The New Consensus on Middle-Grades Reform

Archived Information

The New Consensus on Middle-Grades Reform

Remarks of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to the Association for Middle Level Education (AMLE) Annual Conference

November 10, 2011

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

First, the middle grades have not received the attention in education debates that they deserve. Our department intends to correct that historic oversight. I want to affirm that the subject of middle grade reform is vitally important, both to our children and to the future success of our country.

I want to give a special shout-out today to Greg Darnieder on my staff and to Genevieve DeBose, one of our extraordinary Teaching Ambassador Fellows. They have worked tirelessly to promote the importance of the middle grades and our middle-level reforms.

I'm also here today to spread some good news about middle grade reform.

For decades, educators have engaged in passionate debates on the subject. Theories about how to best educate early adolescents have fallen in and out of favor.

Yet much of this debate has taken place in an information vacuum about the real impact of middle grade reforms on student achievement and attainment. The good news is that this information vacuum is fast disappearing.

Thanks to the work of Robert Balfanz at John Hopkins University, which AMLE has helped sponsor, and to researchers like Michael Kirst at Stanford University, we now know much more today than ever before about what works to boost achievement and reduce dropout rates.

Educators now widely recognize the middle grade years, from the ages of 10 to 15, as a special, critical period of adolescent development. It is no secret that parents and educators alike know the middle grade years as a period of immense change and considerable turmoil.

Education writer Linda Perlstein, who wrote a book that followed five middle school students for a year, once half-joked that "The terrible 12s' are a complete analog to the terrible twos. They're just not as cute."

I was what you might call a late bloomer. I'm tall now and have played basketball all my life. But in middle school I sure didn't look like a forward or center. I was 5"2 as a freshman in high school. I was short. The girls were a lot more mature than us boys. And I have to admit I was pretty darn scared of the girl in my class, Hillary, who was a foot taller than me. Like everyone, I remember the awkwardness of the middle grades, the awkwardness of that first school dance.

Students in the middle grades are energetic and emotional. They are curious and creative. They are diverse—and we know they can be full of drama.

It's a time of great contrasts—your students are immature but are becoming more mature every day. They are independent. Yet they still depend on adults.

For the first time, your students are capable of self-reflection in a way that grade school students may not be. They are old enough to understand that life is supposed to get better with time. But they are not old enough to really believe that they are ever going to feel any differently than they do in the present moment.

As a target for school reform, the middle grades present the last, best opportunity for educators to reach all students—and not just those who persist and thrive in high school. That makes early adolescence a time of great promise and of great peril. It's the wonder years and worry years all wrapped up in one. As a parent with a daughter who just turned 10 last week, I have some sense of what we are in for.

Just as high-quality early childhood programs are vital to readying young children for elementary school, high-quality middle grade schooling is essential to readying young adolescents for high school, college, and careers.

The middle grade years have been called the "Bermuda Triangle" of K-12 education. It's the time when students seem to sink or swim. 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.

Fortunately, educators and school leaders know a lot more today about guiding young adolescents through the middle grades. 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, racking up a record of misbehavior and suspensions, and withdrawing from or posting poor grades in English Language Arts and Math.

These three warning flags underscore the importance of a simple yet often neglected idea: High-poverty middle schools should be setting up early warning systems to monitor telltale warning signs for dropping out. It's the new A, B, C of middle grade reform—Attendance, Behavior, and Classroom success.

Early warnings are a call to action to 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."

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."

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—including the work of Robert Balfanz, and 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 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 by Michael Kirst and his colleagues 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. They also surveyed the principal at each school, and more than 3,700 ELA and math teachers.

The primary 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."

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 clear disciplinary policies. Their school leaders had no tolerance for bullying, drugs, and weapons on campus. And they 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, 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."

EdSource's findings are echoed in large measure in AMLE's new survey of 101 highly successful middle schools. For example, the new AMLE survey found that the vast majority of school leaders at high-performing middle schools felt standardized testing had actually improved instructional delivery, enhanced curriculum rigor and clarity, and had a positive impact on student achievement.

I would add that the findings of these studies are very much in keeping with the policies and incentives the Obama administration has created in Race to the Top and our blueprint to reauthorize and fix ESEA, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

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

As all of you know, with Congress dead-locked, President Obama has decided to use his executive authority to give states regulatory relief and more flexibility from the No Child Left Behind law.

The law is fundamentally broken—and if Congress won't fix it, we will partner directly with states. I don't need to tell you that our schools and children need a law that does more to support teachers, students, and parents at the local level—not one that is so punitive and prescriptive, as it is today.

NCLB has frustrated teachers and principals alike by placing too much emphasis on a single standardized test on a single day.

By contrast, our waiver plan will let States make accountability decisions based on student growth and gain and progress, as well as other measures of school performance. States will consider so much more than a single test score measured against an arbitrary proficiency level. They will be able to look at how schools are serving their students and communities in areas like school climate, access to rigorous coursework, school attendance, and providing a well-rounded education.

The first set of states' applications for waivers will come to us on Monday—we look forward to being a much better partner with states than the federal government has been in the past.

I am excited that this new body of knowledge of what works to accelerate achievement and attainment is not confined to researchers but is being put to use in the classroom.

Our Investing in Innovation Fund, or i3 program, is supporting a number of wonderfully diverse, evidence-based programs with a focus on the middle grades.

The Denver Public Schools system, in partnership with a community-based organization, has launched the Collaborative Strategic Reading program. It uses a whole-school approach to boost achievement among English Language Learners and students with learning disabilities. The program is now in eight middle schools, serving more than 5,000 students.

Robert Balfanz and his center at Johns Hopkins will apply his Talent Development-Diplomas Now turnaround model at 60 persistently low-performing middle and high schools that serve 57,000 students in 14 districts.

That i3 program will use Balfanz's early warning indicator monitoring system—supplemented with interventions and after-school support, provided by great non-profits like City Year and Communities in Schools. Their goal is to reduce the number of middle school students sent to high school off-track, or behind grade level, by two-thirds. If they are successful, the number of dropouts will ultimately go down dramatically.

In addition to these i3 programs, I see this new, evidence-based consensus of what works to boost learning taking hold in districts and at the classroom level.

I see it in the St. Louis and Cape Girardeau Public Schools in Eastern Missouri, where Big Brother and Big Sisters have established the ABC Today program, supported with wraparound services for families and children. Their programs uses Balfanz's ABC formula and early warning system to regularly monitor attendance, behavior, and course performance for more than 500 students in 22 schools. Already, truancy, discipline referrals, and the number of students with a D or F in math or reading have all declined.

I see the new consensus taking hold at schools like Key Peninsula Middle School in Lakebay, Washington. It was the first NASA Explorer School in Washington State and has the highest poverty rate of any middle school in the district. But science teacher Kareen Borders has managed to make science both relevant and rigorous and fun and user-friendly.

Her students have designed experiments that have flown on sounding rockets in White Sands, New Mexico and were performed by astronauts on the International Space Station. Two eighth graders even presented their designs for a Lunar Wastewater Recycling System at the Kennedy Space Center. And not only have science scores shot up in her class, achievement gaps have narrowed. Kareen, could you please stand, so your colleagues can acknowledge your work?

I see this new consensus about what works taking hold at Urban Promise Academy in Oakland, California, where Urban Arts—an afterschool program—is providing enrichment in dance, music, and the arts, and individualized instruction that students don't always get during the day. Test scores and graduation rates are up. Suspensions and office referrals are down.

The new consensus doesn't surprise me. From the time I was born, I grew up in my mother's after-school tutoring program.

In the church basements on the South Side of Chicago where she ran her program, I learned firsthand that a high-quality tutoring program can be a good thing. But a high-quality tutoring program run by caring adults can change lives.

That is why it is troubling to me that AMLE's new survey of middle schools finds that almost half of middle schools in the nation do not have advisory programs. Early adolescents desperately need adult advocates and mentors in their schools—or too many children are going to fall through the cracks.

In my time left, I want to talk about some of the challenges that I see ahead for middle grades educators.

There is no question that middle grades reform is a tough balancing act. To accelerate learning, the middle grades must be engaging but exacting. They must be rigorous but relevant. And they must be content-rich, yet crafted for early adolescent learners.

Many aspects of middle grade reform are migrating down to the district level. In Chicago, we established an early warning indicators system district-wide for ninth graders.

Once we started tracking our data, we found that up to a third of entering high school freshmen were overage. And many students had given little thought and received little help in matching their interests to high school offerings.

So we established Achievement Academies in about 10 high schools modeled after the Johns 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 summer Freshman Connection program for rising ninth graders that 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 specific 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 real subject knowledge. Before long, our Board passed a policy that middle grade science and math openings had to be filled by teachers with an endorsement.

l also know we fell short of creating universally safe middle schools in Chicago. When students don't feel safe, it is hard to concentrate in class, let alone plan long-term for college.

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 it robbed too many of them both of their childhood and their future.

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 is our annual School Survey on Crime and Safety. It shows that middle schools actually report higher rates of violent crime, serious violent crime, bullying, and sexual harassment than even high schools. In fact, in most cases, the risk of violent crime is substantially higher in middle school than in high school.

Tragically, a subset of middle schools is extremely violent. In the 2007-08 school year, 40 percent of middle schools had 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 that renewed sense of urgency—both to make the middle grades safe, and to dramatically accelerate achievement for all young adolescents.

I know that budgets are brutal now for middle-class educators. It's tough out there—I see it everywhere I go. You're worried about layoffs. You're worried about losing the arts, and orchestra, dance electives, and after-school programs and activities that make school fun and safe—and make students want to come to school.

And you're worried that counselors and family liaison staff and librarians are going to be laid off, if they haven't been already. One teacher librarian for 1,500 students isn't enough to provide a world-class education in a knowledge-based economy.

I'm worried too. And that's one reason it is so vital that Congress pass President Obama's American Jobs Act.

It provides $60 billion for education—think of the difference it could make now. It would keep literally hundreds of thousands of teachers in the classroom, instead of on unemployment lines. And it would put hundreds of thousands of construction workers back on the job modernizing our schools, so you can teach students the 21st century skills they need to thrive in a global economy.

And yet, despite these real challenges, I hope that you will leave this convention with a tremendous sense of possibility.

It matters that we now know poverty doesn't have to be destiny in the classroom. And it matters that 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 absolutely making a difference in the lives of their students, even in the face of difficult circumstances.

Great teachers strive to help every student unlock his or her potential and develop the habits of mind that will serve them for a lifetime. They believe that every student has a gift—even when those students sometimes doubt themselves.

Years later, you will never forget the students you reached and whose lives you changed. Yes, the teachers that you remember are ones like Kareen Borders, who wanted you to solve problems like a scientist. But you, too, will teach students to write like a poet, see like an artist, and observe like a journalist.

To shape students, to develop their gifts is one of the richest rewards imaginable. Nothing is more fulfilling.

Your commitment to children, your collaboration with your colleagues, and your courage in tackling challenges outside your comfort zone are finally giving the middle grade years the attention they have long deserved. Working together, let's provide all children an opportunity to get the world-class education they deserve.