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Doing What's Best for the Middle Grades

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By William D. Waidelich, executive director of the Association for Middle Level Education

Between the ages of 10 and 15, we experience some of the most rapid and dramatic physical, social, emotional, and intellectual changes in our lifetimes, second only to the period between birth and age 3. At this time in our lives, we also are faced with significant opportunities and challenges, including the onset of puberty, the shift in thinking from concrete to abstract, exposure to alcohol and drugs, dealing with bullying, and simply trying to fit in. As current research shows, this also is the time when educators can clearly see signs that a student may not graduate (see Putting Middle Grades Students on the Graduation Path: A Policy and Practice Brief, Balfanz, 2009).

Students in grades 5 through 8 are housed in a wide variety of schools by name and by structure: middle school, junior high, intermediate school, K-8, K-12, 7-12, 5-8, 6-8, 7-8. For decades, and continuing today, the question has been, "What is the best grade configuration for these students?" The reality is that many factors play into school structures, including funding, available facilities, and community expectations. School districts consider changing grade configurations as a means to fix problems or affect student achievement. Over the past several decades districts have considered changing from middle schools to K-8s, from K-8s to middle schools, adding fifth grade, removing fifth grade, and the list goes on.

When the Association for Middle Level Education (AMLE), formerly National Middle School Association, is asked which grade configuration works best, we always respond that it's not about buildings or grade configurations; it's about providing educational programs and practices that meet the unique needs of young adolescents wherever they are (for more information, see www.amle.org/gradeconfig). Student success is not about the building but about being developmentally responsive with respect to this unique age group and having educators who understand them and are prepared to engage and motivate them. Let's take some time to refocus on the real questions and concerns in the middle grades.

The recent study by C. Kenneth McEwin and Melanie Green, The Status of Programs and Practices in America's Middle Schools: Results from Two National Studies, demonstrates that when middle grades educators follow the research-based practices identified in This We Believe: Keys to Educating Young Adolescents, the students are more successful than students in schools that do not follow these practices. The four essential attributes and 16 characteristics of successful middle grades schools, when implemented in concert, provide young adolescents with the best environment for learning.

These are just a few of the important considerations for all schools that reach and teach young adolescents.

• Schools must have highly trained staff that value young adolescents.
• Schools must have organizational structures that foster purposeful learning and meaningful relationships.
• The school environment must be inviting, safe, inclusive, and supportive of all students.
• School staff must foster school-home and school-community connections.
• Students must be engaged in challenging, exploratory, integrative, and relevant curriculum.
• Schools must offer ongoing professional development for faculty and staff.
• Schools must provide varied and ongoing assessments that advance learning as well as measure it.

There are a wealth of programs and practices research has shown to be best for the education of young adolescents.

We challenge school leaders to take the time now to identify and put into action proven middle grades programs and practices to ensure the success of each and every student.


Views expressed in this post are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the endorsement of the Learning First Alliance or any of its members.

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