I am not a fan of middle school and have irked many proponents with my past complaints that it is the Bermuda triangle of education, where achievement and progress go missing in the mist. I also think there is a lot of fuzzy talk about middle school and too much blaming of underachievement on hormones. (All adolescents in the world go through puberty. Why is it that American kids become too addled to learn?)
So, I was eager to take part in the teleconference Tuesday on the largest study ever – so say the authors — of middle grades education. Released today, the study by EdSource involved a survey of 303 principals, 3,752 English language arts and math teachers in grades 6-8, and 157 superintendents in California. The study compared policies and practices against the spring 2009 scores on California’s standards-based tests of 204,000 students in grades 6, 7, and 8.
“We did not ask opinions,” said Trish Williams, executive director of EdSource and study project director. “We asked what they actually did.”
“This helps us crack the code about what works at the middle school level,” said Robert Balfanz, advising consultant to the study and principal research scientist of Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University.
Middle school is important, said Williams, “because it is the last best chance to catch students who are behind in academics and get them on track. Most of what is written about middle grades, the reports are based on theory and philosophies and almost none of it is based on research.”
There was no one jump-out-of-your shoes finding in the comprehensive study.
Rather, the schools that did well focused on student achievement with every pore and breath, made it part of the culture, saw their mission as not getting kids through 6th grade science or 8th grade math but getting them ready for high school and college. The schools also talked about student achievement and what worked, and stepped in early and effectively when kids faltered. The best schools had game plans for the students as they walked in the doors in the very beginning, knowing through their prior school records who was in danger of failing.
While California does not have performance pay, some systems weight student achievement in staff evaluations. The low-income schools in which teachers were evaluated in part on student performance saw better academic outcomes. And there were also better outcomes when superintendents and principals were evaluated on student improvement and achievement. That suggests to me that people pay more attention to areas that they know matter in their job reviews.
By the way, many Get Schooled posters maintain that socio-economics set a student’s achievement arc, but Trish Williams noted that they saw the greatest achievement gaps in schools with similar populations of students rather than between poor and middle class schools, suggesting that it was the practices in those schools that made the difference.
According to Williams, “We often hear that school performance is associated with the parents’ background, but what is not talked about is that frequently the biggest performance gap is between schools serving similar types of students. If it is not student demographics driving the differential in performance, the performance gap, what is driving it? The No. 1 finding that we had, that came out on top no matter which analysis we ran, one year data or longitudinal, regardless if the school was low income or serving middle income was…an intense focus on student outcomes.”
By intense focus, EdSource meant setting measurable goals for students based on standards testing, a commitment to the student’s future success in high school and beyond, an emphasis on teaching study skills, a shared and collective responsibility among teachers, principals and superintendents for improving student outcomes and frequent and clear communication with parents and students about their role in student learning.
Grade configuration and governance didn’t make much difference in improving student outcomes. Many educators think that if they get this part right, that the student achievement will take care of itself. It didn’t make much difference if a school was a charter school or a k-8. One of the analogies offered was that we all have been too focused on the shell of the turtle rather than what is beneath the turtle, which is what actually makes the turtle move.
The report is written with the hopes that middle schools will discuss it. If you read it, let us know what you think.