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Ask A REL Response

November 2017


What research has been conducted on the effectiveness of different types of elementary school (k-5) configurations?


Following an established REL Southeast research protocol, we conducted a search for research reports as well as descriptive study articles on the effectiveness of different types of elementary school (k-5) configurations. We focused on identifying resources that specifically addressed the effectiveness of different types of elementary school (k-5) configurations. The sources included ERIC and other federally funded databases and organizations, research institutions, academic research databases, and general Internet search engines (For details, please see the methods section at the end of this memo.)

We have not evaluated the quality of references and the resources provided in this response. We offer them only for your reference. Also, we searched the references in the response from the most commonly used resources of research, but they are not comprehensive and other relevant references and resources may exist.

Research References

  1. Combs, J. P., Clark, D., Moore, G. W., Onwuegbuzie, A. J., Edmonson, S. L., & Slate, J. R. (2011). Academic achievement for fifth-grade students in elementary and intermediate school settings: Grade span configurations. Current Issues in Education, 14(1).
    From the abstract: "Few researchers have addressed student achievement outcomes as a function of grade configurations for older elementary-aged students. Thus, this study was designed to determine differences between students' Grade 5 reading and mathematics achievement in elementary schools (K-5) as compared to intermediate schools (Grade 5, 5-6) for 5 academic years. Using archival statewide data, researchers used a rigorous five-step distance-based formula to match elementary schools to intermediate schools on four demographic/school characteristic variables. Students in K-5 settings attained statistically significantly higher levels of reading and mathematics achievement than did their counterparts, with moderate mean effect sizes of 0.37 and 0.47. (Contains 5 tables and 4 footnotes.)"
  2. George, P. S. (2005). K-8 or not? Reconfiguring the middle grades. Middle School Journal, 37(1), 6-13.
    From the abstract: "In the last five years, a growing number of large, urban school districts have moved to close what are termed "troubled" 6-8 middle schools and have opened K-8 schools in their place: Boston, Baltimore, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Milwaukee, Newark, New Orleans, New York City, Oklahoma City, and Philadelphia have been among the first to do so. With a little fervent support for its continuation, and a preference for an alternative gathering momentum in major urban American school districts, it is possible that a substantial reconfiguration of schooling for young adolescents will continue. District leaders moving to K-8 have asserted, that their young adolescents will be better served in K-8 schools with an "elementary flavor" than they have been in the so-called "troubled" middle schools. In this article, the author discusses the negative and positive outcomes of this reconfiguration. Thus, the author states that "troubled" middle schools are likely to result from troubled lives and that troubled schools are not the result of the grade configuration or the name of the school. (Contains 1 figure.)"
  3. Johnson, D., Jones, L., Simieou, F., Matthew, K., & Morgan, B. (2013). The relationship between grade configuration and standardized science test scores of fifth-grade students: What school administrators should know. Journal of At-Risk Issues, 17(2), 31-38.
    From the abstract: "This study utilized a causal comparative (ex post facto) design to determine if a consistent relationship existed between fifth-grade students' success on the Science Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS) at the elementary (K-5) level in comparison to fifth-grade students' success on the science TAKS at the intermediate (5-6) level. The data were collected by obtaining reports from the Texas Education Agency's Academic Excellence Indicator System (AEIS) and TAKS Summary Reports. The z test for two independent proportions yielded a significant result (z = 9.01, p < 0.0001), which indicated an 18% difference in science achievement among the fifth-grade students who attended the elementary school configuration during the 2007-2009 testing years when compared to the students who attended intermediate school configuration. To estimate the effect size, Cohen's d was calculated (d = 0.38)."
  4. Lee, L. C. (2013). The diversity of school organizational configurations. International Journal of Research & Method in Education, 3(4), 309-340.
    From the abstract: "School reform on a large scale has largely been unsuccessful. Approaches designed to document and understand the variety of organizational conditions that comprise our school systems are needed so that reforms can be tailored and results scaled. Therefore, this article develops a configurational framework that allows a systematic analysis of many school organizational forms. The approach is adapted from the logic of Charles Ragin's comparative method and qualitative comparative analysis; it allows researchers to analyse many schools while still preserving them as holistic entities. Each school is depicted as a particular constellation of coordination and control elements, and these configurations are linked to important instructional patterns. To demonstrate the approach, data on the elementary schools in the Chicago Public School (CPS) system are analysed. The distribution of the different configurations that comprise CPS is documented, and multiple regressions of the configurations indicate their varied instructional patterns. The results show that CPS schools exhibit a wide variety of organizational configurations, and these different configurations vary in patterned ways with respect to instructional coherence and academic achievement. Implications for tailoring reform efforts to distinct groups of schools so that results can be scaled are discussed."
  5. Rubenstein, R., Schwartz, A. E., Stiefel, L., & Zabel, J. (2009). Spending, size, and grade span in k-8 schools. Education Finance and Policy, 4(1), 60-88.
    From the abstract: "Reorganizing primary school grade spans is a tractable and relatively inexpensive school reform. However, assessing the effects of reorganization requires also examining other organizational changes that may accompany grade span reforms. Using data on New York City public schools from 1996 to 2002 and exploiting within-school variations, we examine relationships among grade span, spending, and size. We find that school grade span is associated with differences in school size, class size, and grade size, though generally not with spending and other resources. In addition, we find class size and grade size differences in the same grade level at schools with different configurations, suggesting that school grade span affects not only school size but also class size and grade size. We find few relationships, though, between grade span and school-level performance, pointing to the need to augment these analyses with pupil-level data. We conclude with implications for research and practice."
  6. Schwartz, A. E., Stiefel, L., Rubenstein, R., Zabel, J. (2011). The path not taken: How does school organization affect eighth-grade achievement? Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 33(3), 293-317.
    From the abstract: "Although rearranging school organizational features is a popular school reform, little research exists to inform policymakers about how grade spans affect achievement. This article examines how grade spans and the school transitions that students make between fourth and eighth grade shape student performance in eighth grade. The authors estimate the impact of grade span paths on eighth-grade performance, controlling for school and student characteristics and correcting for attrition bias and quality of original school. They find that students moving from K-4 to 5-8 schools or in K-8 schools outperform students on other paths. Results suggest four possible explanations for the findings--the number and timing of school changes, the size of within-school cohorts, and the stability of peer cohorts. (Contains 11 tables and 21 notes.)"


Keywords and Search Strings
The following keywords and search strings were used to search the reference databases and other sources:

  • Configurations, elementary school, school finance
  • Grade span configurations for grades k-5
  • School configuration, elementary school, transportation
  • Grades k-2, grades 3-5, grade level configurations in elementary schools

Databases and Resources
We searched ERIC for relevant resources. ERIC is a free online library of over 1.6 million citations of education research sponsored by the Institute of Education Sciences. Additionally, we searched Google Scholar and PsychInfo.

Reference Search and Selection Criteria

When we were searching and reviewing resources, we considered the following criteria:

  • Date of the publication: References and resources published for last 15 years, from 2002 to present, were include in the search and review.
  • Search Priorities of Reference Sources: Search priority is given to study reports, briefs, and other documents that are published and/or reviewed by IES and other federal or federally funded organizations, academic databases, including ERIC, EBSCO databases, JSTOR database, PsychInfo, PsychArticle, and Google Scholar.
  • Methodology: Following methodological priorities/considerations were given in the review and selection of the references: (a) study types - randomized control trials,, quasi experiments, surveys, descriptive data analyses, literature reviews, policy briefs, etc., generally in this order (b) target population, samples (representativeness of the target population, sample size, volunteered or randomly selected, etc.), study duration, etc. (c) limitations, generalizability of the findings and conclusions, etc.

This memorandum is one in a series of quick-turnaround responses to specific questions posed by educational stakeholders in the Southeast Region (Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, and South Carolina), which is served by the Regional Educational Laboratory Southeast at Florida State University. This memorandum was prepared by REL Southeast under a contract with the U.S. Department of Education's Institute of Education Sciences (IES), Contract ED-IES-17-C-0011, administered by Florida State University. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IES or the U.S. Department of Education nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.