Takeaways from the Middle School Matters Institute’s Summer Conference

Here are key points from the Middle School Matters conference that the George W. Bush Institute and the Meadows Center for Preventing Educational...

Here are key points from the Middle School Matters conference that the George W. Bush Institute and the Meadows Center for Preventing Educational Risk hosted last week on the University of Texas at Austin campus. The three-day meeting featured keynote addresses and breakout sessions, each of which were designed to help educators from participating schools best meet the needs of their students.

The conference featured an address by Margaret Spellings, president of the George W. Bush Presidential Center and former U.S. secretary of education. Spellings emphasized the value of high-quality research in guiding the work of these two organizations as they aim to improve middle grades. As she pointed out, the belief in research is so great that researchers from Johns Hopkins University are evaluating the Middle School Matters program to objectively measure its impact.

All strategies are not alike

Mark Dynarski, a Bush Institute consultant and president of Pemberton Research, kicked off the conference with a keynote address that highlighted the importance of research and evidence in guiding instruction. The theme was reiterated throughout several breakout sessions. Dynarski presented its value this way:

Teachers may think their strategies are sound, but what does the evidence say? In a field dominated by knowledge of a craft, evidence shows which practices work better than others.

Dynarski also pointed out that educators should look at whether a strategy can be replicated in many different contexts. That is called synthesized evidence, which is the type of evidence the Middle Schools Matter program uses in its strategies. Educators then can be more confident whether it could apply to their classroom.

What’s not reliable, he said, is hearsay. Simply saying, “Yeah, a friend mentioned that strategy to me,”  might or might not improve classroom instruction. Look instead at what findings from journals and public reports say. And make sure the study had a comparison group and other researchers or organizations have vetted it.

Of course, implementation matters immensely. Schools need to make sure their teachers don’t take the attitude, I like this part and I’m going to ditch the rest. Weak implementation, Dynarski concluded, undermines the potential gain solid research can produce.

Evidence Matters

Teaching needs to move from being craft-based to evidence-based. That was Robert Balfanz’s opening remark during one meeting of researchers and educators. A Johns Hopkins University research professor and Bush Institute fellow , Balfanz emphasized that a body of evidence is now being developed to improve middle schools.

During his keynote address, Balfanz pointed out three metrics that influence whether a middle school student will fail to graduate from high school:

Attendance: Less than 85 percent to 90 percent school attendance rate
Behavior: An unsatisfactory final mark in at least one course and/or two suspensions
Course work: A final grade of F in math or English

Unfortunately, sixth graders in a high-poverty environment with one or more of these indicators may have only a 15% to 25% chance of graduating high school on time, or within a year of being on time. On the other hand, if students meet these standards, even in a high poverty school, research shows they can graduate.

Balfanz explained that schools can help their students immensely by concentrating on these metrics. For example, middle grade teachers need to know how many students have a prior history of absenteeism. Or how many walk in at grade level. Or, sadly, how many are homeless or live in a foster home.

Once they know such facts, schools can develop early warning systems to keep a student from sliding. Moreover, educators need to regularly monitor the ABCs of absenteeism, behaviors and course work.

How data can drive research-based strategies

Several breakout sessions concentrated on how good data can help educators with their research- based instruction. As an example, data rooms within a school allow educators to keep track of student performance in a key subject. Schools that rely upon quality data understand that there is truth in the numbers, as Dixie Knight, vice president of operations for eMetric LLC, said during a workshop.

For one thing, reliable data shows when students have mastered particular skills. Conversely, it shows areas in which students need additional work or deeper instruction.

School districts especially need data to guide their decisions. It shows whether large numbers of their students are at-risk in a subject like math. If so, the district needs to work with campuses to provide the type of instruction that research shows can improve learning in that subject.

The Core Matters: Reading, Writing and Arithmetic

Workshops also focused on mastering the fundamentals of reading, writing and math. They concentrated on how research can guide effective instruction in these areas.

Deborah Reed of Florida State University led one workshop on reading research. She talked about how research-based practices can help students learn from academic texts. As an example, she stressed that making words vivid and returning to key terms during a lesson are critical to helping students acquire a strong vocabulary.

Tanya Santangelo of Arcadia University in Pennsylvania worked with teachers on helping their students become better writers. She concentrated on several research-backed practices that help students develop the knowledge, skills and strategies necessary for composing. She also highlighted strategies that enable students to use writing as a way to grasp the content of a course.

David Chard, dean of SMU’s Simmons School of Education and Human Development, urged educators to prioritize their math instruction. “Work on high power areas,” Chard said, emphasizing the importance of an area like rational numbers. That way a classroom teacher can go deeper into a core concept and help students who may lack requisite skills.

Marcia Barnes of the Meadows Center for Preventing Educational Risk at the University of Texas at Austin led a session about how educators can get children thinking beyond simple concepts. One counter-intuitive way is through testing. Tests actually can help students grasp material. Research shows that study/test/study works better than study/study/study.

The conference featured numerous other speakers, including Rosemary Perlmeter of the Teaching Trust. As she said in the conference’s final address, middle school leaders need to figure out which research-based practices matter most, which can yield the greatest growth for students and staff and which strategies can motivate their team to use them.

That is the middle school challenge. And that is why the right combination of research and leadership matters.