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Getting Unstuck in the Middle: Implementation and Evaluation Focuses of the Middle School Matters Program

Article by Catherine Freeman August 13, 2013 //   5 minute read

Middle School Matters (MSM) is one of the Education Reform initiatives of the George W. Bush Institute. Its rationale is based on abundant research evidence showing how much middle grade experiences fundamentally impact the future success of students.  Yet being wedged between the elementary grades, where younger children naturally command greater attention from adults, and high school, where adolescents exit the school system (hopefully with diplomas and postsecondary opportunities), the operations and contributions of the middle grades (grades 6-8) are often overlooked. 

To address the special needs of today’s middle grades, the goal of MSM is providing educators and school leaders with knowledge and technical assistance to improve schools’ effectiveness and raise student achievement.  Its underlying assumption is that readiness to graduate high school and succeed in postsecondary education needs to be developed before, not during, the high school years.  Students who enter ninth grade with significant proficiency gaps in reading comprehension, writing, science or math face a severe uphill climb to complete the advanced coursework they need to graduate and continue their education.  For those who struggle in the middle grades, the likelihood of dropping out of high school increases substantially. 

The MSM program is being implemented in three “tiers.”  Each tier progressively involves increased intervention intensity and thus, different focuses and measures for my Johns Hopkins University evaluation team.  Tier I, initiated last spring, provides broad technical assistance to middle schools across the country by establishing a free-access “Middle School Matters website” hosted by the Meadows Center for Preventing Educational Risk (MCPER).  The website includes research evidence, checklists of best practices, practical tools developed by MSM Platform researchers, and a MSM Implementation Readiness Assessment.  Our evaluation interests here are the degree to which the MSM website and associated resources have been developed as planned and actually used and valued by practitioners.  Primary evaluation data consists of third-party review of the quality of materials, frequency counts and profiles of visitors to the website, and perceptions by representative users of the utility of different resources. 

Tier 2, initiated this summer, offers a select group of diverse and committed schools (specifically, eight out of 44 applicants) more direct technical assistance through a summer institute, webinars and other adaptive support grounded in the work of the MSM Platform. Our evaluation study focuses on what the eight school teams learned from their participation and their plans for applying MSM resources and “research-based” practices.  Initial survey and focus group data from the summer institute were extremely positive, suggesting as an overall outcome, “…renewed confidence and commitment among many participants that they can use research-based strategies at their schools to improve student achievement.” 

Tier 3, to begin in fall 2013, will determine how well they actually can.  Specifically, it will engage three Tier 2 schools in more direct professional development and technical assistance targeted around the MSM Platform.  Here, the expectations and accountability stakes will be much higher than in lower tiers given defined benchmarks for student growth in mathematics, reading and attendance.  Our evaluation team will begin collecting schools’ baseline ABC (Attendance, Behavior, Course grades) data, and then, throughout the year and longitudinally, analyze data from school visits, surveys, focus groups and state assessments. 

The middle grades clearly do matter.  But can we make them better in timely ways by providing research-based tools, resources and technical assistance in performance management, leadership, teaching effectiveness, drop-out prevention and other key areas?   Through the MSM initiative and associated evaluation studies, we expect to determine and disseminate relevant strategies for improving middle schools both broadly (Tier 1) and selectively (Tiers 2 and 3). 

Catherine Freeman is the Director of Evaluation and Research at the George W. Bush Institute.