The relatively low priority for middle level education is a nearly universal condition particularly well known to those engaged in educating young adolescents. These passionate educators are committed to pouring themselves into educating students in one of the most challenging seasons of life. Nevertheless, funding constraints, our hyper-attention to "what really matters" and other seemingly greater concerns allow public education in the main to forget or ignore what the research demonstrates in regards to how best to educate young adolescents.
What Made Us Focus
Until recently, our school district has followed this pattern, expending great energy on emphasizing the very first and very last years of education. In 2015, however, we were nearing the end of an 18-month process of developing a comprehensive, long-range strategic plan and looking for the factors that would create substantive change for our students. When the first draft of that plan failed to gain board-level approval, the superintendent charged key leaders with identifying strategy outside the usual "school/district improvement" box.
The most significant addition to the plan that was approved two weeks later was a focus on "middle school reform." Our reasons were simple. Our data mirrored most of the rest of the country. Academic performance (on standardized assessment measures), dropped precipitously in middle school. Middle schools generally recorded a much higher per-capita discipline rate than at the elementary or high school levels. Thanks to the pressures of the standards and accountability movement, we were myopically focused on test scores, which were generally very disappointing. We also had no other evidence of deep student learning because we were not looking for it or designing instruction to produce it. In short, because the evidence suggested that middle school was an area of weakness for us, we decided to quit ignoring it.
What We Did
Following the unanimous approval of the superintendent's strategic plan in December of 2015, our work towards "reforming" middle school began immediately. It has included the following so far:
- A commitment to funding a "true middle school model." As students of best practice in educating young adolescents know, a key feature of a middle school (as opposed to a junior high school) is teaming. This scheduling structure is designed to allow teams of teachers to serve the same group of students and to work together during common planning periods to support those students at a deeper level than is practical when teachers have neither students nor available time in common. While this practice is significant to student success, it costs more. Our board of education demonstrated their commitment to this priority by adding teacher units to middle schools across the system to allow the full implementation of teaming.
- One arm of our strategic plan is dedicated to significant facility and infrastructure development. As part of that process, our middle school alignment and zoning has been restructured. The changes include merging two pairs of schools, moving one school to a new facility, and instituting an open district transfer policy, allowing students to attend schools that have been built and remodeled to have spaces specifically designed to nurture the practices that work best in middle school.
- Everyone engaged in work at the middle level committed to studying the research and best practices for educating young adolescents and (more importantly) began applying that learning to every part of our decision-making process. A system leadership and advisory committee of teachers, administrators, and university and community partners led the way in studying and drafting preliminary recommendations for action. School and system leaders formed a PLC and spent 18 months digging deep. All middle level staff participated in targeted professional learning that was built around This We Believe, and each school made a continuation of that study a key component of building-level professional development. We began to restructure the way we do professional learning at the district level, applying an EdCamp-esque structure to our spring system PD day, which we have continued. This bottom-up and top-down approach to adult learning has translated to meaningful action driven by individual growth.
- As described in a February 2019 AMLE Magazine article ("Transforming Middle School Practice through Instructional Technology"), one of the curricular aims of our district's strategic plan is to implement a "digital transformation." Far beyond a 1:1 device initiative, we aim to make the leveraging of digital and technological tools for powerful learning part of our DNA. For this change to be transformative, we specifically planned to implement this "middle school reform" and "digital transformation" together. We believe that accomplished middle school practice is incomplete without strong technology integration. We also believe that the use of technology in school is not an end in itself but an incredibly powerful tool that requires context and intent. By explicitly intertwining these twin initiatives, we are making greater strides in both areas than we would have done by implementing them separately.
- From the outset of this work, we have aimed to develop a position statement on our local definition of and vision for middle level education. In the Spring of 2017, we finalized Middle School Matters!, which is that statement and includes our public commitment to our community regarding our practices at the middle level. These principles are incorporated into all the planning each school undertakes: school improvement plans, professional learning plans, grant funding requests, and more. Far more importantly, teachers, principals, and district level personnel rely on this document as the lens through which we make decisions about the education of our young adolescents.
What's Happening as a Result
While we are still working to make this work second nature, the effects of this transformation are already obvious. Here are just some of the changes we have seen already.
- A sharp decrease in out of school suspensions, particularly for the middle school that recorded more such suspensions before this process and now leads the way in implementing restorative discipline practices through careful study and implementation.
- During one of the school merges mentioned previously, the focus on what works for young adolescents served as common ground to ease some of the difficulty of blending two faculties and two (formerly rival) student bodies.
- In addition to the infrastructure changes underway, many of our middle schools have taken steps to achieve radical physical change within their buildings. Flexible seating in classrooms, standing desks, college and international flags displayed in halls, student-created murals, restructuring of cafeteria seating, and many more changes have taken place in the last two years.
- Perhaps the most significant instructional change that has happened during this time is our collective and individual recognition of the importance of "active, purposeful learning experiences"—hands-on learning. Thanks to shared professional learning, including content-area specific sessions for many, examples of courageous and exemplary practice in this area are increasing steadily.
- A significant increase in collaborative learning and sharing. Every core teacher participates in grade level planning every day. A growing number of teachers share their learning, celebrate their students, and collaborate via social media. As a result, rich learning experiences for students are becoming the norm. Changing our teaching and learning like this has been slow, but deliberately so because we want the change to last.
Making the Case for a Middle School Focus
Perhaps your district has not drafted a major strategic plan, or perhaps you are not in a position to influence school- or district-level decisions. If you are reading this article, you can make a difference in how the young adolescents you serve are educated.
Know and share the research. Early adolescence is massively different from childhood and mid to late teens. Attempting to prepare students for high school by mimicking high school is a mistake. Prepare for high school by focusing on middle school—active, purposeful learning; exploration; and rounded learning. AMLE offers an incredible wealth of research and practitioner resources for folks in your position. Those resources are having a huge impact on our work!
Advocate that others see middle school as an opportunity, not an obstacle. Popular culture has long portrayed middle school as a time to dread, recover from, and forget as soon as possible. We help perpetuate those stereotypes by our funding priorities and by accepting sympathy for our connection with middle school. Be proud of working with such amazing young humans and help others see the possibility that far outweighs the challenges.
Be the change you want to see. At the very least, determine which practices that work for young adolescents don't violate any specific board policy in your district and just do it. You may have to buck tradition; you may be criticized for questioning the status quo. Your students deserve a teacher who knows how best to teach them and does those things even when it is hard. Do the work it takes to check compliance boxes and engage in practice that really matters for student learning.
When a whole school district decides to make middle level education a priority, amazing things happen. In many ways, our middle schools are beginning to lead the way. It takes hard work and the courage (at all levels) to change. Making school work for students is not magic and there are no silver bullets. There is a significant body of research on what works that can equip committed educators who believe that Middle School Matters! to make it so.
Andrew Maxey is the director of special programs for the Tuscaloosa City Schools, Alabama.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, April 2019.