Middle schools in the South need to forge a new mission of preparing students for more rigorous high school course work and ultimately college and technical training, according to a new report from the Southern Regional Education Board’s (SREB’s) Middle Grades Commission. The report, A New Mission for the Middle Grades: Preparing Students for a Changing World, warns that failure to do so puts the nation’s students and states’ economies at a greater disadvantage when competing with the rapidly developing world.
“The middle grades are the make-or-break point of our K–12 public school system,” said SREB President Dave Spence. “If states are serious about raising graduation rates and preparing more students for postsecondary study, work has to begin now on the middle grades.”
According to SREB, one in every four rising ninth graders in the states it represents will not graduate from high school on time.1 The report asserts that the rising educational demands of the average worker, the correlation between middle school engagement with postsecondary achievement, and the national push toward increasing high school graduation rates underscores the urgency with which state leaders must support fundamental changes to the middle grades. Through three core steps, SREB pinpoints the critical process of initiating middle-grade change.
First, SREB stresses that middle schools must developed concrete, clearly defined missions that outline the goal of high school and postsecondary readiness for middle-grade students. Specifically, it recommends that middles schools designate targets, including a 90 percent high school graduation rate, 80 percent postsecondary enrollment rate, and two-thirds of those students to achieve a college degree or career-related credential. To meet these goals, SREB says policymakers and education leaders must clearly define what knowledge and skills eighth graders should possess in order to be deemed ready for high school.
SREB also encourages integration of new, rigorous standards—such as the common core state standards in English language arts and math—with visual, performing, physical, and technical arts. The objective is to inspire and engage students in using reading and math in new ways. The theory is that with support and involvement from well-qualified teachers, parents, and school districts, students can be prepared for challenging high school courses, stay on track to graduate from high school, and earn some type of postsecondary credential that has value in the workplace.
Second, SREB believes it is important to have a strong voice through all avenues of policy and legislation. It calls on states to designate an individual who coordinates policy issues related to middle grades at the local, state, and federal levels. Responsibilities of this individual should include involvement in evaluation and data analysis to identify and share best practices that result in increased student achievement and productivity.
Finally, the board suggests creating a statewide framework for the makeover of middle schools through the following six key goals:
- Communicating and clarifying the mission of middle schools through implementing higher and more rigorous standards.
- Focusing the middle-grade curriculum on literacy and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) disciplines.
- Identifying middle-grade students who are likely to drop out and intervening on their behalf.
- Requiring students to complete individual academic and career plans.
- Redesigning professional development for middle-grade educators.
- Holding districts and schools accountable for meeting the middle-grade mission.
SREB implores state leaders and educators to take seriously the actions and statewide efforts needed to help all middle-grade students learn the skills vital to successfully and enthusiastically begin ninth grade.
“The Commission believes we must achieve a better balance among standards, instruction, and accountability that taps into the particular interests and dispositions of young adolescents,” said Spence. “We have an unprecedented opportunity to engage them in truly relevant educational experiences that can ignite their passion for learning for a lifetime.”
A New Mission for the Middle Grades is available at http://publications.sreb.org/2011/11E15_Mid_Grades_Com.pdf.
1 SREB’s sixteen member states include Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and West Virginia.