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GAINING GROUND IN THE MIDDLE GRADES: New EdSource Study Finds Higher-Performing Middle Schools Share Similar Practices

“The major contribution of this study is this interrelated set of practices that middle grades educators and leaders can implement now by making smart, strategic choices.”

A new comprehensive study of California’s middle schools finds that higher-performing schools share common practices and philosophies, including a districtwide and schoolwide culture that is dedicated to academic improvements for all students and a clear and defined commitment to preparing all students for a challenging high school education.

The study, Gaining Ground in the Middle Grades: Why Some Schools Do Better, argues that the “middle grades are the last best chance to identify students at risk of academic failure and get them back on track in time to succeed in high school” and that “success in key subjects in the middle grades is a strong predictor of success in high schools and beyond.”

Conducted by EdSource, a California-based nonprofit organization whose mission is to clarify complex education issues and to promote thoughtful policy decisions about public school improvement, the report seeks to determine why some middle schools outperform others on standards-based testing even though these middle schools serve a similar student population.

According to the report, higher-performing schools set measurable goals for student improvement, communicate with parents and students about the correlation between middle school performance and future goals, and link teacher evaluations to student outcomes. These schools also make it a priority to tie instruction, assessments, and curriculum to the state’s academic standards. This connection is reinforced by principals who ensure that English language arts (ELA) and math instruction are closely guided by state-adopted curriculum programs as well as through teachers who frequently collaborate to discuss curriculum, develop common benchmarks and assessments, and dissect the state content standards in order to identify prerequisite student skills.

Exceeding state and federal accountability targets is also a main concern for higher-performing schools. To that end, district leaders and educators at these schools use student assessment data to inform and improve instruction and learning strategies, and to set and modify goals for student achievement.

Another factor that distinguishes higher-performing schools from lower-performing schools is the active role that teachers play in engaging parents and encouraging them to shoulder the responsibility of their children’s success. The higher-performing schools in the study also frequently took advantage of the required and voluntary student interventions to help all students stay on track and succeed.

“The results point to the importance of district and school educators working together in a full-court press that uses the many specific and actionable practices in this report,” said Michael Kirst, professor emeritus and the study’s principal investigator. “The major contribution of this study is this interrelated set of practices that middle grades educators and leaders can implement now by making smart, strategic choices.”

Three hundred and three California middle schools participated in the study, including twenty-seven charters. Half of these schools serve predominantly low-income student populations and half serve predominantly middle-income populations. The report’s researchers measured progress in student performance by analyzing the reported school and district practices against spring 2009 scores on California’s standards-based tests in ELA, and math in grades six, seven, and eight.

The report’s researchers surveyed a variety of educators across all levels including more than three hundred principals, 3,752 ELA and math teachers in grades 6–8, and 157 superintendents of the districts and charter management organizations that oversee the schools. The surveys included questions about more than nine hundred different actionable practices and policies with a focus on academic outcomes; standards-aligned instruction and learning; proactive academic interventions; teacher competencies, evaluation, and support; principal leadership; superintendent leadership and district support; school environment; organization of teaching and learning; and attention to student transfers.

To view the full report and additional resources, visit

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