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Restating the Obvious

I was nosing around the Middleweb site when I stumbled over the new Ed Source paper, Gaining Ground in the Middle Grades: Why Some Schools Do Better. The press release said

The middle grades are crucial to success in high school and beyond and are often where students begin to lose ground.

I couldn't agree more. My research base is mired in personal experience, but I've never met a middle school teacher who doesn't share this concern and a sense of urgency as we see kids get caught up in a current of physical, social, and emotional riptides that pull them off course intellectually.

This report not only suggests we can do better, but helps to show us how.

Well, I've invested 22 years in middle school, so I wanted to know what they had found out. What I read was interesting, but not exactly groundbreaking. Had I missed something? I wondered what other stakeholders thought of this and went over to National Journal Education Experts to see what they had to say.

They all had a lot of opinions, but that was back in February. They've since moved on to solving other education problems; and, anyway, while I found their input interesting, it was all theoretical. None of them seemed to have any recent experience in an actual middle school filled with real live adolescents. Since I'm not a professional education pundit, just a professional education practitioner, I'm not invited to post a comment at the NJ/EE, so I thought I'd offer my insights here instead. The report said

Researchers found that the key distinguishing factor between higher-and lower-performing schools was an intense schoolwide focus on improving student academic outcomes. Other common practices among the higher-performing schools include setting measurable goals for improved outcomes on standards-based tests; a shared mission to prepare students academically for the future; and expecting students and parents to share the responsibility for student learning.

While intense struck me as a rather nebulous term, the part about schoolwide focus on improving academic outcomes seemed like good idea. If they had solid research that might be of value to me in my classroom or to my school improvement team, I figured it was worth digging deeper, so I spent the better part of an evening clicking through the executive summary, the narrative, and the full report. I wanted to know what backed up some of the key points from the press release. But the more I read, the more I wondered what specific new information could be derived from the research and the more questions I had about the findings.

"....setting measurable goals for improved outcomes on standards-based tests" seems to be a pretty simplistic measure of success. When tests are appropriately designed and used, they are important tools for measuring student progress and identifying strengths and gaps in student learning. They can be useful tools in setting goals for improvement and developing strategies to improve instruction, but they may give a partial or even distorted picture when used as a single measure to judge overall school performance. But this kind of data is quantifiable and it's cheap so it has become, however inaccurate, the measure of education quality and that's a discussion for another day. But whether or not test scores are a good or sufficient measure, you would be hard pressed to find any school where building supervisors and classroom teachers are not already fully aware of the primacy of improved test scores.

"....a shared mission to prepare students academically for the future" could mean different things to different people. After reading the entire report, it would appear that the "future success" referred to is high school exit exams and college acceptance. I have great misgivings about measuring middle school success by high school success and high school success by college admission. "College for all" may have a nice ring, but should we achieve this dubious goal, we would have to address the reality that we do not have college seats for all, that we do not have systems in place to fund college for all, and that we do not have college graduate level jobs available for all.

"....expecting students and parents to share the responsibility for student learning" got my attention. Lately it seems all the accountability for public school success has been placed on the backs of school site administrators and teachers, and since adolescents are human beings with ideas and motivations of their own and since teachers sometimes have lives and children of their own, it'd be great to have kids and their parents join us in taking responsibility. As I got deeper into the research I found that some of the common characteristics of high performing schools included extended days, strict disciplinary policies and homework contracts for students and involvement contracts for parents.

Oh... Well. Okay. Those are great ideas in theory, but it's less than clear how they can be put into action universally. Let's look at some of these suggestions:

Extended days might be a good idea, but there is great deal of variation in length of the school day around the country. What length day will serve as the standard from which the day is extended? Can the return on investment be reduced to a ratio of student test performance per minute or hour? Is there a cost effectiveness study for extended building use, additional instructional staff compensation, and additional materials? Would a middle school that met 24/7/12 be the ultimate model of high performance? Who will pick up the tab for that?

Strict disciplinary policies are a wonderful idea in theory, but anyone who has worked in a public school knows that strict disciplinary policies can be arbitrary and punitive because they allow no space for the lapses of judgment that define early adolescence, and they allow no human discretion on the part of adults in charge. Most people think that zero tolerance is a great idea for someone else's child, but they tend to find such rules unreasonable when their own kid makes an isolated bad decision. Besides, we are legally and ethically expected to provide a free public education to all students. The research does not provide best practice information on how to achieve strict discipline without displacing students. While zero tolerance disciplinary practices may improve school test score outcomes, it does little to address individual student outcomes. If high performing schools enforce strict disciplinary policies, what happens to students who are a disciplinary challenge? Are they kicked out, transferred out, or do they drop out?

Student and parent contracts are a great shared ownership concept. Although the research results are still out about whether homework actually improves student performance, it's a strategy worth pursuing if the homework is valid and the contract is enforceable. Unfortunately, the report did not define how much, how often, what kind, or to what purpose homework should be given. Nor did it address what consequences would be incurred upon breaking the contract.

Parent involvement contracts were undefined as well, but many enrollment-by-choice schools set expectations for parents to attend meetings and events, provide uniforms, actively support homework, and volunteer in school activities. A school where parents agree to a contract excludes many of the highest need students by design; passing them off to a school where students are not screened and chosen based on their family's willingness or ability to be active partners in the education of a child. Far too often, the expectations are reversed. Rather than establishing school related responsibilities for parents, schools find themselves taking on responsibility for parental roles such as supervised study, after school enrichment, proper nutrition, and basic health care. If student and parent contracts are a strategy for improving student performance, who will enforce them? And if every school has them, where will students go when contracts are broken?

The middle grades are crucial to success in high school and beyond and are often where students begin to lose ground.

While it was interesting to search for documented evidence of what works in middle school, the authors might have considered just asking middle school teachers. Almost any proficient professional middle school educator could have saved you a lot of work and a lot of money. We already have a pretty good idea of what works, but school gets messy because ours is not an experimental model. School research at the school and classroom level has as many variables as it has students; and our outliers are not research distractions to be dismissed, they are children who must be helped.

I saw in the acknowledgments that teachers did give feedback, piloted the survey, and served in a focus group. That's nice, but I can't help but notice that this was all reactive input. I challenge you to come over and let us show you what it looks like as we try to work this out for every child under circumstances over which we little control.

In your acknowledgments, you express appreciation to

The members of the middle grades research team for their wisdom, knowledge and skill, dedication and perseverance, and good humor during the 18 months of this project.

With all due respect, next time, rather than viewing schools and teachers as research sites and subjects, how about spending 18 months in our schools as research partners? There are many of us in classrooms who have been contributing wisdom, knowledge, skill, dedication, perseverance and good humor to middle school education for 18 years. We have a lot to offer and a lot of skin in the game. If you are serious about what works, partner with us rather than analyze and quarterback from the sidelines.

The final statement in the report begins

A special expression of gratitude goes from EdSource to Reed Hastings, CEO of Netflix, Inc., for his confidence in our work and his financial support.....

"Confidence in our work and financial support" is really helpful. Those of us out on the front lines of education could use a little of that as well.

It's been missing lately.

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