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SUCCESS IN THE MIDDLE: New Report Says that a National Policy for Middle Grades is Lacking, Outlines Specific Steps to Improve Middle School Education

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“While policymakers have recently focused on important high school reform, they have skipped over critical middle level reform, which is the gateway to successfully achieving high-performing schools at both the middle and high school levels.”

Unless the United States takes action now to improve support for middle-grades schools, millions of young adolescents will be unable to compete in high school and beyond. So says Success in the Middle: A Policymaker’s Guide to Achieving Quality Middle Level Education, a new report from the National Middle School Association (NMSA). It faults a missing national middle school policy for the fact that too many middle school students do not benefit from challenging and engaging instruction, well-prepared teachers and principals, and other necessary supports.

“The United States still does not have a cohesive national policy for the middle grades, which represent one third of a student’s K–12 education,” said Sue SwaimNMSA executive director. “While policymakers have recently focused on important high school reform, they have skipped over critical middle level reform, which is the gateway to successfully achieving high-performing schools at both the middle and high school levels.”

Even though children in their early adolescent years experience faster growth than in any but their first 3 years of their lives, the report says that the nation’s education policy has largely ignored the middle grades and has focused almost exclusively on the early grades. It notes that the middle grades are when many students make the decisions that will affect them in high school and for the rest of their lives. For example, many students will decide whether they intend to drop out or persist through graduation, or whether to take algebra and other “gatekeeper” courses that predict success in college.

Currently, little federal support is available to students in the middle grades to help them make informed, smart choices as they contemplate these important decisions. The report notes that only 15% of Title I funding goes to middle and high schools. In addition, promising programs such as GEAR UP and TRIO, which help disadvantaged middle school students prepare for college, only reach about 10%–20% of students who are eligible for assistance.

To help ensure that students have all of the resources and support that they need, the report outlines five recommendations that policymakers at the local, state, and federal levels can take.

  1. Ensure that all middle level students participate in challenging, standards-based curricula and engaging instruction, and that their progress is measured by appropriate assessments, resulting in continual learning and high achievement.
  2. Support the recruitment and hiring of teachers and administrators who have strong content knowledge and the ability to use research-based instructional strategies and assessment practices appropriate for middle level students.
  3. Support organizational structures and a school culture of high expectations that enable both middle level students and educators to succeed.
  4. Develop ongoing family and community partnerships to provide a supportive and enriched learning environment for every middle level student.
  5. Facilitate the generation, dissemination, and application of research needed to identify and implement effective practices leading to continual student learning and high academic achievement at the middle level.

Within each of these recommendations, the report suggests specific steps that policymakers can take to transform middle school education and give every young adolescent the opportunity to achieve the highest standards. Among its recommendations at the federal level are a call to strengthen the definition of highly qualified middle level teachers to require a “strong content background” in two subject areas and a “solid understanding of instructional strategies and assessment practices appropriate for young adolescents.” The report calls for a federal incentive to encourage states and school districts to create small learning communities and calls on the federal government to “recognize middle schools in statutes and regulations as distinct from elementary or secondary schools.”

The complete report is available at http://www.nmsa.org/Advocacy/PolicyGuide/tabid/784/Default.aspx.

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