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What works in middle-grades school reform.

Twenty-five years ago, when the Ford Foundation commissioned a study of the status of research and programs that concerned early adolescence, the age group had been overlooked in research and services. Most professionals and policy makers were unaware of this void.

This issue of the Phi Delta Kappan, focusing on the education of young adolescents, exemplifies a noteworthy change in our society's view of the importance of early adolescence. As the bibliography at the end of this insert attests, in two decades young adolescents have gone from Growing Up Forgotten, the title of the Ford Foundation study, to a high level of national concern. In fact, the study and practice of schooling for 10- to 15-year-olds now command so much attention that the bibliography could easily have been triple in size.

This level of productivity has generated ample observational studies of efforts to reform middle-level schools; however, we have surprisingly little quantitative information to satisfy the demands of thoughtful practitioners and policy makers for assessment of those efforts. Practitioners plead with researchers to give them hard data about what works. Among all the structural school changes, what really makes a difference in students' behavior and academic accomplishments? Instituting teaming and teacher-student advisement programs, for instance, is hard work. Is it worth doing? Why? And how do we know? Interdisciplinary curricula, inquiry-based instruction, and cooperative learning require staff development that is expensive - both to the spirit and to the budget. What benefits do students derive from the level of effort these changes demand?

Policy makers at the local and state levels ask researchers practical questions about instituting new practices: What does implementation really mean? How much is enough? What does it take to improve schools? More specifically, can we get away with mandating weekly common planning periods, or do we have to reallocate limited resources to support dally planning? When we reorganize schools into "houses," is there a recommended size? What student outcomes result from that recommended size?

Lagging behind practitioners are teacher training institutions. Many continue to prepare teachers for pedagogical environments that no longer exist. Many students' home lives have suffered fundamental changes, dislocating schools from their traditional relationships with families and communities. In addition, under the best of circumstances, technological and structural changes have transformed classroom practice, requiring the fundamental reconstruction of teacher preparation programs. However, lacking evidence that ties specific practices to improved student outcomes, school critics' exhortations to reform preservice programs for middle-level teachers and administrators fall on deaf ears.

At the same time, national and international studies attest to the intellectual underdevelopment of too many young adolescents. For example, only 28% of eighth-graders scored at or above the "proficient" level in reading in 1994, and just 2% read at or above the advanced level. In the recently released TIMSS (Third International Mathematics and Science Study) data, U.S. seventh- and eighth-graders ranked 28th in mathematics skills and 17th in science proficiency among comparable students in 41 countries. As is true at all grade levels, poor academic achievement is especially prevalent in middle-grades schools serving high concentrations of low-income students. These young people must avoid school failure or suffer the consequent constriction of life options. Yet these statistics about young adolescents' poor academic performance suggest that many middle-grades schools are failing to enable the majority of their students to achieve at anywhere near adequate levels.

The articles that follow indicate that these disappointing outcomes are far from inevitable; rather, fundamental changes in the structure and content of middle-grades education can produce substantial improvement in students' academic achievement and healthy development. The articles begin, as well, to answer the questions of practitioners and policy makers about what works, under what conditions, and to what extent.

The findings reported in the articles that form the core of this insert draw primarily on data from an ongoing, longitudinal study of a group of middle schools in Illinois, as well as on data from middle-level schools that make up three other major school reform programs. The four middle-grades reform efforts that constitute the data set are the Illinois Middle Grades Network, facilitated by the Association of Illinois Middle Level Schools; the Middle Grades Improvement Program in Indiana, supported by Lilly Endowment Inc.; the Middle Grade School State Policy Initiative, a national initiative supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York; and the Middle Start Initiative in Michigan, supported by the W. K. Kellogg Foundation. Brief descriptions of the four programs appear as sidebars accompanying the core articles. All told, the four initiatives include more than 420 schools, 14,000 teachers and administrators, and 158,000 students who are engaged in a process of reform that emphasizes data-based planning for school improvement.(*)

Each of the four strategic initiatives has administered the Middle Grades Self-Study, developed by Robert Felner and his colleagues at the Center for Prevention Research and Development at the University of Illinois. Felner is now professor and chair-elect, Department of Education, at the University of Rhode Island. The Self-Study is a series of teacher, administrator, and student surveys based on the essential elements of middle-grades education described in Turning Points: Preparing American Youth for the 21st Century, a 1989 report issued by the Carnegie Corporation's Council on Adolescent Development. Turning Points consolidated and applied research on the characteristics and needs of young adolescents and called for changes in both the structure and practice of their educational experience. The Turning Points plan was organized around eight core principles:

1. Divide large middle-grades schools into smaller communities for learning that foster trusting relationships between adults and peers.

2. Provide all students access to a common core of high-level knowledge and skills.

3. Organize instruction to ensure success for all middle-grades students.

4. Empower teachers and administrators to make key pedagogical, management, and budgetary decisions.

5. Prepare middle-grades teachers specifically to teach young adolescents.

6. Improve academic achievement through better fitness and health.

7. Reengage families in the education of young adolescents.

8. Connect schools with communities. Although these eight principles have undergone modifications within one or more of the four school-change initiatives, together they form the common framework for research on middle-level reform described in the articles that follow.

Each of the four projects used the Middle Grades Self-Study to gather information systematically on the implementation of middle-grades reforms in schools. Rather than assuming that reform is actually being implemented and starting with an analysis of outcomes, as most school research does, this study seeks first to understand the extent and quality of implementation actually occurring in the schools. Only then does the study examine the complex relationships between changes in the structure and content of the school program and a variety of indices of student performance and well-being.

Because the research is necessarily complex, the articles presented here are not "easy reads." At the aggregate level (i.e., at the national, state, or district level), the research design illuminates the extent to which comprehensive implementation of middle-level school principles produces changes in student outcomes; it also sheds light on the relative importance of specific elements of practice and, perhaps more important, on the relationships among key elements necessary to produce significant results. In other words, the evaluation conceives, assesses, and reports on the school as a system of interactions involving structures, materials, pedagogy, professional development opportunities, and approaches to leadership and management - and, of course, interactions between adults and children - that together produce outcomes.

The data show, for example, that reforms implemented independently of one another are likely to produce little or no significant rise in student achievement, especially for disadvantaged youth. Not until a critical mass of reforms is in place and operating together in an integrated manner do significant positive changes in student outcomes occur. Such intuitively plausible but often overlooked findings are critical to our understanding the course of reform, and they are especially relevant to policy discussions of "what it takes" in time, resources, and specific approaches in order to produce genuine gains.

For individual schools, the Self-Study provides data from a variety of sources for decision making and for elevating the discussion of "what to do" above the mix of insight, guesses, anecdotes, and bias that often characterizes school improvement planning. Across the four initiatives, the surveys of the Self-Study have helped establish a regular process for schools and communities to reflect strategically on where they are in relation to where they want to go, and then to plan the next steps for getting there.

The following pages provide a primer on the Self-Study and its design, along with summaries of the findings to date. The project is ongoing, and data collection and interpretation are continuous. Occasional articles in future issues will introduce readers to new findings and update and help deepen their understanding of key issues introduced here. We hope that these articles will provoke rich dialogue.

The Phi Delta Kappan wishes to acknowledge the generosity of the W. K. Kellogg Foundation in funding the production of this special insert on middle-grades research.

* These are academic year 1994-95 data. The numbers increase annually.

JOAN LIPSITZ recently retired from Lilly Endowment Inc., Indianapolis; ANTHONY W. JACKSON is program officer, Carnegie Corporation of New York, New York City; and LEAH MEYER AUSTIN is program director, Education, Youth, and Higher Education, W. K. Kellogg Foundation, Battle Creek, Mich.
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Title Annotation:Research on Middle Grades
Author:Lipsitz, Joan; Jackson, Anthony W.; Austin, Leah Meyer
Publication:Phi Delta Kappan
Date:Mar 1, 1997
Words:1551
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