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Lessons Learned from the Middle School Initiative

Six years into the project, we have produced an in-depth look at what we have learned.

Article by Anne Wicks February 2, 2017 //   4 minute read

The George W. Bush Institute began the Middle School Matters (MSM) initiative in 2010 with the goal of increasing the number of students who are prepared for high school and post-secondary success. The middle grade years are the last best chance to get students ready for success both in high school and beyond, but these grades are often overlooked in both research and resources

The MSM initiative takes on this challenge by turning high-quality research into strategies for districts, schools, and teachers to improve reading, writing, and math instruction. The initiative also helps educators better use data to identify students at-risk of dropping out.

Six years into this project, we have produced an in-depth look at what we have learned. Lessons Learned from the Middle School Initiative shares what we know about creating and implementing this unique program.

Among the lessons are these four key discoveries:

  • Connecting educators and researchers improves everyone’s practice. Educators and academic researchers are not frequent collaborators, and it can be difficult for educators to know if an instructional strategy or intervention is based in rigorous research.

    MSM deliberately and successfully connected the two groups to build the MSM Field Guide and tools. “A lot of models of school reform are hatched by people based on an intuitive sense of what will work with kids,” says Bush Institute Fellow Mark Dynarski. “In our early MSM discussions, the group was strongly oriented to using as much evidence of effectiveness as we could bring to bear on the issue.”
  • Most teachers welcome opportunities to learn about and master research-based strategies. They want to improve outcomes for students, especially when they can learn directly from experts who can model these strategies. As one principal put it, “We are now hearing teachers soliciting feedback. That has been the shining star for the year – for teachers to offer help and accept help from colleagues.”
  • Implementing these strategies does not come easily, but they can produce positive results with sustained effort and support of teachers over time. “We don’t expect our students to be able to master something after we teach a concept to them once,” one MSM teacher shared. “As teachers, we learn the same way.” A school leader added, “Professional development without follow-up is malpractice.”
  • It is just as important to design the implementation of an intervention as carefully as the design of the intervention itself. Schools and districts are complex environments, and implementation of new practices is often difficult and success is limited.

The field of implementation science can help, but education does not always take advantage of its findings. For example, less is often more. The most successful MSM schools focused on implementing two or three strategies in the MSM Field Guide in a given year instead of six or more. And, it was important for teachers to stop using unproven techniques in order to make the time to repeatedly implement the new research-based MSM strategies.

Of course, we have learned many other valuable lessons, but this much is clear: The middle grade years will remain pivotal for students who face academic and personal challenges during this trying period of their lives. Schools can best help them with classroom practices that quality research shows can prepare them for high school and beyond.