School & District Management Opinion

Gaining Ground in the Middle Grades

By Trish Williams & Michael W. Kirst — March 04, 2010 5 min read
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As expectations for a more highly educated American citizenry rise, what happens in the middle grades matters more now than ever. The middle grades are the last, best chance to identify students at risk of academic failure and get them back on track in time to succeed in high school. Moreover, success in key subjects in the middle grades is a prerequisite to being able to enter high school academically prepared for a college- and career-ready path.

In recent years, educators and policymakers have debated about what should be done to improve performance in the middle grades. In the absence of solid research evidence about what works, school districts have reshuffled grade configurations (for example, extending elementary school to K-8, or beginning middle school in grade 5), bolstered their focus on “academic rigor,” and worked to ensure that their 11- to 14-year-old students are engaged in school while they go through the turbulence of puberty. Educators have argued for these and other approaches—all based on theory and philosophy, because there has been little student-outcomes-based research available.

That’s why a team of researchers from our respective institutions, EdSource and Stanford University, decided to look into the “black box” of middle school performance, to systematically analyze what district and school policies and practices are linked to higher student performance. With funding from Reed Hastings, the founder of Netflix and a former president of the California state board of education, we spent 18 months conducting the most extensive study to date of middle grades.

The work included detailed surveys of nearly 4,000 California teachers, principals, and superintendents about a wide range of middle-grades practices. To see what higher-performing schools did, we then analyzed the responses against school-level 2009 student outcomes on standards-based state tests in English/language arts and mathematics, controlling for student background.

Our findings were surprising in their consistency. What is startling was how absolutely coherent the results were, no matter which analysis we ran. Districts and schools with practices that reflect an intense focus on improving middle-grades student outcomes are higher-performing, whether they are serving primarily low-income students or primarily middle-income students.

In higher-performing middle-grades schools, an intense focus on improving academic outcomes is reflected in two ways. The schools are oriented to the future and take every opportunity—and an all-hands-on-deck approach—to get all of their students on track to succeed in high school and prepare for college. In addition, they place a high priority on ensuring that every student does well on the state’s standards-based exams in math and English/language arts. Doing well on these tests helps ensure that the students can easily pass the state’s high school exit exam, and also prepares them to begin a college-prep curriculum as they enter high school.

To accomplish this intense focus on improving student outcomes, higher-performing schools establish a shared schoolwide culture with the following strategies as driving forces:

• Set measurable goals for improving student scores on standards-based tests for all students, at all levels, in every grade and subject;

• Evaluate superintendents, principals, and teachers, based in part on student outcomes; and

• Communicate to students and their families that they, too, are responsible for student learning and outcomes by attending class, turning in homework, trying hard, and asking for help when needed.

The research shows clearly that higher-performing districts and schools commit to this priority by including student outcomes in evaluations and asking families and students to accept their share of responsibility. The district’s role is to set the standard and provide the resources; the principal’s role is to drive the focus on student outcomes and manage and orchestrate the school improvement process; the teachers’ role is to improve their own practice, but also work collectively to identify the students needing help and get them the intervention they need.

With a focus on the state’s academic standards, the district and the school make sure that curriculum and instruction are tightly aligned with those standards. They also focus on diagnostic and benchmark assessments aligned with the standards, and use their common planning time to review student progress and either adapt instruction or develop interventions. This is an example of “what gets measured gets done.” At the same time, these higher-performing schools also maintain a school environment that is safe and orderly and have a high proportion of students participating in a wide variety of electives and extracurricular activities.

Higher-performing middle-grades schools implement comprehensive and targeted programs—both required and voluntary—to intervene with students who are two or more years behind grade level, English-language learners, and students at risk of failure in the current year. They also work proactively to review the cumulative folders (test scores, course grades, attendance reports, and behavior reports) of every entering student, flagging those with warning signs, talking with the elementary teachers, and setting up plans to get struggling students back on track.

While new federal policy initiatives are fueling a vigorous national debate about how best to evaluate teachers in ways that reflect student performance, this study suggests there should be a similar debate about education leadership. We found, for example, that principals and superintendents in the higher-performing middle-grades schools serving both lower- and middle-income students reported that improvements in student outcomes were factored into their evaluations. And in the higher-performing schools that served primarily low-income students, teachers reported that improving student outcomes was part of their evaluations as well.

What our research did not show, however, was that grade configuration and internal organization of instruction had much impact on improving student outcomes. Of the 303 schools we studied, half were grades 5-8, one-quarter were grades K-8, and one-quarter were organized into grades 7-8. There was no consistent and clear association between higher student performance and any one of these grade configurations. Similarly, our study did not confirm that any particular school organization of instruction was superior to another in its association with improved student outcomes. There may be other good reasons for a district to choose a particular grade configuration or a particular way to organize its teaching and instruction, but improvement in student outcomes is not one of them.

We can improve student outcomes in low-performing middle-grades schools, whether they are in middle- or low-income communities. With strong leadership, the effective practices found in our study can be implemented by any middle-grades school, regardless of the grade configuration or the organization of teaching and instruction.

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A version of this article appeared in the March 10, 2010 edition of Education Week as Gaining Ground in the Middle Grades


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