07/24/2013 02:15 pm ET Updated Sep 23, 2013

California, Here We Come: The Future of Middle School Students and the Golden State

Throughout California this fall, students will enter the most important school years of their lives -- 7th and 8th grade. Regrettably, a majority of these students will cross their schools' thresholds with a serious disadvantage: they come from lower-income families. Of California's 709,000 students in traditional middle schools (grades 6-8) in 2012-2013, 61 percent were eligible for Free and Reduced Price Meals.

The fact hasn't gone unnoticed by policymakers. This year, Governor Jerry Brown and the California state legislature approved an interesting, if controversial, measure to direct more state funding to the schools with the most serious financial and academic challenges. This risk-taking by state policymakers places a higher burden of responsibility on the school leaders in districts benefiting from this funding.

This effort is doomed to failure if education leaders at all levels -- state, district, school and family -- use the opportunity to perpetuate 'business as usual.' The inclination to adopt or expand well-worn programs, whether proven to help students or not, is tempting. And there are plenty of options to choose from among the myriad programs focused on academic preparation (with inadequate attention to life skills) of older students (such as 11th and 12th grade) who are already college-ready (not those who need the help).

Instead, education leaders and advocates should:

1. focus on higher levels of performance and longer-term goals -- such as completing an education program beyond high school, rather than just graduating;
2. identify supplemental programs with potential for improving both the learning and applied skills of students; and
3.look beyond just increasing funding for comfortable, familiar programs that have not visibly moved the bar on either academic achievement or mastery of life skills

Group discussions with approximately 100 7th graders at a number of low-income schools showed that virtually all of these students already have high expectations for attending college. However, that enthusiasm dropped off by about 10 percent in discussions with a similar group of 9th graders. Surely this suggests an opportunity to invest more in efforts that help middle grade students enter the 9th grade excited about postsecondary education and with a plan for how to get there. ACT, Inc. (the nonprofit that administers the ACT exam) reports that some programs can increase the college-readiness of at-risk middle grade students, a clear indication that prudent investment in the middle grades can have an impact.

Our middle grade effort, Career & College Clubs, grew from a handful schools to over 160 in a few short years -- that growth both surprised us and caused us to 'double-down' on the middle grades. Quite simply, we think middle grade interventions hold the greatest promise for large-scale impact on college and career readiness.

This isn't to say other efforts don't have merit. Both early childhood investments and programs for students preparing to graduate from high school may be useful, but evidence appears to call for a disproportionate investment in the outcomes of middle school students.

Accordingly, we need to expand effective career and college planning programs to all middle schools, and especially those serving at-risk students. Second, educators and advocates should develop partnerships with community partners to link their middle grade efforts to existing, effective early childhood and high school programs.

Finally, these programs should support common core standards while moving beyond to enhance students':
• educational persistence;
• career planning;
• critical thinking and problem-solving;
• leadership skills;
• financial literacy; and
• community engagement.

That may be a lot to ask, but California taxpayers, and those throughout the country, are counting on education to lead the state into the 22nd Century.