04/27/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Cracking the Code to Raise School Performance in the Middle Grades

We often hear that school performance is linked primarily to parents' background. But the often ignored fact is that frequently the biggest performance gaps are between schools serving similar types of students. This begs the question: If student demographics aren't driving the differential in performance, or the performance gap, what is driving it?

That important question is particularly critical at grades 6, 7, and 8, a period of education that has long deserved greater attention from researchers and policymakers. These middle grades are the last best opportunity to capture struggling students before they fall irretrievably behind and to prepare all students for success in high school and beyond.

Earlier this week, EdSource, a California-based research group, released a report that shines new light on the practices that distinguish high-performing schools from their lower-performing counterparts. For the study, researchers from EdSource and Stanford University administered surveys with over 900 questions combined to nearly 4,000 California teachers, principals, and superintendents. The surveys described a broad range of traditional and newer middle grades practices and policies and asked the educators which ones were in place in their schools. We didn't ask opinions, we asked: which of these are in place at your district or school, how often, to what extent those results were then analyzed against participating schools' performance on the state's standards based tests in English language arts and mathematics.

The No. 1 finding -- and it came out on top regardless of whether the analysis focused on one-year or longitudinal data or the predominant demographics of the student population served by the school -- is that higher performing middle grade schools demonstrate an intense focus on improving student academic outcomes and preparing their students for a rigorous high school curriculum. They set measurable objectives and hold everyone in the system responsible for student learning. That includes superintendents, principals, teachers, students, and parents.

Indeed, the findings reveal that educators at every level play a crucial role. Led by the superintendent, districts are essential to providing user-friendly student data and emphasizing improvement of all students. The principal is a hands-on leader who orchestrates every aspect of school improvement. Teachers work collectively to identify school needs for instructional improvement and students who need extra help.

Not only are these practices consistent through a variety of lenses, but the report shows that the highest-performing low-income schools are performing at the same levels as high-income middle grades schools when these practices are commonplace. "This helps us crack the code about what works at the middle school level," said Robert Balfanz, advising consultant to the study and principal research scientist of Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University.

There were other findings that have implications at local, state and federal levels. For example, neither the grade configuration nor internal organization of instruction is all that important when it comes to improving student outcomes. Many educators think that if they get this part right, that the student achievement will take care of itself. This study showed no strong or consistent relationship between student outcomes and grade configuration or a school's choice of instructional organization In fact, the practices found in our study to be significantly associated with higher student outcomes can be implemented in any middle level school regardless of configuration.

And while new federal policy initiatives are fueling a vigorous national debate about how best to evaluate teachers in ways that reflect student performance, this study suggests there should be a similar debate about education leadership. For example, principals and superintendents in higher-performing middle grades schools serving both lower -- and middle-income students reported that student outcomes were factored into their evaluations. And in higher-performing schools that served primarily low-income students, teachers reported that improving student outcomes was part of their evaluations as well.

On Wednesday, Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist Maureen Downey correctly noted that hormones are often cited as the explanation for underachievement in the middle grades. This new study dispels that notion. The effective middle grades practices reflected in the study can be acted on and replicated. They can serve as a kind of research-based checklist against which schools and communities can compare their own efforts. It provides much-needed research-based ideas to inform and inspire practices to help all middle grades schools become high performers. If we care as a nation about significantly improving the high school graduation rate and substantially increasing the numbers of young people who attend and complete college -- then we need to start giving our middle grades educators and students more support and attention.