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Middle School Matters … “If we are being honest”

June 20, 2013 by Kerri L. Briggs

If we are being honest – many of us want to forget the middle grades! These years were filled with some confusing times for us as kids, and for many educators, these not-yet-adults-but-still-not-kids need a lot of specific assistance. However, research gives us insights into these years that can shape the path of these students in profound ways.

Dr. Robert Balfanz with the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University has powerful data explaining why the middle grades are a critical pathway towards high school completion, and post-secondary success. Sixth-grade students in high poverty environments who have poor attendance, an ‘unsatisfactory’ behavior mark in one or more classes, or a grade of “F” in mathematics or English have only a 15-25% chance of graduating from high school. This is a powerful finding – it is also one that educators can act upon. These warning flags should generate a series of interventions and responses, if one knows to look for these warning signs and if one knows how to respond.  Many schools, if we are being honest, do not collect the data in a way where you can find these struggling students in a timely fashion or we just don’t know how to respond.

That notion – establishing a culture of success, identifying students who are off-track for graduation, and implementing research-based interventions – was the topic of a three-day meeting the Bush Center hosted for educators from eight schools. With our major partner (the Meadows Center for Preventing Educational Risk, MCPER), this Middle School Matters Institute involved researchers from across the country – Sharon Vaughn, Robert Balfanz, Steve Graham, Mark Dynarski – and educators from one Pennsylvania and seven Texas schools.  These schools are:Alpine Middle School of Alpine, Texas;

  • Lindale Junior High School of Lindale, Texas;
  • Agnew Middle School of Mesquite, Texas;
  • Martin Middle School of Corpus Christi, Texas;
  • Revere Middle School of Houston, Texas;
  • Ann Richards Middle School of Dallas, Texas; 
  • Uplift Mighty Preparatory of Fort Worth, Texas; and
  • Roosevelt Middle School of Erie, Pennsylvania.

We hoped to design a learning opportunity that was not your “average edu-conference.” You know the ones … hour after hour of lecture, with lots of ideas, and perhaps some moments of inspiration but no connection to the daily reality of schools. During these three days, each school heard keynote presentations from select researchers, attended breakout sessions, and spent devoted time thinking through the research and analyzing their current practice to determine what was working and what wasn’t in order to plan for next school year. As I sat through these planning sessions – it was encouraging to hear educators lead with … “If I’m being honest, we …”

Each school is leaving this Institute with a specific plan for improving Reading, or Writing, or Advanced Reasoning, or any one of eight topics – based on what they have prioritized for their students. Over the next few months, these leadership teams will continue to think through the research, data, and their students to refine these plans. And, beginning with the 2013-14 school year, MCPER will be offering targeted support to implement these plans.  

These schools collectively work with 5,286 students in any given year. We know the path towards improving practice and reaching students early and successfully takes dedicated and persistent efforts. But, if we are being honest, to do anything less is to ignore research showing just how critical these middle grades are.