By Jean Gossman
Middle school education is receiving more attention as educators and policymakers examine its connection to success in high school and beyond. Stakeholders welcome the focus, given that middle school is “sometimes called the Bermuda Triangle of K-12 education, a time when students sink or swim, sail through choppy waters, and have few pedagogical stars by which to navigate their course.”
Education Secretary Arne Duncan offered that comparison in his first major address on middle grades reform at the National Forum to Accelerate Middle Grades Reform’s Schools to Watch conference last week. He expressed concern that fewer than 25 percent of middle school teachers receive special training in “misunderstood and overlooked” early adolescent education. He added that middle grades education needs more research, rather than “continual tinkering” with excessive debate on grade configuration and curriculum.
Duncan observed that early warning and intervention systems like those used by Schools to Watch are particularly needed in high-poverty schools, because “early intervention is more effective and cost-effective” in the middle grades rather than waiting until high school. Duncan cited research by Robert Balfanz, research scientist with the Center for Social Organization of Schools at Johns Hopkins University, which showed a relationship between middle school success and high school completion.
Duncan said the Schools to Watch model, which also relies on school leadership coaching and mentoring, is similar to that of Shanghai, China, which he said has the highest performing educational system in the world. Although U.S. elementary students’ achievement compares favorably with their international peers, “performance of our 15-year-olds is mediocre,” Duncan said. Accordingly, he told the educators the $6 million Investing in Innovation (i3) grant awarded to Schools to Watch “was not a gift, it was an investment.”
The National Forum honored 100 exemplary middle-grades schools designated as 2011 “Schools to Watch” in the 19-state recognition program. Thirty-nine of those were recognized for maintaining or increasing their performance after applying to be redesignated as a School to Watch. Peter Murphy, past president of the National Forum, told Education Daily® that the re-designation process is “a key point of the program” that encourages continuous improvement.
“It’s very encouraging that [Duncan] is stating the importance of middle grades,” Deborah Kasak, National Forum executive director, told Education Daily®. “We’ve been overlooked for so long, and we have a vital role to play in the K-12 continuum.” A former middle school counselor for 18 years in Illinois, Kasak also spoke to the connection identified in research between a student’s poor middle school experience and later dropping out of high school.
Although middle school students are unlikely to form a concrete wish or plan to leave high school, she said, middle school students start to “become disengaged and seek their self-worth [out of school].” Additionally, “they begin to feel they can’t do [the work] when they really can, but we need to do better instruction with them. They begin to see themselves as not being successful, confident, or able. We have to advocate for them,” Kasak said. She added that keeping students “engaged and connected in the school experience” and building strong relationships with them “really makes a difference” in dropout prevention.