Gaining Ground in the Middle Grades: Lessons from California
By Trish Williams and Michael Kirst
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 necessary 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. Absent 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- to14-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 at 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 the former president of the California State Board of Education, we spent 18 months conducting the most extensive study ever of middle grades. The work included extensive 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 Math, controlling for student background.
Our findings were surprising in their consistency. What is startling was how absolutely coherent our findings were, no matter which analysis we ran. Districts and schools with practices that reflect an intense focus on improving middle-grade 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 students on track to succeed in high school and prepare for college. In addition, the higher performing schools place a high priority on ensuring every student does well on the state’s standards-based exams in mathematics and English Language Arts. Doing well on these tests helps ensure the students can easily pass the state’s high school exit exam, and it also prepares them to begin a college-prep curriculum as they enter high school.
To accomplish an intense focus on improving student outcomes, higher-performing schools establish a shared school-wide culture with the following strategies as drivers:
1) Set measurable goals for improving student scores on standards-based tests for all students, at all levels, in every grade and subject;
2) Evaluate superintendents, principals, and teachers based, in part, on student outcomes; and
3) 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.
The research shows clearly that higher-performing districts and schools commit to this priority by including student outcomes in the evaluations and asking families and students to accept their share of the responsibility. The district role is to set the standard and provide the resources; the principal role is to drive the focus on student outcomes and to and manage and orchestrate the school improvement process; the teacher role is to improve their own practice but to work collectively together to identify students needing help and to get them the intervention they need.
With a focus on the state’s academic standards, the district and the school ensure curriculum and instruction is tightly aligned with those standards, 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 report that the school environment is safe and orderly and that a high proportion of students participate in a wide variety of electives and extra curricular 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 Learners, and students at risk of failure in the current year. They also pro-actively 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.
And 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. For example, principals and superintendents in 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 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 in 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 for a school to choose a particular way to organize its teaching and instruction – but improvements 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.
Trish Williams is executive director of the Mountain View, Calif.-based Ed Source and Michael Kirst is professor emeritus of education and business administration at Stanford University. Williams served as project director and Kirst was principal investigator of the study, Gaining Ground in the Middle Grades: Why Some Schools Do Better.