Dr. Rodriguez has completed a report on the potential of moving 6th grade to the middle school, which is now posted on the district homepage (as are the appendices referenced in this report). For ease of my blog readers, I'm also posting the report here.
This feasibility study/position paper is intended to inform the School Committees on an upcoming policy decision on whether to move the 6th grade students to the Amherst Regional Middle School. The School Committees’ desire to make decisions and have policy grounded on data driven, research-based facts is the driving engine behind this report. The report is comprised of several key components concluding with the Superintendent's educational recommendation in order to educate and inform the Committees in their decision.
The report is comprised of the following parts:
* A brief review of the history of middle grades education and its transition from junior high school to middle school;
* A cursory literature review of successful middle school "best practices" supported by such influential authors, works and/or groups, such as the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) and its seminal work Breaking Ranks in the Middle: Strategies for Leading Middle Level Reform (2006); the Education Alliance at Brown University under Ted Sizer and its Secondary School Reform (SSR) program; Turning Points 2000 and its study guide with Teachers College Press; the National Middle School Association (NMSA) with its companion This We Believe and "Schools to Watch" criteria, as well as, a position paper jointly adopted by the NMSA and the National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP); Focus on the Wonder Years: Challenges Facing the American Middle School (2004), funded by the Rand Corporation; conversations held at the National Forum to Accelerate Middle Grades Reform; selected remarks by M. Hayes Mizell in Shooting for the Sun: The Message of Middle School Reform (2002), funded by the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation; selected remarks by noted middle school expert, Joan Lipsitz;
* A brief discussion on different models, studies, and articles; and,
* The Superintendent's position and recommendation as to the educational imperative of whether to move the 6th grade students to the Amherst Regional Middle School.
A Brief History of Middle Grades Education
Many years ago, schooling rarely lasted beyond what we now refer to as the middle grades, and there are good reasons why. The onset of what we now call adolescence signaled adulthood. Historically, it was the age when youngsters went to sea, joined their fathers and mothers in the mines and fields and factories, and underwent the rites of passage into adulthood. Much of what characterizes middle grades education grew from a desire to offer the vast masses the intellectual skills and knowledge that a favored elite alone possessed. An attempt to achieve fairness helped lead us down a false path. We have extended childhood, but we haven’t figured out just what to do with it (Sizer & Meier, 2006).
By 1900, the predominant school configuration in the United States consisted of eight years of primary school and four years of secondary school. Due to societal pressures, such as increased immigration which burdened primary school enrollment in cities, rapid industrialization and the need to prepare a better-educated workforce for the factories and the demand from college presidents to start college prep courses before 9th grade (Eliot, 1898, as cited in Brough, 1995), the “Eight-Four” model was changed to the “Six-Six” grade configuration.
Although the National Education Association (NEA) published a report in 1899 arguing for secondary education to begin in 7th instead of 9th grade, historians such as Beane (2001) and Cuban (1992) contend that societal and political pressures had the greatest influence on the creation of the junior high school. In spite of the efforts of junior high schools to serve the needs of the rapidly changing society, only about one-third of students in public schools made it to 9th grade between 1907 and 1911 (Van Til, Vars & Lounsbury, 1961).
In spite of the apparent failure of the new junior high schools, there was a sixfold increase in their number between 1922 and 1938 (Bossing & Cramer, 1965). Alexander and George (1981) attribute this rise partly to generally increasing enrollments following World War I. Dissatisfaction mounted in the 1960s as it became clear the junior high was nothing but a “little senior high.” At the same time, secondary school enrollments were declining, and elementary school enrollments, in contrast, were expanding both because of larger birth cohorts and the increasing popularity of early childhood education and kindergartens (Wonder Years, 2004). According to Alexander (1984), the resulting shortage of space at the elementary level caused the 6th grade to be pushed out into the junior high level (Wonder Years, 2004). Thus, enrollment pressures and larger societal issues were important in shaping the formation of middle schools for grades 6-8 from the beginning of the 1900s through the 1960s (2004).
Alexander and George (1981), in their seminal work, The Exemplary Middle School, presented a new middle school concept stating that middle school children have their unique characteristics and needs which cannot be subordinated to the impact of the elementary school nor to the demands of the high school. The middle school should not be viewed as an educational “passive link” (Wonder Years, 2004).
Spurred by the findings of the 1980s, the Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development presented a different kind of vision with its 1989 report, Turning Points: Preparing American Youth for the 21st Century. Using the conceptual model of a mismatch between the developmental stage and environment, the Council presented ways to bridge the gap or facilitate matching adolescents’ needs, capabilities, and learning environments (Carnegie, 1989, p. 32).
The Council made eight recommendations for improving education during the middle grades:
1. Dividing larger middle schools into smaller communities of learning
2. Teaching all students a core of common knowledge
3. Ensuring success for all students
4. Empowering teachers and administrators
5. Preparing teachers for the middle grades
6. Improving academic performance through better health and fitness
7. Re-engaging families in the education of young adolescents
8. Connecting schools with communities (Wonder Years, 2004)
In the 1990s, developmental responsiveness stressed students’ social-emotional needs over cognitive demands. This school of thought emphasized closer teacher-student relationships and making the middle school feel more personal (Lipsitz, Jackson & Austin, 1997). However, there has been a growing consensus that in spite of the correlation between the feelings of “connectedness” and higher academic performance (Goodenow, 1993), changes in the social climate alone are not sufficient to improve student achievement (Lipsitz, Mizell, et. al., 1997; Williamson & Johnston, 1999). Since 1982, the National Middle School Association (NMSA) published a series of position papers called This We Believe. The NMSA (1995) identified six prerequisites for developmentally responsive schools:
1. Educators committed to young adolescents
2. A shared vision
3. High expectations for all
4. An adult advocate for every student
5. Family-community partnerships
6. A positive school climate
The NMSA (1995) further identified six components that need to be implemented for schools to be developmentally responsive:
1. Curriculum that is challenging, integrative, and exploratory
2. Varied teaching and learning approaches
3. Assessment and evaluation that promote learning
4. Flexible organizational structures
5. Program and policies that foster health, wellness, and safety
6. Comprehensive guidance and support services
In recent debates and research findings regarding whether middle schools should stress students’ developmental needs over academic rigor, Lee and Smith (1999) suggest that students do best in educational settings that provide social support and emphasize academic rigor.
The historical review just presented shows that many of today’s concerns about young teens are the same as those of 100 years ago. However, the solutions that have been proffered over the years have often been more closely related to societal/economic pressures or practical issues such as overcrowding in school buildings (Wonder Years, 2004).
Literature Review of Successful Middle School “Best Practices”
Scholars, educators, administrators and policy makers have long anguished over the conflict of “where do you begin?” School culture? School structures? Instruction? Breaking Ranks gleaned from the experiences of schools 30 recommendations which formulated the following Nine Cornerstone Strategies:
1. Establish the academically rigorous essential learnings that a student is required to master in order to successfully make the transition to high school and align the curriculum and teaching strategies to realize that goal;
2. Create dynamic teacher teams that are afforded common planning time to help organize and improve the quality and quantity of interactions between teachers and student;
3. Provide structured planning time for teachers to align the curriculum across grades and schools and to map efforts that address the academic, developmental, social, and personal needs of students, especially at critical transition periods (e.g., elementary to middle grades, middle grades to high school);
4. Implement a comprehensive advisory or other program that ensures that each student has frequent and meaningful opportunities to meet with an adult to plan and assess the student’s academic, personal, and social development;
5. Ensure that teachers assess the individual learning needs of students and tailor instructional strategies and multiple assessments accordingly;
6. Entrust teachers with the responsibility of implementing schedules that are flexible enough to accommodate teaching strategies consistent with the ways students learn most effectively and that allow for effective teacher teaming, common planning time, and other lesson planning;
7. Institute structural leadership systems that allow for substantive involvement in decision making by students, teachers, family members, and the community, and that support effective communication among these groups;
8. Align all programs and structures so that all social, economic, and racial/ethnic groups have open and equal access to challenging activities and learning; and,
9. Align the schoolwide comprehensive, ongoing professional development program and the Personal Learning Plans (PLPs) of staff members with the requisite knowledge of content, instructional strategies, and student developmental factors.
In addition, attached to this document is the Executive Summary of Breaking Ranks in the Middle: Strategies for Leading Middle Level Reform (Appendix A), listing the aforementioned Strategies as well as the 30 recommendations.
Lipsitz (1999), in a speech prepared for the grantees meeting of the Program for Student Achievement Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, identified successful middle schools or “schools to watch” as sharing the following traits:
1. Clear articulation of desired academic outcomes;
2. Strategic changes in curriculum, instruction and support services designed to help students achieve those outcomes;
3. Established benchmarks for implementing with fidelity the strategies and holding themselves accountable; and,
4. Concentrated energies on important focus areas in order to institutionalize the new “change culture.”
Included in the following narrative are excerpts from a speech entitled “SHAZAM! No Lightening Bolts in School Reform” made by the distinguished M. Hayes Mizell to grantees of the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation regarding standards and its proper place in student learning:
You will hear a lot of talk today about standards, but this meeting is not “about” standards, just as it is not “about” implementing standards. This meeting is about learning. It is about teachers learning. It is about principals learning. It is about central office staff learning. It is even about the foundation learning. Unless we all learn more and become much more proficient at what we do, the middle school students we care about will not perform at the higher levels of which they are capable. Student performance is directly linked to our performance. Standards are a means to improve both….
Unless we are clear about what we want students to know and be able to do, students’ lives will be torn by rip tides of conflicting messages about the purpose of their schooling. This is the current situation in many of your schools. Students do not read your schools’ mission statements or school improvement plans, and, if they did read them, those statements would make no more impression on the students than they do on adults.
A school communicates its purpose through the attitudes and actions of individual teachers and administrators. Some teachers communicate that their purpose is to get through the day unscathed. Students understand this message very well, and their performance reflects their teachers’ lassitude and focus on the clock. Other teachers communicate that their purpose is to teach “the students who want to learn.” This message is not lost on the other students, whose performance reflects their teachers’ lack of commitment and misplaced priorities. Conversely, there are teachers, many of them in this room, who communicate every day through their fiery determination, dogged preparation, and unflagging support that their purpose is that students can and will learn. It is not surprising that the academic performance and on-task behavior of their students is the envy of many less successful teachers….
If we want students to learn, we have to get our message straight. Standards can help us. If standards are clear and meaningful, we can use them to communicate among ourselves and to others what students should know and be able to do as a result of their experiences in the middle grades. Standards can provide educators, families, and communities with a better understanding of the purpose of middle school education. We can use standards to focus ourselves, our schools, and our students on learning and performance. Standards can help us become more conscious of the quality of student work and prompt us to scrutinize that work more closely and agonize over it more productively. Standards can be a tool for teachers to use to help students understand that effort and completion of work are important steps toward carrying out an assignment, but that the quality of their work indicates the level of their performance. If we do it right, students will learn more and perform at higher levels. Even test scores will increase…
Some of you still consider standards-based reform as one more project, one more activity on your schools’ very long list of priorities. However, you cannot achieve this reform at the margins. If you try, you will see marginal results. Your schools will either use standards to mobilize the entire school community for student learning and hold yourselves accountable for the extent to which students do or do not perform at standard, or your schools will continue to conduct business as usual with the usual results. These may sound like harsh words, but they are not nearly so harsh as the consequences students will face if we do not help them learn how to perform at higher levels. If we do not believe that most students can perform at standard, and if we are not serious about implementing reforms that will enable them to do so, then there is no point in having standards because students will never know the difference. (Shooting for the Sun, Mizell, pp. 95-98).
Lee and Smith (1999) examined the effects on achievement of the support students receive from teachers, parents, peers, and neighborhoods (as reported by students). The researchers examined 6th through 8th graders in 304 Chicago K-8 public schools that varied in the degree to which the school mission focused on learning and the degree to which students reported that teachers challenged them to do well. The researchers found that students who felt supported and were in schools that emphasized academic rigor showed the largest gains in achievement in 6th and 8th grades (Wonder Years, 2004). Mizell presents a compelling argument in favor of the use of standards, changing the mindset of the different stakeholders responsible for students and the future implications of lukewarm attempts at middle school reform. Joan Lipsitz, noted middle school expert, acknowledges a sense of urgency that the academic performance of too many middle grades is unacceptable (1999). Rigor and relevance of the curriculum has often taken a back seat within the middle school concept. Mizell, along with Breaking Ranks and an increasing volume of research, supports strengthening the curriculum and instruction of the middle school.
However, equally important are the developmental needs of the adolescent student. One component of the middle school concept is advisement. Mitch Bogen writes in the January/February 2007 edition of the Harvard Education Letter, “A growing body of evidence supports the importance of personalized learning environments and strong relationships with school staff in keeping students engaged in school and motivated to learn. These findings provided much of the impetus behind the small schools movement, in which advisory programs are often a key component, and have inspired many larger schools to launch advisories as well. But the simplicity of the idea belies the challenges involved in implementing it effectively. Although many advisory programs have proven disappointing, even schools that have had problems with advisories are going back to the drawing board to get it right.”
As articulated in the vision statement of the National Forum to Accelerate Middle Grades Reform, high performing middle schools are academically excellent, developmentally responsive, and socially equitable. Successful middle schools engage in building leadership capacity and a collaborative culture; improving learning, teaching, and assessment for all students; creating a school culture to support high achievement; data-based inquiry and decision making; networking with like-minded schools; and, developing district capacity (Turning Points 2000).
Review of Different Models, Studies and Articles
Today in the United States there are approximately 9 million students in public middle schools (typically, schools that include grades 6 through 8). Approximately 6 million students were enrolled in public middle schools that had the 6-8 configuration. This is by far the most common type of school for young teens. Students in 6-8 schools represented 12.6% of all students in K-12 schools; 1.6% were in 5-8 schools, 2.8% in 7-8 schools, and 2.3% in K-8 schools.
Simply in terms of raw numbers, most 6-8 schools were in rural areas. However, a higher percentage of all schools in urban areas had this configuration (11%) than those in rural (9%). Although 7-8 schools were more common than 5-8 schools overall, larger proportions of the schools in rural and suburban areas had one of these configurations than did schools in urban areas. In comparison, 6-8 schools were as common in urban areas as they were in rural and suburban areas (Wonder Years, p. 123).
There are a number of articles and studies that have been cited as evidence supporting either keeping sixth grade at the elementary school(s) and/or supportive of the K-8 model. The latter is not a realistic option since the elementary schools of the four towns are neither equipped nor have the capacity to house eight grades. Nevertheless, let’s review each study and/or article.
In a 1987-1990 longitudinal study comparing student achievement of 6th graders in elementary and middle schools in the Austin Independent School District, Texas, elementary 6th graders performed better, in general, on achievement tests (Iowa Tests of Basic Skills) than middle school 6th graders (Appendix B). However, after the first year of testing (1987-1988), there has been no difference between both groups on the same achievement test.
Additionally, when elementary 6th graders reached 7th grade, they did not perform as well on achievement tests in relation to 7th graders who attended 6th grade in a middle school. Also, the study is over 20 years old.
A 1971 Michigan study compared 138 middle schools with 138 junior high schools (Appendix C). The study revealed that most middle schools in Michigan were established primarily to reduce overcrowded conditions in other schools, whereas the grade and age level organization of the state’s junior high schools were retained mainly to provide a program specifically designed for students in the age group served (Gatewood & Walker, 1971).
There are several issues that bear a closer look:
* The purpose and reason as to why middle schools were built in this Michigan study (overcrowding) is not a factor in the Amherst-Pelham Regional School District;
* The study identified junior high schools as either grades 7-9, 7-8, or 8-9 and middle schools as a “school separately administered and containing grades seven and eight and at least one grade below seven.” Therefore, 18% of the “middle schools” were 5-8, 4% were 6-9 and 1% were 4-8; and
* The study is almost 40 years old.
The Cleveland Municipal School District began phasing out middle schools by restructuring 21 of its 80 K-5 elementary schools into K-8 schools (Appendix D). The study found a statistically significant difference between K-8 and middle school outcomes, favoring K-8 schools. One of the reasons given is the discontinuity associated with transitioning to a middle grades school. Another reason given for this statistical difference is the emphasis on child development at the middle level of the K-8 schools.
Upon closer examination, the reason for the success of these K-8 schools is being attributed to a different approach to middle grades education provided in these K-8 settings. Another viewpoint to that would be that the real reason for the K-8 schools’ success would be a change in the culture rather than a change in the grade configuration.
Also, the study only uses only one set of data points (Spring 2002 Grade 7 Ohio Reading and Math Proficiency Test) as conclusive evidence.
A 1991 study on the “Impact of Transition from Junior Highs to Middle Schools on Science Programs” (Appendix E) uncovered several findings:
* Seventh and 8th grade teachers did not perceive 6th grade teachers’ teaching as “equivalent;” and,
* Sixth grade teachers felt a lower status due to the fact that their equipment and supplies were not equal to the upper grades’ teachers.
Again, this study had several noteworthy issues:
* The study was conducted when the school system had completed its first year of reorganizing into middle schools;
* Only three middle schools with grades 6-8 were included in the study;
* Seventh and 8th grade teachers typically stayed in their classrooms and the sixth (and ninth) grade teachers were displaced. This disparate treatment could have contributed to their feelings of inferiority; and
* The difference in teacher certification and preparation also contributed to the lower status perception. However, these 6th grade teachers staying in the elementary school would still have a problem with content area mastery when teaching science at the elementary level.
In Yecke’s 2006 article (Appendix F), the author claims that the middle school concept has “wrought havoc” on the intellectual development of many middle school students. She cites several cities that are pursuing the K-8 model over the middle school model (Baltimore, Milwaukee, Philadelphia) and then cites “Ten Strategies for Transition.” However, there are some inconsistencies in some of the Strategies:
Strategy 2: Add higher rather than lower grades.
This is actually contradicted by the Shimniok and Schmoker (1992) article “How We Made the Transition from Junior High to Middle School” (Appendix G) where they found a successful strategy on adding a lower grade level (6th) to convert the junior high into a middle school.
Strategy 5: Establish a strict transfer policy.
This strategy is really about exclusion. If middle schools were allowed to do this, they too would see an improvement.
Strategy 6: Modify facilities.
In an era of shrinking budgets, this is prohibitively expensive and not realistic.
Strategy 7: Have high expectations for both academics and behavior.
This can and should be done at all middle schools and it entails a difference in approach and philosophy not exclusive to K-8 schools.
Strategy 9: Provide greater access to advanced courses and electives.
This is actually a limitation of the K-8 model.
Strategy 10: Provide greater access to extracurricular opportunities.
Another limitation of the K-8 model.
Many of the aforementioned groups invested in shaping educational policy and practice affecting middle schools stop short of recommending an appropriate grade level configuration (4-8; 5-8; 6-8; 7-8; 4-9; 5-9; 6-9; K-8; 6-12,etc.).There are legitimate philosophical differences about grade configuration, and there is likely no one "right" answer. The only "right" answer universally accepted is the following: "Regardless of grade configuration, policymakers, school boards, and superintendents must stop making decisions based on budgets and the transportation schedules and instead create schools based on what is best for young adolescents-schools that address the intellectual and development needs of each student" (Breaking Ranks/Executive Summary, 2006).
The conversation in this school district regarding moving 6th graders to the middle school is neither predicated on transportation schedules (since the current system is fully operational and sustainable, although there are possible areas for savings) nor on overcrowding (even after redistricting the elementary schools are within capacity and percentage of utilization).
I have used what I consider to be educational imperatives as the criterion upon which to base my recommendation. Keeping in mind that there are opportunities for community point/counterpoint and sophistry, it is my intent to provide a compelling vision as to how moving the 6th grade to the middle school fits into a larger theoretical construct designed, minimally, to raise standards and expectations for students and staff, improve the focus of instruction, enhance opportunities for students and staff, and ultimately increase student achievement and outcomes.
The benefits of moving the 6th grade to the middle school include, but are not limited to, the following:
* Expose 6th grade students to a more intense, rigorous, content driven curricula;
* Provide 6th grade students with opportunities to learn algebraic concepts, engage in scientific discovery/investigative paradigms, be exposed to literature, grammar, and writing in English/Language Arts, and become familiar with the major themes/concepts of political and physical geography in social studies (6th grade teachers do not possess the necessary credentials or certifications for this kind of specificity in the content areas);
* Begin a 6th-12th grade continuum designed to increase student enrollment in Honors and/or Advanced Placement courses in high school by building student and teacher capacity. This cannot be done effectively if 6th grade, as well as its students, are spread throughout several elementary schools; and,
* Start, if necessary, implementation of intervention programs earlier at the secondary level.
Additionally, there are also developmental issues that need to be considered. The adolescent stage is the most difficult phase in a student’s life. Students are beginning to mature physically, and to think of themselves as individuals outside their families. Their attentions turn to exercising independence and developing strong relationships with peers—while avoiding exposure and embarrassment (NMSA & NAESP, 2002). It is my belief that as these adolescents begin to view themselves and the world they live in differently, keeping them as 6th graders in the elementary school is delaying the inevitable and contradictory to their socio-emotional development.
The concern parents have, supported by research, is the actual transition from elementary school to middle school—regardless of the grade level. Transition to middle school is marked by several changes in educational expectations and practices (NMSA & NAESP, 2002). Children go from self-contained classrooms with a familiar set of peers and one or two teachers to interacting with more peers, more teachers, and with intensified expectations for both performance and individual responsibility.
In a position paper jointly adopted by the National Middle School Association and the National Association of Elementary School Principals (2002), it states the following:
Transition to middle school is marked by several changes in educational expectations and practices. In most elementary schools, children are taught in self-contained classrooms with a familiar set of peers and one or two teachers. Once students reach middle schools, however, they must interact with more peers, more teachers, and with intensified expectations for both performance and individual responsibility. Social, developmental, and academic experiences are affected, requiring them to adjust to what they see as new settings, structures, and expectations. All of this comes at a time when they are also experiencing a host of changes associated with the transition from childhood to adolescence….
A well-designed transition plan can restore the strong sense of belonging the entering middle school student once felt in elementary school - a key element associated with the positive motivation to enjoy and succeed in academic tasks….
The concerns most often expressed by students about to enter middle school focus on the routine of the new school: finding their way around and getting to class on time, dealing with lockers and combination locks, and mixing with older students. They also worry about choosing sports or extracurricular activities, and keeping up with homework and long-term assignments. Schools at both levels can mitigate many of these concerns by providing orientation activities that demystify new routines well before the first day at middle school. Involving students at both levels in the planning and implementation of these activities ensures they are appropriate to student needs and provide positive initial contact between younger children and their older peers….
The most common transition activities include meetings with incoming students and their parents and student visits to the new middle school. Typically, there is some type of information sharing between middle school administrators and counselors and elementary staff to help facilitate the transition initiatives….
The attributes of successful transition programs include the following:
* A sensitivity to the anxieties accompanying a move to a new school setting
* The importance of parents and teachers as partners in this effort
* The recognition that becoming comfortable in a new school setting is an ongoing process, not a single event.
The NMSA and the NAESP call on principals, teachers, counselors, and parents at both the elementary and middle school levels to work together in the planning and implementation of a “transition program” designed to ease the apprehension of incoming middle school students. It is clear that collaboration among all who share responsibility and concern for our children’s welfare is ultimately the most effective transition strategy we can employ (NMSA & NAESP, 2002).
Moving 6th grade to the middle school as an isolated strategy while maintaining the status quo at the middle school is insufficient. It is just one piece of a larger, strategic vision of creating in Amherst-Pelham Regional Public Schools a world-class educational system that looks beyond the MCAS and prepares our students for "a future we can't even describe" (David Warlike).
My Goal in Blogging
I started this blog in May of 2008, shortly after my election to the School Committee, because I believed it was very important to both provide the community with an opportunity to share their thoughts with me about our schools and to provide me with an opportunity for me to ask questions and share my thoughts and reasoning. I have found the conversation generated on my blog to be extremely helpful to me in learning community views on many issues. I appreciate the many people who have taken the time to share their views. I believe it is critical to the quality of our public schools to have a public discussion of our community priorities, concerns and aspirations.