Forget the oft-debated issue of whether middle-schoolers are better off in a separate school or in a K-8 environment.
The real things that improve their test scores have more to do with educational practices than school structure, according to a major new study that examined middle grades in California.
The study, conducted by researchers at EdSource and Stanford University in California tried to get at the question of why some schools do so much better than others, despite similar student populations. And its findings reinforce some of the educational priorities of the Obama administration, which is pushing to make “college- and career-ready” standards the new hot item, and is advocating a much greater emphasis on teacher accountability and improved student performance.
“If you’re not on a college-ready track by 9th grade, your chances of getting on one are very low,” says Michael Kirst, an education professor at Stanford and a principal investigator on the study. “A strong theme here that comes out is the importance, at the middle-grades level, of early intervention and getting students back on track as soon as possible.”
Researchers looked at the concrete practices of more than 300 schools, some serving middle-income students and some serving lower-income students, to determine which ones led to higher test scores. They found a clear correlation between student performance and a school-wide focus on achievement, an emphasis on long-term educational success, a willingness to set measurable goals and evaluate educators based on student performance, and curriculum that’s aligned with high standards, among other practices.
On the other hand, they found no difference based on how schools were structured – grade configurations or trendy organizational philosophies such as advisory periods, small learning communities, or interdisciplinary classrooms.
“There’s been endless debate about middle-grade structures,” says Robert Balfanz, co-director of The Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Md., and of the Talent Development Middle and High School Project. Often, he says, educators believe a charismatic principal or intense instructional strategies are the only things that can raise the test scores for schools with poorer students. “This shows that these can be enablers, but in themselves they don’t change the world…. Unless you use them to put good practices in place, you’re not going to get big gains.”
So what are the practices that help? Using data and setting strong goals.
Holding adults accountable. Communicating with parents and expecting them to participate. Aligning instruction with state standards. Identifying at-risk students early and intervening to get them back on track.
When it comes to federal policy priorities, the findings underscore the importance of keeping the end goal of “college- or career-ready” in mind, as well the emphasis on good data systems and making student performance central to teacher and principal evaluations. But Professor Balfanz worries that too often the turnaround strategies promoted by federal policy emphasize dramatic structural changes such as replacing most of a school’s staff, without changing the more fundamental practices.
Professor Kirst and other researchers say that their findings are, in many ways, a cause for optimism: The demographics of a school don’t have to dictate its performance, and fairly simple changes in practices seem likely to improve test scores for poor children as well as middle-class ones.
“The things that tended to work, worked across [income lines],” says Kirst.
“It’s really not at all hopeless.”