A Middle-ing Approach to School Improvement

In the current era of school improvement, student achievement, and innovation, the points of conversation often jump from what we do in the elementary school grades to what is happening in our high schools.  The reasons for this are fairly obvious.  We believe that all children are entering the elementary grades on relatively equal footing (an urban legend, I’ll give you, but many actually believe it).  That’s why we start the student assessment process in the early grades.  As for high schools, that’s where the money and the attention rests.  Gates is funneling billions of dollars into high schools, and graduation rates, drop-out factories, and the like have become a common yardstick for measuring the outcomes of our K-12 experience.

Often lost is the discussion is the middle grades.  That’s no surprise.  There is no national start and stop to a middle school.  Middle school can begin anywhere between fourth and seventh grade.  It can end anywhere from seventh through ninth grade.  With such overlaps into both elementary and secondary schools, middle schools are often left as the monkey in the middle, a necessary, but often overlooked, connector in the P-12 education continuum.
Unfortunately, much of what ails our public education system is rooted in what is happening during our middle grades.  AYP and the growing achievement gaps are usually being documented once students hit middle school, when we first see the failures of effective math and reading instruction in the early grades.  Students begin falling behind in subjects like science and social studies because they lack the core skills they should enter middle school with in the first place.  Those beloved student scores on state assessments start taking hold in the middle grades, when it is often too late to reverse the downward trend.
We also forget that the middle grades determine the success or failure of the high school experience.  Tenth graders are not sitting their agonizing whether they will complete school or drop out.  The vast majority of high school drop-out decisions are made by middle schoolers, determined between that eight and ninth grade year.  And that decision is based, largely, on how one performs, how one engages, and how one experiences educational relevance during those middle grades.  The middle years are about academic achievement, but they are also about motivation, about character development, and about showing every student — particularly those students from traditionally disadvantaged groups that have been given up on well before they enter high school.
What does all this tell us?  MIddle school isn’t just the passthrough of the continuum.  In many ways, it is an essential linchpin.  It is the road marker measuring the success of our elementary school experiences.  And it is the road map that determines secondary and postsecondary opportunities, particularly for those students who may not see the value of their educational experience.
Which is why the recent developments in Alexandria, Virginia are so interesting.  For those outside the DC area, Alexandria is one of many suburbs to our nation’s capital.  Alexandria often gets lost in the regional education discussions.  DCPS is the focal point.  Fairfax (VA) is the big boy.  Arlington (VA) is diversity.  Montgomery County (MD) is the innovator.  And Prince Georges County (MD) is the problem child.  Districts like Alexandria often get overlooked in the mix, as they lack the size or the depth of problems of some of their neighbors.
This week, Alexandria Schools Superintendent Morton Sherman announced his plans to revamp the middle grades.  The proclamation received minor mention in The Washington Post, but hasn’t yet gotten the attention or the discussion it probably requires.  Alexandria’s middle schools have failed to hit federal benchmarks, not too uncommon of urban or suburban middle schools around the country.  Alexandria’s drop-out rate is among the highest in the DC region (though not the highest to garner screamer headlines in the Post).  So Sherman has put two and two together and actually gotten four, realizing that addressing his middle school performance problems will have a direct impact on issues in the latter grades.
What is Alexandria looking to do?  It wants to break its middle schools up into smaller schools with greater autonomy and opportunities.  It wants to extend some elementary schools from K-6 to K-8.  And it wants to introduce International Baccalaureate offerings across the district.
In laying out this plan, Sherman is addressing the granddaddies of school improvement issues — school leadership, school structure, academic options, and improved rigor.  At face value, this isn’t about re-arranging some of the deck chairs in Alexandria Public Schools.  This is about putting middle schoolers on a completely different boat.
Will it work?  Eduflack readers know that intentions aren’t even worth the recycled paper they are printed on.  The name of the game is results.  What specifically will be done?  Will teachers and principals and parents buy into the reforms?  Will we hold educators accountable, both with carrot and stick?  And most importantly, how will we define success?
But Alexandria and Sherman are on the right track.  Middle schools are the often unmentioned problem in our public education family.  High school drop-out problems can be attributed to the middle grades.  Achievement gap issues can be attributed to the middle grades.  Even issues of equity and opportunity start in the middle grades (since we like to believe all little first graders are equal in both access and opportunity).   
It also provides us something to think about when we start building Innovation Fund and Race to the Top grant applications.  How are our struggling school districts addressing the middle school crisis?  Are they offering potential solutions, as Alexandria attempts, or will they gloss over the issue, making the jump from elementary building blocks to secondary school pathways and graduation numbers?  Innovations in middle grades education should be a non-negotiable for our future school improvement efforts.  Without it, we lose many of the benefits of elementary school improvements, while denying far too many the full opportunities of an improved secondary school experience.

150 thoughts on “A Middle-ing Approach to School Improvement

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