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.


  1. Suggest that EdSource compare student achievement in 7-8 middle schools with student achievement in the 5-8 and K-8 schools. Four other factors would be useful to study and compare: student mobility rates, length of the school year, percentage of parents who are engaged in the students work and the operation of the school, and the percentage of students engaged in a mentoring activity like sports and the arts. Thanks, Lee

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  2. The EdSource study found no correlation between the configuration of the school (K-8, 5-8, 7-8) and results on the state standardized tests. That was one of the key points in the report. The survey did not explicitly ask about length of day or school year; I agree that it would have been helpful. There were questions about parent involvement and extracurricular activities and a positive connection between both and successful schools. You can read the detailed study at http://www.edsource.org/middle-grades-study.html

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  3. Having spent 31 of my 35 years in the classroom at middle school I am always interested in studies of what people think is going on there.

    The most striking comment to me is “middle schools have been an enigma.” Indeed.

    I must say that for an almost compulsive meddler in education issues Reed Hastings runs a pretty good video rental company. He,along with Bill Gates, should stick to their areas of expertise.

    A key element of success is for the schools to “focus on key standards.” An intersting finding in light of the fact that the CA legislature has bought a classic “pig in a poke” and adopted the new national standards, whatever they are.

    There is also the “narrowing of the curriculum” issue. If the state tests are based on the standards and you’re teaching to the standards then you’re teaching to the test. Not a bad thing if the tests are good. CA’s tests weren’t adopted because they were good. They were adopted because they were cheap. And the standards are supposed to be “world class” because they are “rigorous.” Better that they be instructionally appropriate.

    The issue of “like” schools performing at “unlike” levels of achievement? Just because there are superficial indications of similarity, 90% free lunch for example, doesn’t mean they are the same in circumstances. Some communities are more equal then others. They may have more “social capital,” differing levels of parent employment, different crime levels, have or not have charismatic community leaders, have differing levels of student transiency, etc. Just like some sports teams look good on paper you have to look behind the numbers and read between the lines or you will lose many bets.

    Any time I see some indicator of giving principals dictatorial control of a school I see someone who doesn’t understand how principals become principals.

    When I see a study like this I see Reed Hastings and other mega-rich business types justifying some silver bullet solution that excuses them from paying the kinds of taxes that would pay for the schools they say they want.

    Conclusion? Yadda-yadda-yadda.

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  4. “One of the shortcomings of being a DC think tanker is the remove from classrooms, schools, and districts.” — Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute on his new blog. … I maintain that that quote should be emblazoned on the business cards and perhaps tattooed on the foreheads of the Hastingses, Gateses, Broads et al., as well as those of the think-tankers. That also goes for those commentators who make pronouncements about education without setting foot in schools and while refusing to listen to educators. … And while I’m at it, may I recommend Diane Ravitch’s new book. It’s so new that my preordered copy arrived yesterday; I’ve read about half of it: “The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education.” Ravitch examines how she herself was seduced by the privatization/choice/free-market/charter fads, the magic feather/silver bullet notion, and how she came to realize that entire notion was wrong. “The more I saw, the more I lost the faith,” she writes. “… In view of the money and power now arrayed on behalf of the ideas and programs that I will criticize [in the book], I hope it is not too late.”

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  5. Mr. Ravani: Before you accuse Mr. Hastings of “justifying some silver bullet solution that excuses them from paying the kinds of taxes that would pay for the schools they say they want,” you may want to take a look at the New York Times op-ed he wrote last year titled, “Please Raise My Taxes.”


    In it, Mr. Hastings advocates “creating a top federal marginal tax rate of 50 percent on all income above $1 million per year,” concluding, “Instead of trying to shame companies and executives, the president should take advantage of our success by using our outsized earnings to pay for the needs of our nation.”

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  6. To the “Reader:”

    Certainly I will try to at least be as noble as Diane Ravitch in repudiating my prior statements and beliefs if, indeed, Reed Hastings has also had an epiphany and is now proposing to have the taxes of the very wealthy and corporations raised in order to support schools and social services to the poor. I would, if this was the case, owe Mr. Hastings an apology. A call for higher taxes in the Wall Street Journal. That is interesting. I always supposed it was impossible for leopards to change their spots and get jobs as jersey cows, but what do I know? Now, if he could just quit messing around with public school via his minions at EdVoice it would be an absolute miracle. I would burn votive candles in front of his image.

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