School & District Management Reporter's Notebook

Middle School Message: Reforms at That Level Can Help High Schools

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — June 21, 2005 2 min read
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As high schools garner headlines in the current wave of school improvement work, educators and experts are trying to spread the word about the role the middle grades can play in that mission and the successful paths taken by some of the nation’s middle schools.

Some 400 educators and researchers gathered here this month to hear how some struggling middle schools turned student achievement around by providing more-rigorous coursework, establishing stronger policies, and fostering better relationships between students and teachers. The schools are part of the Schools to Watch network, a program sponsored by the National Forum to Accelerate Middle-Grades Reform, based in Champaign, Ill., to highlight models for middle-grades education.

“People may still hear locally and think that their middle schools aren’t working,” said Hayes Mizell, a forum board member who has been a central figure in promoting middle-grades improvement for more than a decade. “But there are schools that are working well. As this conference demonstrates, there are middle schools that … are trying to get every kid engaged in learning.”

While the network of schools identified by the forum as high-performing has grown from just four in 1999 to 48, several states and districts are adopting the criteria for selecting Schools to Watch to evaluate their own middle-grades programs.

The middle school movement came under criticism in the 1990s from policy experts who said it was attending too much to preadolescents’ emotional needs and failing to challenge students academically. (“The Weak Link,” October 4, 2000.)

The forum—combined with several privately subsidized initiatives—has since worked to counter that perception by promoting tougher curricula, high-quality teaching, and academic standards in a developmentally responsive environment for students in grades 5-8. The federal No Child Left Behind Act, with its strict accountability measures, also has helped push middle schools to focus more on academics, Mr. Mizell said during the June 9-11 conference. As a result, however, some have abandoned other tenets of the middle grades, such as team-teaching and an integrated curriculum.

Since foundation support for middle-grades initiatives dried up five years ago, the forum has been trying to attract new attention from policymakers and grantmakers to the School to Watch model. The forum has recognized 11 states for adopting the School to Watch criteria—featuring three dozen indicators of academic excellence, developmental responsiveness, social equity, and organization.

Organizers hope the current high school improvement programs at the local, state, and federal levels will yield insight, and additional resources, for promoting middle-grades improvement. (“States Raise Bar for High School Diploma,” this issue.)

“What [the high school people] are saying is … that you have to address middle school first,” said Deborah Kasak, the forum’s executive director. “We need to figure out how to collaborate with the high school reform efforts.”

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