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Roundup from the Middle School Matters Fall Summit

October 24, 2014 by The Bush Institute

The Bush Institute hosted its fall Middle School Matters summit in Dallas this week, with 170 educators from 11 school districts participating in the two-day meeting. Here are some takeaways from the gathering, which featured presentations by leading researchers, workshops involving teachers and a special appearance by former First Lady Laura Bush.

Research is not just for researchers

The Middle School Matters program focuses on strategies that research shows have worked in classrooms and improving student achievement in the middle grade years. In a luncheon speech, David Chard, dean of SMU’s Simmons School of Education and Human Development, explained that research is simply a way of organizing thinking about a subject and effectively answering questions about how a practice works, under what conditions, how well it works and when it does not work.

Once those answers are clear, and research shows how a practice has been applied in a variety of contexts, teachers can apply them to their work with confidence. Educators also need to avoid common traps. According to Chard, those traps include picking and choosing what feels right, believing all you hear and not fully implementing a proven strategy.

Bottom line: Proven research can pay off for teachers. As the conference closed, one middle school educator acknowledged that “It is easy to feel defeated.” But, she added, “this research is affirming.”

Easy goals are boring

Sharon Vaughn, a University of Texas at Austin professor and Bush Institute Middle School Matters fellow, encouraged the educators in her keynote remarks to set high goals. It’s tempting to lower them, but students disengage when a subject is too easy. “Most kids want you to dare them to learn,” said Vaughn, executive director of the Meadows Center for Preventing Educational Risk. (The Meadows Center leads professional development and provides technical assistance for the Middle School Matters initiative.)

Practice may not make perfect, but it can make students proficient

Practice does lead to proficiency, Vaughn emphasized. That’s why universal practices such as identifying key words, teaching at least two of them a day and reviewing students’ grasp of them is so important.

Likewise, Vaughn said, instructing students to ask and answer questions while they read is a key way to monitor their comprehension and learning. Ask “what if?” and “why did?” questions, Vaughn encouraged the educators.

You can’t turn learning on in ninth grade

Robert Balfanz, a  Johns Hopkins University professor and Middle School Matters fellow, said in his opening presentation that academic gaps start well before ninth grade. Schools can’t just suddenly catch students up in high school.

By middle school, Balfanz reported, educators already see academic gaps as well as persistence gaps. Students may not only be behind in core subjects, they may lack motivation, the ability to regulate their behaviors and the skills to engage socially.

Yet there is hope. As Balfanz discussed, proven strategies can make up the differences. As one example, middle schools need to use data in a way that shows them which of their entering sixth graders are behind in precisely what areas of reading and math.

Yes, middle schools do matter

Balfanz shared data that dramatically makes the point about the importance of middle schools. According to those who administer the ACT, he said, 8th grade test scores are more predictive of college success than high school scores.

In other words, middle schools do matter.

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