Streamlining the first year of middle school to smooth the transition
What if I told your school administrative team that there is a classroom intervention that does not require substantial increases in staffing, does not require extra funds from the school or district, but still manages to dramatically increase student achievement? Would you be interested? Of course you would!
What is Project SUCCESS?
Project SUCCESS (Student Unified Curriculum Combining English, digital literacy, Science, and Social Studies) is an innovative student-centered approach to middle school instruction that features heterogeneously grouped students with one teacher for four subject areas each day. The program has demonstrated a clear elimination of opportunity gaps based on socioeconomic status and decreases the predictability of achievement according to race. Students in Project SUCCESS have also demonstrated markedly higher levels of reading proficiency as compared to their peers outside the program.
As all teachers in the middle level know (and as research has shown), as soon as students transition to middle school, a wide array of students begin to develop negative perceptions of the classroom environment and decrease their overall educational engagement. Project SUCCESS was designed to address the dip in achievement associated with the transition to middle school. While enrolled, students spend half of each school day with one teacher and one intact peer group. As a result, the number of different teachers, class transitions, and disparate peer groupings these students experience in the first year of middle school are significantly reduced compared to those who receive fully departmentalized instruction.
The teachers who instruct Project SUCCESS are more interested in what students want to learn, more invested in helping students with personal/social problems, and less concerned about grades for the sake of grading. Student climate survey data indicates that students value their peer interactions more, are more oriented to mastery goals, and are significantly less concerned about academic comparisons than their peers.
Students in Project SUCCESS receive interdisciplinary instruction in four subjects from one teacher who spends significantly more time each day with each student. Most importantly, Project SUCCESS allows students to build genuine, productive relationships with their teacher with whom their academic and social learning needs are more closely identified and strengthened. Ultimately, the semi-self-contained interdisciplinary instruction in Project SUCCESS is designed to reduce or eliminate the pervasive social and academic effects of the transition from elementary school to the typical departmentalized middle school.
Most middle school classrooms and teachers nationwide provide instruction that is aligned to a specific content and department. Originally, departmentalization was designed to create content experts who develop fewer lessons of a higher quality. However, the large number of students that each teacher is responsible to teach in a departmentalized schedule make it challenging for teachers to get to know each student well and customize their instruction to meet students’ academic and social-emotional needs. From the point of view of students, content-driven teachers often seem more concerned with the content than the student themselves. Students often have seven or eight different classes and teachers, and a shifting group of peer relationships to navigate, which can impair their social development with both classmates and teachers.
One of the great benefits of Project SUCCESS is that it does not require a large infusion of money or training. Mostly, it is a matter of school administrative teams having the courage to change their organizational structures and finding teachers who are willing to take on a new challenge. With that said, however, there are several best practices to follow when implementing the program. Project SUCCESS (PS) teachers receive three major areas of support:
- Planning: Each teacher has a common planning period with the school’s other PS teacher twice a week so that the pair can further develop interdisciplinary curricular connections, modify instructional strategies to match students’ needs, and refine a coherent series of student-centered learning opportunities.
- Curriculum: When PS was first developed and piloted in one middle school in 2014, a curriculum specialist in each subject from the district’s curriculum office and the school-specific teacher coach worked closely with the original PS teachers to create quarterly planners. The planners unified the four subjects, refined overarching understandings, and created essential questions that served to underpin the interdisciplinary program.
- Professional development: PS teachers receive professional development support prior to the start of each year. For example, current PS teachers participated in a professional learning session led by a former PS teacher that focused on methods of purposefully building a supportive classroom community and how to plan for the standardized overarching understandings. Teachers also receive ongoing embedded professional development and planning support throughout the year through school-based development and teacher coaches.
Barriers and Solutions to PS Implementation
As with any school design shift, there are barriers that will arise. Below are two major barriers, along with some solutions to consider.
Barrier: Teacher Beliefs
The first barrier is to address the mindset of teachers who may question the integrity and goals of the program as a whole. It is important to remember that not only do these teachers currently teach within the confines of departmentalization, but they most likely learned in the same environment as a student themselves. With this empathetic approach, it is important to understand that it may be a dramatic mindshift to ask a secondary teacher to focus on four different content areas instead of just one or two. A majority of secondary educators have been trained as specialists in one particular area and have come to see themselves solely in that light. PS asks teachers to think of themselves as instructors of students first, content second. It is also important to emphasize that with so many different content areas to learn and master, it is perfectly acceptable to tell students “I don’t know the answer right now” when students ask questions. It can be liberating to not have all the answers prior to a lesson and have to sift through the material with students. It models behavior you want to see in students when you show them how to find information and demonstrates a certain amount of vulnerability on your part.
Barrier: Teacher Workload
PS asks a lot of its teachers. It is no easy task to plan four subject areas every single day. Schools need to look at the time and structures they already have in place and ask themselves if it is conducive to teacher’s planning in a new, interdisciplinary manner. Additionally, teachers need to be prepared to work through any issues that arise with students. This could be student-student issues, or teacher-student issues. The beauty of PS is that there is no running away from these issues when they arise. One cannot just “endure” for 45 minutes and then forget that anything happened. The amount of time each individual class spends with each other necessitates that the teacher work through conflict. Although conflict resolution may be difficult at times, it is part of the reason the climate in the class ends up feeling more like a family. There is no running away or ignoring issues that can severely impact student well-being.
First, you should implement Project SUCCESS; it has been proven to dramatically reduce the achievement gaps that exist between students. One of the first considerations for your administrative team is to determine if you have teachers with the right mindset to pilot PS in your school. Next, with your master scheduler, determine what must be in place for your school to shift the school’s schedule; PS has thrived both in schools with block scheduling and in schools with the traditional seven period schedule. Once you have identified the teachers and when they will be teaching, start giving them the time and support they need to sift through the content areas to develop meaningful lessons. As the year progresses, make sure PS teachers are meeting with each other regularly and debriefing with administrators periodically. As always, open and honest dialogue about what may or may not be working will help lead to happier teachers and more successful students.