Duncan: Middle grades ‘misunderstood, overlooked’ — ED DAILY

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.”

Secretary Duncan at the National Schools to Watch Conference in Washington, DC

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.

Renewed focus

“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.

7 Colorado Middle Schools – Nationally Recognized for High Performance


Steve Wolf (Powell MS) Julie Williams & Cindy Shane (Russell MS) at the honorary Gala Dinner.

Seven amazing Colorado Middle Schools were recognized with 93 other amazing middle schools from across the nation at the National School to Watch Conference in Washington, DC.

To earn the distinction of being a National (and State) School to Watch, a school must demonstrate three years of an academic success trajectory that includes performance on state assessments and high correlation to a set of standards created by the National Forum to Accelerate Middle Grades Reform. These Colorado schools achieved that standard and presented their replicable practices and programs before their peers and colleagues across the nation during two-day days of sessions including a site visit with their US Congressional Representative on Capitol Hill.

100 high performing middle schools across the nation were awarded at the National Schools to Watch Conference.

In the early 2000’s a number of educational associations and educational policy/research organizations fretted over the abundance of bad press and lack of focus on powerful learning priorities targeting young adolescents.  They became empowered, they banded together, they became the National Forum to Accelerate Middle Grades Reform and set upon an effort to identify and cast a light upon amazing middle schools – those that could be a beacon to others looking to replicate success, high achievement, developmentally responsive learning, social equitable environments and strong supportive structures to carry the weight of work that their passionate staff embraces on a daily basis. Each year, state Schools to Watch are designated nationally at the National Forum to Accelerate Middle Grades Reform Annual Conference in Washington, DC. This year 100 schools from across the nation were awarded.


Steve Smith & Deb Lehr (Gypsum Creek MS) and Jason Ter Horst & Rich Law (Jenkins MS) share ideas and best practices from their high performing schools

As state director, I was deeply honored to sit among our middle level friends and colleagues across the nation. Speechless really, as I thought of the countless hours and restless nights accumulated by the dedicated staff members who devote their lives to children in the hopes that their efforts make a difference, open the door of opportunities, give heart to the  hopeless, feed bodies and spirits, share love to the unloved, and the provide key to prosperity to each and every child.

Thank you National Schools to Watch, for your devotion to humanity, for your drive and sense of urgency, and for your love of the children that you give a piece of yourself to each and every day.

Thank you – we love you all,

Diane Lauer, State Coordinator and Board Member of the Colorado Association of Middle Level Education

Congratulations to our 2011 Schools to Watch!

Colorado Press Release

It gives me great pleasure to officially welcome and introduce you to our wonderful (CAMLE) Colorado Association of Middle Level Education 2011 Colorado Trailblazer Schools to Watch.

These schools exemplify the four critieria outlined by the National Forum to Accelerate Middle Grades Reform:

We are indeed fortunate to designate six fabulous new Schools to Watch and one redesignation.  It was a challenging year as we reviewed and visited more schools than ever before.  As you may know, last year we designated no new schools and affirmed only one redesignation.  But neither snow nor sleet will keep CAMLE away from validating success in action.

Welcome Aboard!

  • Altona Middle School – Longmont (St. Vrain)
  • Gypsum Creek Middle School – Gypsum (Eagle County)
  • Hotchkiss K-8 School – Hotchkiss (Delta County)
  • Jenkins Middle School – Colorado Springs (District 11)
  • Powell Middle School – Littleton (Littleton)
  • Steamboat Springs Middle School – Steamboat Springs (Steamboat)

Welcome Back!

  • Russell Middle School – Colorado Springs (District 11)

You can learn more about this schools by checking out our Visit and Learn page on this website.  Each of our Schools to Watch is highlighted on this page.

Russell accepts their first designation in 2008

Our 2011 Schools to Watch will be honored at the National Schools to Watch Conference in Washington, DC on June 23, 2011.  Over 300 schools have been designated with this distinction over the past 8 years. The Honorable, U.S. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan will be speaking at the Thursday night Gala Dinner celebrating the Schools to Watch successes.

I’d like to thank our incredible contingent of CAMLE Schools to Watch volunteers to traveled over 4,358 miles collectively during the months of January and February to visit schools across our great state of Colorado.

Boy did we have fun!