Transitions Hurt Kids

Transitions are changes between schools. Every change to a new school hurts kids academically. The more changes, the worse. 

In a K-6 model, kids have the opportunity to stick with a single school during their entire elementary career.  In the proposed reconfiguration models, all kids will transition between schools after 1st grade (a time that is particularly difficult for kids), and, if there are graded wings, again after 4th grade. If there is a combined sixth grade, that would be an additional transition.

Having more grades in one school allows long-term relationships, the development of multiple adult mentors for children, students’ and families’ sense of rootedness and attachment to their school and community. In contrast, having fewer grades means more transitions.

Transitions have been shown to have negative effects numerous academic, social and emotional measures, with negative effects particularly pronounced for students from socioeconomically disadvantaged groups. Because of the advantages of multiple-grade continuity and the disadvantages of transitions, many-grade schools increase parental involvement, reduce student anxiety, support student self-esteem, and better maintain student achievement – all especially for low SES students. Much of the research on grade continuity has focused on the benefits of K-8 schools versus middle schools. The longevity of relationships has been shown to support almost every measure considered – academic performance, safety, inclusion, levels of participation, healthy adolescent development.



Grade Configuration / Grade Span / Transitions

Anderson, Pauline F. “Grade-Span Configuration and School-to-School Transitions.” Ed.D., College of Saint Elizabeth, 2012.

TOPICS: grade configuration / grade span / transitions

SUMMARY: This is a dissertation investigating a school district with 5 transitions – the district has K-1, 2-4, 5-6, 7-8, and 9-12 schools. All are unified except the 2-4 schools – there are two of those. Grade size is 250-400 students in the unified schools. Many students feel they transition fine but parents, teachers, and support staff express more strain. Among the problems:

  • Each transition shows a discernible drop in achievement
  • Teachers with incoming students say they are not sufficiently prepared because between-school instruction is not well articulated, so there’s a significant amount of re-teaching
  • The schools experience high student turnover rates – in several, half the school’s students are new each year. This makes it hard for staff to get to know all the students, and creates significant adjustment strains.
  • Each transition requires a significant effort by schools to help the students adjust. Parents are often not brought along as well, and they are not involved as much in the new school if they are not involved in the transition.
  • Students do not develop an identity with any school, only with the district – author suggests this reflects a failure to feel real belonging.


Bickel, Robert, and Craig Howley. “The Influence of Scale on School Performance.” Education Policy Analysis Archives 8 (2000): 22.

TOPICS: grade configuration; school size; equity; financial cost

SUMMARY: See summary for Bickel, Howley, Williams and Glascock 2001.

An excerpt from the conclusion of this article: “The equity effects are so striking, and appear so instrumental in association with the “excellence” effects of small size in impoverished communities, that further investigation into this mitigating influence would seem crucial.”


Bickel, Robert, Craig Howley, Tony Williams, and Catherine H. Glascock. “High School Size, Achievement Equity, and Cost.” Education Policy Analysis Archives 9 (2001): 40.

TOPICS: grade configuration; school size; equity; financial cost

SUMMARY: Both Bickel and Howley articles (this one also with Williams and Glascock) perform one more study and again show that in schools with larger grade spans and lower numbers of students per grade, socioeconomically disadvantaged students do better – indeed the difference between SES groups goes way down. They conclude that this is a major equity issue and policy should move toward supporting smaller rather than larger or more specialized schools with narrower grade groupings. Also, cost is actually reduced.

An excerpt from the conclusion of this article: “As with seven previous analyses, we have found that as school size increases, achievement test score costs associated with having economically disadvantaged students in schools increase, as well. This finding has now proven robust across seven states and at least four different regression model specifications. This degree of consistency is rare, indeed, in educational research.”


*Burkam, David T., Deborah L. Michaels, and Valerie E. Lee. “School Grade Span and Kindergarten Learning.” The Elementary School Journal 107, no. 3 (January 2007): 287–303. doi:10.1086/511708.

TOPICS: grade span; early childhood center

SUMMARY: This study compared kindergarten students’ learning in PreK-K schools versus kindergartners in schools with other configurations (e.g. K-5 or K-6). It found they learned more math and reading in the latter. It was based on a large sample of schools and kids, and used a quantitative analysis.  The authors reasoned that kindergartners in the schools with larger grade spans learned more because they had the examples of older kids in their school, and because kindergarten teachers were more aware of the expectations of 1st grade teachers. (My comment: It may not be seen as compelling to some as a reason to prefer K-5/K-6 schools because its measures of success are solely about academic learning (reading and math), and there are good arguments being made these days that academics are now overly emphasized in kindergarten. Also, while it suggests there is better articulation of grades in multi-grade schools, this is an interpretive explanation, not something proved by their data.)

*Coladarci, Theodore, and Julie Hancock. “The (Limited) Evidence Regarding Effects of Grade-Span Configurations on Academic Achievement: What Rural Educators Should Know. ERIC Digest.,” 2002.

TOPICS: Grade span; transitions

SUMMARY: Reviews several papers on grade span and effect on academic achievement. Several studies show that students’ academic achievement is higher in schools that encompass elementary and middle school (e.g. K-8), or that run K-12. (Various studies focused on 6th, 7th, 8th, and 10th graders). But authors caution that there are not a lot of studies and suggest that other things are more important. Still, transition effects are largely negative and where there are transitions, schools should take steps to lessen their impact.


Gordon, Molly, Kristin Peterson, Julie Gdula, and Dave Klingbeil. “Review of Literature on Grade Configuration and School Transitions,” 2011.


Howley, Craig B. “Grade-Span Configurations.” School Administrator 59, no. 3 (March 2002): 24.

TOPICS: grade configuration; school size; equity

SUMMARY: Discusses debate over various grade-span configurations. This article is cited by others as saying that grade cohort size is a significant issue. Offers several provocative, well-informed “hunches” concerning the implications for practice – some of these are powerful, including the first two:

     “ First, the evidence rather clearly suggests that the tendency to create narrow grade-span configurations reinforces the bad habit of building larger and larger schools. Larger schools damage educational equity for everyone, and they undercut educational excellence in impoverished communities, according to a growing body of evidence.

      Second, every transition from one narrowly configured school to another seems to disrupt the social structure in which learning takes place, lowering achievement and participation for many students. Predictably, this damage will be most severe in the cases of students from impoverished backgrounds. Short of providing an adequate living for poor families, we can at least restructure our educational system to mitigate the detrimental effects of poverty. A logical move seems to be smaller, more broadly configured schools-and smaller districts.”


Howley, Craig, Marty Strange, and Robert Bickel. “Research about School Size and School Performance in Impoverished Communities. ERIC Digest.” ERIC Publications, December 2000.

TOPICS: small schools; equity; grade configuration

SUMMARY: From abstract: Many experts have endorsed small schools as educationally effective, often adding parenthetically that smaller size is especially beneficial for impoverished students. A recent series of studies, the “Matthew Project,” bolsters these claims….The Matthew Project … in Ohio, Texas, Georgia, and Montana …found remarkably strong and consistent equity effects of size. Across states, the relationship between achievement and socioeconomic status was substantially weaker in smaller schools than larger schools.

A key pt on small vs large schools, and grade configuration: “schools of differing grade-span configuration but the same enrollment are not really the same size in terms of their impacts on students; the one with fewer grades is larger.”


*Look, Keith. “The Great K-8 Debate.” Philadelphia Public School Notebook, 2001.


TOPICS: grade span; middle school; neighborhood school

SUMMARY: Reviews a number of studies, and reports on conversations with Philadelphia principals, to summarize the advantages of K-8 schools over separate elementary and middle schools. This is very helpful because the same arguments apply to K-6 schools as opposed to more limited grade span schools.. Advantages of longer grade spans in a K-8 school (versus separate elementary and middle schools):

  • More students are more well known by more adults. The early grade teachers know almost every student in the building. Middle grades teachers can speak with any of them about students’ histories, learning styles, and family dynamics. Students can maintain relationships with past teachers they feel most connected with and find them when they need support, advice, or friendship.
  • School is safer because older children take on the part of protector, tutor, and role model.
  • Parental involvement is greater through the higher grades because parents remain connected to one school longer and are more likely to have more than one family member enrolled in the school at the same time.
  • Younger and older siblings can travel to and from school together.
  • Staff members are able to see their influence as the students grow from small children into young adults under their supervision.

Advantage of neighborhood schools:

  • School staff members feel more connected to the community because schools serve a smaller geographic area.


Paglin, Catherine, and Jennifer Fager. “Configuration: Who Goes Where.” Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory, 1997.

TOPICS: grade span

SUMMARY: This one is well cited but not all that useful. Mostly a descriptive essay with some short features of schools with different grade spans.It cautions that transitions are an issue but it doesn’t offer its own research. Mostly it’s trying to offer guidance about mitigating the effects of transitions to schools of different configurations.


Renchler, Ron. “Grade Span” 16, no. 3 (Spring 2000): 2–5.


Schwartz, Amy Ellen, Leanna Stiefel, Ross Rubenstein, and Jeffrey Zabel. “The Path Not Taken: How Does School Organization Affect Eighth-Grade Achievement?” Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis 33, no. 3 (September 1, 2011): 293–317. doi:10.3102/0162373711407062.


Tulsa Public Schools. “Research Supporting a 7-12 School Configuration.” Tulsa Public Schools, April 2011.


Additional links:

  • Keith Look, “The Great K-8 Debate,” Philadelphia Public School Notebook, 2001, -8,
  • Bickel, Robert, Craig Howley, Tony Williams, and Catherine H. Glascock. “High School Size, Achievement Equity, and Cost.” Education Policy Analysis Archives 9 (2001): 40.
  • Alspaugh 1995
  • Alspaugh 1999
  • John W. Alspaugh and Roger D. Harting, “Transition Effects of School Grade-Level Organization on Student Achievement.” Journal of Research & Development in Education, v.28, n.3, pp. 145-149 (Spring 1995) –
    • “Reports on a study of the transition effects of grade-level organization on student achievement as schools transitioned from self-contained to departmentalized classes. Reading, math, and social studies achievement scores of five equated rural school districts with K-4 through K-8 organization were compared. Results noted a decline in achievement during the transition year.”