Making the Middle Grades Matter

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Making the Middle Grades Matter

Secretary Arne Duncan's Remarks at the National Forum’s Annual Schools to Watch Conference

June 23, 2011

I'm pleased to be here this evening for a couple of reasons.

Schools to Watch is doing absolutely invaluable work in the middle grades. You are helping to lead the field in middle grade reform—and as a nation, we do far too little to celebrate success in education.

At the same time, I am glad to have this opportunity to speak this evening because the subject of middle grade reform is vitally important—even if it is little understood and often overlooked.

As you know, the middle grade years have sometimes been called the "Bermuda Triangle" of K-12 education. It's a time where students sink or swim, and sail into choppy waters with few pedagogical stars by which to navigate. Scholars in the field have described the history of middle grades reform as marked by "continual tinkering and persistent dissatisfaction."

It doesn't have to be that way. Today, groundbreaking research by Robert Balfanz at John Hopkins University, and by EDSource and Michael Kirst at Stanford University, is illuminating how middle grade educators can both boost academic achievement and reduce dropout rates. And many of those effective practices have been embraced by the nearly 100 Schools to Watch award winners honored here tonight.

Educators now widely recognize the middle grade years, from the ages of 10 to 15, as a special, critical period of adolescent development.

Just as high-quality early childhood programs are vital to readying young children for elementary school, high-quality middle grade schooling is equally essential to readying young adolescents for high school, college, and careers. In high-poverty schools in particular, the middle grades can either put students on a path to college and careers—or it can steer them to dropping out and the unemployment line.

And just as is the case in preschool, early intervention is easier—and more cost-effective than waiting until high school.

It is no secret that parents and educators alike know the middle grade years as a period of immense change and considerable turmoil. Yet the middle grades also present the last, best opportunity for educators to reach all students—and not just those who persist and thrive in high school. Early adolescence is the wonder years and the worry years. It's a time of great promise—and of great peril.

Fortunately, educators and school leaders know a lot more today about guiding young adolescents through the middle grades than they did just a few years ago. As former first lady Laura Bush says, "we know now from research that a lot of kids that drop out in high school really drop out in middle school—they just leave in high school."

Robert Balfanz's research, for example, shows that it is possible to identify about 75 percent of future dropouts in large, high-poverty urban schools before they enter high school. Think about how critically important that early identification is.

The three warning flags in middle school are poor attendance, withdrawing from or posting poor grades in English Language Arts and Math, and racking up a record of misbehavior and suspensions. In fact, in high-poverty neighborhoods, Balfanz found that half or more of middle grade students were missing at least a month of schooling.

These three warning flags underscore the vital importance of a simple yet often neglected idea that Schools to Watch has embraced: High-poverty middle schools should be setting up early warning systems to monitor the telltale warning signs and indicators for dropping out.

Early warnings are a call to action. Middle grade educators should identify students at risk of dropping out—and intervene early. In sixth grade, most students at high-risk for dropping out are struggling in only a single academic subject or behavioral area—unlike in high school, where students who drop out typically have multiple academic and behavioral problems.

Now, as important as early warning systems are, they are only part of the answer for what works and doesn't work to advance student learning in the middle grades.

Frankly, I think middle grade educators have spent too much of their time in recent years in age-old debates about the best-suited grade configurations and organizational models of teachers and classroom instruction for young adolescents. But they have spent too little of their time identifying and promoting practices that improve academic outcomes for young adolescents.

Several years ago, Steven Mertens, a middle grades expert at the University of Illinois, described the research in this field as being "woefully behind in producing the types of scientific, rigorous studies necessary to measure the effectiveness of the middle school philosophy in improving the educational settings, practices, and programs for young adolescents."

The most critical gap, Mertens said, was the scarcity "of good, reliable research studies that have been able to demonstrate . . . [a] link between the components of the middle school philosophy and any type of teaching or learning outcome." At best, Mertens could only identify "a handful of rigorous and generalizable studies linking [program] components" to student achievement.

Since Mertens wrote those words in 2006, educators for the first time have high-quality, large-scale studies of what works and what doesn't work to improve student outcomes in the middle grades—particularly the 2010 "Gaining Ground" study by EdSource, Michael Kirst, and the American Institutes for Research.

So, yes, the middle grades are emerging from the fog of the Bermuda Triangle. And I'm pleased to say that they are emerging full-steam with bipartisan support and interest. I was delighted to see Laura Bush recently announce that the Bush Institute was launching a comprehensive, research-based program to accelerate middle school achievement and readiness for high school.

The "Gaining Ground" report that I referred to a moment ago is the largest study of its kind. EdSource and Stanford University researchers analyzed data and test scores from more than 200,000 students at 303 middle grade schools in California for the 2008-09 school year. They also surveyed the principal at each school, more than 3,700 ELA and math teachers in grades six thru eight, and over 150 district superintendents.

The principal finding of the Gaining Ground study is that a relentless and "intense schoolwide focus on improving academic outcomes most distinguishes higher-[performing] from lower-performing middle grades schools." That conclusion, says Trish Williams of EdSource, "came out on top no matter which analysis we ran."

What did higher-performing middle schools do to boost student achievement? Principals and teachers made it both a personal and a shared mission to get every student ready for high school and beyond. They set measurable goals for student progress on standards-based tests—and they tightly aligned standards to curriculum and instruction.

Principals met frequently with teachers to review data on student performance. And teachers mined formative and benchmark assessments for areas where they could improve their instruction and identify students that needed additional support and early intervention.

At the higher-performing schools, teachers worked to accelerate learning for all students. But they gave special attention to students who were two or more years behind grade level, and to the assessment and placement needs of ELL students. At-risk students, for example, got extra instructional time during the school day and school year.

As you might expect, teachers collaborated frequently at these schools to discuss curriculum, improve instruction, and target students for help.

Yet higher-performing schools were also highly structured and purposeful. They had strong principals who set firm disciplinary policies. Their school leaders had no tolerance for bullying, drugs, and weapons on campus, and set clear performance standards for the behavior, academics, and participation of students who wished to remain enrolled at the school.

Finally, the higher-performing schools were institutions where the adults were accountable. They took responsibility for improved student outcomes. Principals reported being evaluated by the superintendent based, in part, on student success. At higher-performing, high-poverty schools, the evaluation of teachers was also based, in part, on student progress and achievement data, along with multiple indicators of performance.

What is most striking about the higher-performing middle schools was that they saw data and the frequent use of assessments as a blessing, not as a burden.

Teachers regularly used data and formative assessments to improve their instruction. And teaching to the standards was not a drill-and-kill exercise but a way to provide a rich and rigorous curriculum. These schools don't just preach—they practice the cycle of continuous improvement.

Despite claims that standards-based instruction in math and ELA narrows the curriculum, the EdSource study found that higher-performing middle schools actually had a higher proportion of students "in extracurricular activities and electives, including the arts and exploratory courses and mini-courses." That finding comes straight out of the "Middle Grades Playbook" action kit for superintendents and principals that EdSource released yesterday.

I have talked about the EdSource study at length for a couple of reasons. First, it provides a rich, evidence-based guide to improving student achievement in the middle grades.

Second, EdSource's findings are entirely consistent with the policies and incentives the Obama administration has created in Race to the Top and our blueprint to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

They affirm the value of our State Longitudinal Data System grants as well, which support state and district efforts to develop data systems needed to monitor student progress and establish early warning indicators.

One final but little-noticed finding of the Gaining Ground study is important not only to middle grade reform but the broader debate taking place in the nation about the power of great schools.

Like countless studies before it, the Gaining Ground study shows that the skills of students in September when they walk in the classroom door is heavily influenced by socioeconomic background. But the study also found enormous variation in student performance and growth over the course of the school year, even among schools with similar student populations.

School and district practices can have a big impact on student outcomes, regardless of student background. And Robert Balfanz reached the same conclusion in his research on middle grade students in Philadelphia. In schools with similar student bodies, some Philadelphia schools had three times as many students making gap-closing gains as other schools.

Great schools, great principals, and great teachers matter. The good news is that poverty is not destiny in the classroom.

The bad news is that we still have a long way to go before every child is provided a world-class education. The sobering, painful truth is that, too often, our P-12 education system is failing to live up to the essential American promise of equal opportunity in the middle grades.

Compared to the performance of their peers in high-performing nations, American students do pretty well in elementary school. But the performance of 15-year old students in the U.S. is mediocre.

In America, as students accrue more schooling and move through the middle grades, they actually fall further behind their peers in high-performing countries. That is totally unacceptable. And it is an urgent national problem. Other nations are out-educating us, plain and simple. And in today's knowledge economy, the country that out-educates us will out-compete us too.

So in my time left, I want to talk about some of the challenges that I see ahead for middle grades educators as they seek to advance and accelerate student learning.

As this Schools to Watch conference shows, middle grades reform efforts are now finding a lot of common ground. There is a growing recognition today that middle school improvement efforts must be propelled and evaluated based on outcomes, not inputs.

At the same time, middle grades reform is a tough balancing act. To accelerate learning, the middle grades must be rigorous but relevant, engaging but exacting, and content-rich but crafted for early adolescent learners.

I congratulate all the STW award winning schools represented here today because you are demonstrating how to achieve that demanding balancing act every day. You are pursuing the evidence-based practices that boost learning outcomes for young adolescents.

Many of you have worked long and hard to develop a building-wide commitment to continuous data analysis and instructional improvement. You're developing and implementing early warning indicator systems, using real-time data to target student interventions.

STW's $6 million Invest in Innovation grant from our i3 program supports cutting-edge work. STW is seeking to dramatically improve student achievement in 18 persistently low-performing schools in the middle grades in California, Illinois, and North Carolina. This i3 program could reach 18,000 students in urban and rural schools. Success will be measured by multiple indicators, including test scores, course grades, course-taking behavior, student attendance, and suspensions and expulsions.

In addition to helping these schools develop an early indicators intervention system, STW will also provide a mentor school, a trained coach to work with the school leadership, and a principal coach.

In a number of respects, STW's innovative model is similar to that of Shanghai's, the highest-performing education system in the world on the last PISA assessment. Shanghai educators also pair up high-performing schools with low-performing schools and have expert teachers and mentors assist their peers.

I love the idea that STW is trying to replicate success, scale-up turnaround work, and make success the norm.

A number of aspects of middle grade reform are starting to filter down to the district level as well. In Chicago, we established an early warning indicators system district-wide for ninth graders. But several aspects of the early warning system radiated back to the middle grades.

Once we started running our early indicators system and tracking graduation data, we found that up to a third of entering high school freshmen were overage—and many students had given little thought to matching their interests to high school offerings.

So we established Achievement Academies in about 10 high schools modeled after the John Hopkins Talent Development model. Roughly 125 students per academy had their own set of teachers, counselors, and administrators in their neighborhood high schools.

We also created and instituted a career exploration inventory that 6th and 7th graders took, so they could be more purposeful about selecting from the city's 120 high schools and 200 high school programs. And we established a five-week Freshman Connection program for rising ninth graders that matched students to their new high school and gave the students a chance to explore high school options.

Students who needed to attend summer school before high school, students with disabilities, and students in alternative education settings were all included in the Freshman Connection program. In the morning, students attended academic classes. In the afternoons, they went on field trips, did cultural activities, and visited colleges. Each year, about 18,000 of the 33,000 entering freshmen in the city attended the Freshman Connection.

These were all important first steps. But we also ran into obstacles in our efforts to make the middle grades more rigorous in Chicago.

Nationwide, fewer than one in four middle school teachers have received specialized training to teach at the middle school level before they begin their careers, even though 46 states plus the District of Columbia offer some form of middle grades licensure. Too often, middle school teachers are prepared for general ed placement, rather than focusing on content knowledge. That shortfall in content-specific training made it much tougher to offer Algebra in eighth grade in Chicago.

As a result, we worked closely with foundations and universities to enable teachers to get the math and science endorsements they would need, so middle grade students would have teachers with subject knowledge. Before long, the Board passed a policy that middle grade science and math openings had to be filled by teachers with an endorsement.

Looking back, I also feel that we fell short of creating universally safe middle schools in Chicago. To be honest, this is a problem that continues to haunt me. The level of violence that our children had to live with in their communities was staggering.

And I don't believe that middle grade school leaders and reformers have devoted enough of their attention to minimizing crime and bullying—and maximizing students' sense of safety.

One of the most disturbing reports to cross my desk in recent months was the annual School Survey on Crime and Safety.

It shows that middle schools report higher rates of violent crime, serious violent crime, student threats of physical attacks with or without a weapon, bullying, and sexual harassment than even high schools. In fact, in most cases, the risk of violent crime is substantially higher in middle school—and sometimes double the risk that students face in high school. Middle schools are every bit as dangerous if not more so than high schools, even when figures are limited to violent incidents reported to the police.

Tragically, a subset of middle schools is extremely violent. In the 2007-08 school year, 40 percent of middle schools recorded 20 or more violent incidents reported to the police. That is a devastating statistic.

The middle grades are clearly no longer the age of innocence—and the mission of middle grade school leaders and educators to create safe schools must take on new urgency. I hope that you will leave here today with a renewed sense of urgency—both to make the middle grades safe, and to dramatically accelerate achievement for all young adolescents.

But I hope, too, that you will leave here with a tremendous sense of hope and possibility, despite the collective challenges we face.

It matters a great deal that poverty is not destiny in the classroom. And middle school educators know far more today than in the past about the most effective tools for early intervention and accelerating student learning.

Every day, great teachers and school leaders are working in your schools with the knowledge that they are making a difference in the lives of their students, even in the face of difficult circumstances.

You are tackling the tough problems of chronically underperforming schools. You are helping your peers improve.

That commitment, that collaboration, and that courage is finally giving the middle grade years the attention they have long deserved.

Thank you—and congratulations again to your award winners.