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The Bush Institute Talks with Robert Balfanz about Why Middle Schools Matter

Article by The Bush Institute June 19, 2014 //   6 minute read

Robert Balfanz is a Bush Institute education fellow, where he is part of the team working on the Middle School Matters program.   A research professor at Johns Hopkins University, Balfanz has been a leading voice on improving secondary education across the country. He will speak this week as part of the Middle Schools Matter conference that the George W. Bush Institute and the Meadows Center for Preventing Educational Risk is hosting at the University of Texas at Austin.

In this interview, Balfanz discusses how middle schools can identify students on the path to dropping out of school by 12th grade. He also explains why interventions that are based in research are so important to keeping students on track to graduation.  And he talks about the serious challenges that students in poverty face.

Middle schools matter for this simple, but important reason: If they can keep their students learning at grade level, they increase the odds that their students eventually will graduate from high school.

You wrote recently in a New York Times essay about a group of high schools you had studied. You concluded: “It is possible to identify by the middle of ninth grade virtually everyone who will drop out.”  At one level, that’s an encouraging statement, but how can schools identify students who are on the road to dropping out? That doesn’t sound easy.

The students are essentially self-identifying. We just have not been paying attention to the signals.

We have learned it’s all about tracking the ABCs - their attendance, behavior (which includes effort) and course work.  Students who are chronically absent - missing 10% or more of school, engaging in sustained even mild misbehavior, or failing their course are signaling that they are not succeeding in or disengaging from school.  

The good news is that schools routinely collect all this data. In fact, it is part of the very fabric of the school day: checking attendance, writing up behavioral incidents, and marking grades. The challenging part is their data systems are not set up to allow teachers and administrators to aggregate and analyze the data they routinely collect. But that is a solvable problem.

You brought up data. Do schools generally have enough real-time data to intervene with struggling students? If not, what needs to improve?

The schools have the data but it’s typically not organized in a manner which is useful or available in a timely manner. The technological tools to do this exist. The bigger challenge is the social organization of the adults to create intervention and prevention systems driven by access to pertinent data in timely manners.

In short, training, facilitation, leadership, shifts in job responsibilities, and time in the school day are needed to enable the adults in the school building to be organized in a manner to get access to real time data and use it strategically.

What interventions work best for struggling middle schoolers? And what interventions don't really work?

The best intervention strategy is to both pro-actively teach middle-grade students the academic and non-academic skills they need to succeed with challenging course material, while stressing the importance of good grades.  This means having evidence-based reading, writing, and mathematics interventions when students enter sixth grade with below-grade level skills.  It also means teaching them how to organize their work, regulate their emotions, manage their tasks, set goals, and ask for help when they need it. 

Even with these supports, some students will need more.  In this case, the adults in the school need to be organized to reach out to the student, form a supportive relationship, and then use it to help solve the underlying problem and/or alter a problematic behavior or identify someone who can. 

What does not work? It’s on you to figure it out, follow the rules, and do what- is-called-for approach.  This ignores the realities that in particular students who live in poverty face real challenges and barriers to getting to school every day, staying focused in class, and getting their work done.

You have noted that teaching has been seen as a craft, but now should be evidence-based. Thinking here about middle schools, why should schools and educators understand research-based instruction and strategies?  

The power of evidence-based strategies is that they have been shown to work and to be more effective than common practice alternatives. In short, educators can have confidence that they will lead to positive outcomes and will be more productive than some of our customary methods. 

The core idea of evidence-based practice is that it has been systematically tested to see if it is effective and compared to alternatives. This is different than common or even best practices which are employed because they seem to make sense or someone who has used them has seen their students do better. 

The problem is if we don't systematically test the strategy we don't know if the apparent improvement is related to some characteristic of the students or teacher and not the strategy.  So, it would be very easy to copy the wrong thing.  

With an evidence-based strategy, there are much higher odds that that it is the strategy and not the person teaching it or the students learning it that matters.