What works in middle schools
Districts aiming to raise scores of middle school students shouldn’t count on hiring a messianic principal or jiggling the grade configuration of a school or making vague commitments to excellence – or any single tie-it-in-a-bow policy.
The hard work – and success – come from aligning instruction in every grade to state standards, setting measurable goals, committing to see that all students are prepared for the rigors of high school and staying true to the practices that bring results. Lower-income schools that follow these strategies can overcome the drag of demographics and achieve the success of middle schools in middle-income neighborhoods.
That’s among the key findings of an extensive study of 303 California middle schools covering 204,000 students – the most comprehensive survey of those grades – by the non-profit EdSource and Stanford University Professor Michael Kirst, the lead researcher. With an unusually high 88 percent response rate, 3,572 English language arts and math teachers, including teachers at 27 charter schools, 303 principals and 157 superintendents filled out a survey with 900 specific items on school strategies.
Middle schools have been an enigma to reformers and researchers. Despite significant gains in elementary schools, middle school scores nationally and in California have been stubbornly stagnant. Educators know that students’ success and behavior in middle school are reliable predictors of what’s ahead in high school. Students who do well on the 7th and 8th grade math tests are more likely to be placed in courses leading to college admission.
Some districts have focused on school climate, others on reconfiguring the school. The strength of the EdSource report “Gaining Ground in the Middle Grades: Why Some Schools Do Better” is not in its headlines – after all, what administrators these days admit that they blow off state standards? — but in detailed practices that researchers found correlated with achievement. There are so many in the 24-page summary and 160-page report that EdSource may publish a guide to school improvement for principals and superintendents – if money for it can be found.
Some practices – after-school intervention strategies for kids falling behind, collaborative time for teachers, training teachers in data use — require resources that “are difficult to find when budgets are being cut.” Beware of cutting funding, especially for middle schools, the report urged.
Practices that work
The survey did not ask about specific curricula or pedagogy and it didn’t explore other measurements of a school’s progress and climate: discipline incidents, absenteeism and softer measures such as motivation toward schoolwork. It didn’t ask about length of day per se, although successful schools reported academic time beyond the state minimum.
It asked very concrete questions about school practices and then correlated those to math and English language arts test results for 2009.
Among effective practices found in high-achieving schools:
- Principals set clear expectations that all students will meet goals;
- Teachers use common time to focus on student achievement;
- Especially in successful low-income schools, districts support principals’ decisions to replace instructional leaders and to use test data and student progress as part of teacher evaluations;
- Parents are involved in children’s schooling and sign contracts pledging their involvement;
- Among the qualities of effective middle school teachers: They want to be there, are skilled in subjects they teach, make connection with students and have experience teaching English learners’
- Among the environment factors in a successful school, there are clear expectations of behavior, a well-defined dress code, positive incentives for behavior and adults present during lunch and in-between classes.
- Schools are proactive in intervening with students falling behind, using entrance data to spot warning signs, creating plans for those projected to fail that year and setting up extensive remediation for students two years behind;
- Successful schools use data more extensively than low-scoring schools, with quick turnaround results;
- Teachers use benchmark tests, focus on key standards, and collaborate often.
The Obama administration’s stress on the use of data and measurable standards-based goals are consistent with the EdSource findings. However, the government’s focus, in turning around low-performing schools, on changing principals and staff or converting to a charter school, will miss the mark, Kirst said, unless they become the vehicles to put effective practices in place.
Too much attention, he said, is on the turtle’s shell, instead of the parts that make the turtle move.
Reed Hastings, CEO of Netflix and a former member of the state Board of Education, funded the study. As a followup using the data, EdSource will look at the implications of math and Algebra placement and achievement in seventh and eighth grades.