Teaching Profession

Best Practices in the Middle Grades Identified

By Mary Ann Zehr — February 25, 2010 4 min read
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Using students’ test scores as one part of evaluations for teachers, principals, and superintendents is associated with better academic performance at schools serving the middle grades, a report released this week has found.

Linking students’ test scores with evaluations was one of the “best practices” that high-performing schools serving students in grades 6 to 8 have in common, the report found. The practices were true of high-performing schools regardless of whether they enrolled primarily students from low-income families or mostly from middle-income families.

The study was released by EdSource, a Mountain View, Calif.-based research organization, and was funded by Reed Hastings, the chief executive officer of the DVD-rental company Netflix and a former president of the California state board of education.

Researchers analyzed the relationship between students’ spring 2009 scores on California’s tests in mathematics and English/language arts and answers to surveys by 303 principals, 3,752 English and math teachers, and 157 superintendents in the state. The test scores for 200,000 students from 303 schools were examined.

“There is a lot of discussion and national debate about how to evaluate teachers,” Michael Kirst, a professor emeritus of education at Stanford University and the principal investigator for the study, said in a Feb. 24 conference call to discuss it. “This study makes it clear that we need to have the same debate about principals and superintendents.”

States applying for the $4 billion in Race to the Top grants from the economic-stimulus funds can’t have a “firewall” between student test-score data and teacher data, under regulations issued by the U.S. Department of Education. Because of that federal requirement, California lawmakers passed legislation to do away with the firewall in that state.

Importance of Data

Among the common practices of high-performing schools that were identified by the study were setting measurable goals for boosting test scores, having a schoolwide focus on improving student achievement, aligning instruction and curriculum, focusing on preparing students for academic demands in the future, and using data to monitor student progress and improve instruction.

“There are a lot of practices that support the Race to the Top grant program here,” noted Mr. Kirst. “The making of progress toward college and career standards, the importance of timely data that can be used to guide instruction and planning are also in Race to the Top.”

The study found no association between high-performing schools and their configuration of grades, such as whether they served students in grades K-8 or only grades 6, 7, and 8.

During the conference call, Trish Williams, the executive director of EdSource, highlighted the study’s finding that schools serving low-income students can do as well academically as some schools serving middle-income students if they adopt best practices.

“There is a bigger performance gap between schools serving similar types of students than schools serving different kinds of students,” she said, referring to the socioeconomic status of schools’ students.

Robert Balfanz, a researcher at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and an advising consultant to the study, also noted that the findings “break through this idea that we can’t make much progress at low-income schools.”

Edward Haertel, a professor of education at Stanford University and the study’s technical director, had one caveat, noting that the findings show a link between high-performing schools serving the middle grades and a set of best practices, but don’t show cause and effect.

“Statistically, there is no assurance that if other schools adopt these practices, they will get the same results,” he said. “The bottom line is that the practices we identified can be implemented in any of the schools.”

The EdSource study is “a very tight, well-done study,” and gives more clarity to the kinds of practices that are effective for schools serving students in the middle grades, said Deborah Kasak, the executive director of the National Forum to Accelerate Middle Grades Reform, in Champaign, Ill. She was not involved in the study.

Ms. Kasak said she hopes the report’s findings redirect some of the national discussions about what works for students in the middle grades.

“Let’s take grade-level configuration off the table for what should be going on in ages 10 to 14,” she said. It’s much more important, she said, to focus on how schools are educating students.

The findings that schools serving low-income students can do as well academically as those serving students from wealthier families takes away an argument that some educators either explicitly or implicitly use to justify why schools aren’t doing better with students in the middle grades, she said.

A version of this article appeared in the February 24, 2010 edition of Education Week

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