Top Dog - Bottom Dog Phenomenon

My first year in high school was challenging. Coming from sixth grade, the highest class in an elementary school, it was indeed quite a shock to hold the lowest status when I entered high school. At the moment, I do have concerns about my son who is presently in fifth grade, which marks the end of elementary school in Virginia. I worry about the changes he will encounter when he goes to middle school next year. Such anxiety unfortunately is supported by evidence from research. First, there is an achievement dip upon going to middle school.

Above copied from EducationNext
Second, sixth graders in middle schools often experience more instances of bullying and fighting.

Indeed, a recent paper published in the American Educational Research Journal suggests that middle school does have significant influences on both school climate and learning outcomes. Sadly, the influences are not positive. The effects are largely described as "top dog - bottom dog" phenomenon. The change occurs partly because of a sixth grader has just lost the status of being a top dog in an elementary school and is now a bottom dog in middle school.

Below is a summary of the findings provided by Tony Pals and Victoria Oms:
  • When evaluating the impact of top dog versus bottom dog status in sixth grade, students reported better learning environments as top dogs than as middle and bottom dogs. Sixth-grade top dogs (e.g., K–6 schools) were 7.6 percentage points and 5.1 percentage points less likely to report bullying than otherwise similar middle and bottom dogs, respectively, and 14.7 and 12.7 percentage points more likely to report that they felt safe in school than middle and bottom dogs, respectively.
  • Conversely, eighth-grade students showed smaller differences in student experiences as top dogs (e.g., 6–8 schools) than they did as middle dogs (e.g., 6–12 schools). This indicates that moving from elementary to middle school hurts students because they lose the top dog status they previously held.
  • The benefits of top dog status are larger in schools with longer grade spans. At the same time, sixth-grade bottom dogs in 6–8 schools do not report higher rates of negative experiences than bottom dogs at 6–12 schools, providing evidence that students may benefit from schools with longer grade spans, such as K–8 schools.
  • Results also showed that for sixth graders, bottom dog status hurt academic performance and top dog status improved academic performance, indicating that declines in academic performance upon entering middle school are in part due to the top dog/bottom dog phenomenon.
  • In particular, sixth graders who are top dogs experience a significant improvement on reading and math exams compared to those who are bottom dogs. In the 2011 academic year, the effect of top dog status for sixth graders was the equivalent of moving from the 44th to the 50th percentile in math and the 46th to 50th in reading. Top dog status did not improve reading exam scores in eighth grade, but it did increase math scores compared to those of middle dogs.
Unfortunately, the state of Virginia cannot change its school structure that easily. Reorganization will require a great deal of change in infrastructure. Thus, all I could hope for is that school administrators are indeed aware of the struggles bottom dogs face. And that this awareness leads to providing a safer and more welcoming learning environment to sixth graders in middle schools.