjust to so many teachers may be difficult for some students

The Jamesville-Dewitt Central School District adopted the 6-8 model in 1980.

Trauschke (1970) reported that:

  • fifth and sixth graders were not adversely affected by middle school
  • 7th and 8th graders achieved at higher levels than junior high 7th and 8th graders after two years in middle school
  • middle school students showed more favorable attitudes toward school, themselves, and other students and teachers

Case’s research (1970) suggested that a 5th grader in a middle school configuration is offered certain advantages not present in the elementary school.

Several studies (Smith and Brantley) reported better reading, science and math scores in middle schools.

Mooney (1970) reported children in the middle school achieved as well or better on the variables tested and that attendance was significantly greater than in equated regular schools.

Moss (1971) research included grade 5 in his definition of a middle school.

Hillyer’s research (1972) indicated that 5th and 6th graders should be included in a middle school because the differences in the various maturity levels were greater between grades four and five than they were between either grades five and six o grades six and seven.

Schoo (1970) reported that students in a 5-8 middle school showed higher self concepts than students in other schools; concluded that 5-8 schools provide an easier transition for students from elementary schools.

The Herricks Union Free School District (1978) adopted 5-3-4 model and reported that

  • the middle school reorganization can shake-up and help the adoption of more flexible teaching strategies.
  • 6th graders received a more diversified curriculum and had access to a greater range of facilities
  • the emphasis on guidance services for 6th graders as well as a close learning relationship with a team of teachers was beneficial
  • the transition to HS was much more smooth

6-2-4 configuration


  • 7th and 8th grade pupils are given special attention
  • immature 6th graders would have an additional year of elementary school
  • makes for less graduatal transition for pre-adolescents


  • the revolving door effect does not allow students to identify with the school
  • the largest number of students’ adjustment problems occurred in this combination school
  • the 7/8 combination continues the perception of a junior high school with all of its drawbacks:

    Hull wrote that... the junior high school, in my opinion, may be America’s greatest educational blunder... Junior Highs mimic the educational programs of high schools for a population that is not able to deal with these approaches.

  • rather than providing a bridge between elementary and high school, junior highs adopt the high school programs, methodologies, etc.. resulting in a more difficult transition.
  • the emphasis on subject matter (as opposed to student centered program) is inappropriate for the developmental needs of the students.



  • it supports the research findings which show that the youngster today enters adolescence much earlier than 50 years ago
  • the students’ ages more nearly parallel the period of human growth and development between childhood and adolescence - ages 11 through 13 = grades 6 through 8.
  • pupils are grouped who are more alike than either elementary or secondary pupils.
  • it more appropriately meets the academic needs of students.
  • exposure to application skills.
  • opportunity for specialization.
  • availability of labs, family living, technology
  • more stimulation through departmentalization, special facilities and equipment
  • availability of broader curriculum
  • more orderly transition (materials, instruction, expectations)
  • 5th graders would have greater opportunity for leadership in elementary school
  • allows students to develop identity with the building and for the faculty to get to know and work with the students
  • students could have a “fresh start” a year earlier



  • some 6th graders might still need the protective environment
  • 6th graders would not be able to participate in some elementary programs (safety patrol, etc)
  • the elementary school challenge to teachers working with children at 6th grade would be missing
  • some elementary programs might be curtailed if 6th grade is no longer there

4-4-4 Configuration


  • the advantages and disadvantages are virtually the same as those for the 5-3-4 plan. Specifically, advantages of 4-4-4 configuration:
  • supports many research finding which show that today youngsters enter adolescence at an earlier age
  • groups pupils who are more alike than either elementary or secondary pupils
  • these pupils are at an age where they need reinforcement and extension of skills through application
  • facilitates a flexibility in grouping students for instructional purposes and affords even broader curriculum offerings than 5-3-4 configuration
  • provides for more orderly transition
  • the middle school would have an identity of its own.

4-4-4 configuration


  • some youngster students might be better off in the more protective elementary environment
  • the leadership role of 5th and 6th graders would be lost to elementary schools

4-4-4 configuration


  • the 4-4-4 plan assumes, without sufficient evidence, that the maturation patterns of 5th grade pupils are more like those of 6th, 7th and 8th grade students than they are like 3rd and 4th graders



Grades 7/9 1062 schools (in the 70s there were 7206 schools
Grades 5-8 1238 schools
Grades 6-8 5882 schools and increasing rapidly
Grades 7/8 2414 and decreasing rapidly


According to the Market Data Retrieval Information Service, their figures, based on March, 1995 indicate the following:



Grade 5 43
Grades 5-6 398
Grades 5-7 84
Grades 5-8 1266
Grades 5-9 4
Grade 6 132
Grades 6/7 123
Grades 6-8 6898
Grades 6-9 85
Grades 7 31
Grades 7-8 2360
Grades 7-9 1062
Grade 8 20
Grades 8-9 118

The Middle School is

  • A grade pattern that begins with either the 5th or the 6th grade and ends with the 8th grade.
  • An educational philosophy that emphasizes the needs and interests of the students.
  • A willing attitude on the part of the staff toward instructional experimentation, open classrooms, team teaching, utilization of multimedia teaching techniques, and student grouping by talent and interest rather than age alone.
  • An emphasis on individual instruction and guidance for each pupil.
  • A focus on educating the whole child, not just the intellect.
  • A program to help ease transition between childhood and adolescence.

A summary of the research

  • The overwhelming majority of the research supports the middle school concept.
  • 7/8 combination is the worst configuration available based on the current research.
  • The 6-8 combination is the most common configuration at this time, as supported by current research.
  • The 5-8 grouping is growing in popularity as research is becoming more supportive of this configuration based on the constantly changing needs of the students.


Please send questions or comments to me.

last updated on 25 July 2008
H. Jurgen Combs