Lost in the Middle: Middle Schools Seeking a Place in National Education Policy

by Geoffrey Alan
Published in SEDL Letter Volume XX, Number 1, April 2008, Making the Most of Middle School

How are middle school students doing? To find out, Congress looks to the National Assessment on Educational Progress (NAEP). This federally supported measure, commonly called “the nation’s report card,” leaves little doubt that student achievement falls dramatically, most severely among minority and low-income students, between grades 4 and 8.

photo of a girl walking with a backpack

In fact, fewer than one third of eighth graders read proficiently, according to the 2007 NAEP. That figure has declined during the past decade, even as NAEP reading scores and achievement levels for fourth graders have climbed. And studies show that while U.S. students do not begin middle school behind their international peers in math and science, they lag as they enter high school.

Given all that, lawmakers might be expected to ensure that middle schools get at least their fair share of support. But federal dollars go disproportionately to the elementary and high school grades. Students at the middle level—grades 5–8, according to most advocates—represent nearly a quarter of the country’s public school population and more than half of those tested under federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) mandates, yet only about 15% of Title I funds are appropriated to middle schools.

The rising crisis at the middle level has advocates calling for national policy solutions. Middle schools need their own special legislation precisely because the nation’s 15 million middle schoolers have special needs, says Betty Edwards, executive director of the National Middle School Association (NMSA).

“Young adolescents between the ages of 10 and 15 experience more rapid and profound changes— intellectual, physical, social, emotional, moral—than at any other time in their lives,” says Edwards. “There is a noted interdependence between their academic success and having developmental needs met, so we must provide learning environments that support and encourage the growth, development, and learning of young adolescents.”

Legislators are listening. In October 2007, the Success in the Middle Act was introduced in the Senate. The act, which would fund new efforts reaching out to middle schoolers and curbing dropouts (see sidebar), represents the culmination of years of work by an unprecedented coalition. But the proposed legislation has barely begun its journey to become law, and where it will end remains in question.

Stepping Up

The movement coalesced a decade ago with the formation of the National Forum to Accelerate Middle Grades Reform, which aimed to pool the energy and expertise of interested parties such as NMSA and the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP). Within a few years, member organizations saw an emerging fervor for reform in secondary schools, says Deborah Kasak, the National Forum’s executive director.

But Kasak, previously a state middle school association director and a former middle school teacher herself, says that National Forum members were disappointed to see little mention of the middle grades in the landmark NCLB law passed by Congress in 2001. Aside from testing requirements, federal policy provided only a patchwork of grants for items like professional development and technology, Kasak and other advocates complain. Some suggest that the law has even made matters worse. While some states maintained middle-grades teacher qualification requirements before NCLB, states soon abolished those requirements when they found that the law included no such mandate. So National Forum members began building their case.

In 2006, NMSA released Success in the Middle: A Policymaker’s Guide to Achieving Quality Middle Level Education, a report outlining policy priorities based on key attributes of effective middle schools, from “challenging, standards-based curricula” to “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.” NASSP released Breaking Ranks in the Middle around the same time, echoing many of NMSA’s recommendations.

A growing body of research has linked the middle years with declines in student motivation, self-perception, and achievement. Kasak, for instance, says the National Forum’s cause gained significant traction following a 2006 study by Johns Hopkins University’s Robert Balfanz and Douglas MacIver. The study, which tracked more than 12,000 Philadelphia students from sixth grade to a year after high school, found that many in high-poverty schools became disengaged at the start of the middle grades and thus were less likely than peers to graduate.

Armed with such findings, several National Forum organizations rapidly assembled what they call the Middle Grades Coalition in early 2007 to advocate for federal legislation. Coalition members worked first with aides of Representative Raúl Grijalva, a former school board member, to draft legislation.

“It was so refreshing to go into a legislator’s office, and we didn’t have to convince him of anything—he already knew it all,” Kasak says of Grijalva, who introduced the Success in the Middle Act in the House of Representatives in August. “We probably are better organized than ever before. We have a vision.”

Serious Challenges

Many in the middle school community say today’s problems are rooted in the conventional wisdom manifested in NCLB—that if students are given basic building blocks for a sound education in the early grades and made to meet high standards of accountability before graduating from high school, what happens in the middle takes care of itself. But it’s not that simple.

Success in the Middle Act

  • Under the proposed federal legislation, $1 billion a year would be authorized to improve low-performing schools that contain middle grades (5–8).
  • States would make detailed plans to improve middle school achievement, including describing what students must know and do to successfully complete middle school.
  • Early warning data systems would identify students most at-risk of dropping out and intervene to help them succeed.
  • States and school districts would invest in proven strategies, such as research-based professional development for teachers, schoolwide improvement efforts, and student supports such as personal academic plans and mentoring.
  • An additional $100 million would be authorized to generate and disseminate research on effective middle-level practices.

“Learning is continuous and must be supported along each step,” says Edwards. “Further, if you lose students in the middle level, it is too difficult—and more expensive—to reengage them and expand their learning.”

Edwards also sees problems in the way the middle grades are served in facilities variously called elementary, middle, intermediate, junior high, and high schools. “Middle-level educators have felt left out for years, and they often don’t even see themselves in existing policy that addresses elementary and secondary education,” she says. “It is not the grade configuration that makes a difference. It is the program that is offered to students in grades 5 through 8 that makes the difference. There are distinct needs that must be addressed, both in policy and action.”

Peter Murphy, executive director of the California League of Middle Schools, blames challenges partly on the bad reputation of the student population. Because young adolescents often are seen as difficult to teach, public education systems have faced hurdles in attracting qualified instructors to this level.

The federal government must take the first step in solving these problems by signaling that the middle grades represent a worthwhile investment, says Murphy. “Kids are going to stay in school and do better if they feel that someone is interested in them,” he says.

Seizing the Moment

Advocates say a message must be sent to struggling educators and the public as well. “The Success in the Middle Act not only would provide the funding to address the needs of underachieving middle-level schools, but it also would help underline the needs,” says Edwards. “If you could see the looks on the faces of middle-level educators when I tell them about this proposed legislation, you would know that it would have a positive impact. This is the first time that the middle level has been addressed in federal legislation, and that means so much.”

The federal government must take the first step in solving these problems by signaling that the middle grades represent a worthwhile investment.

Rather than targeting children from low-income families, the legislation focuses on low-performing middle schools, including those feeding nearly 2,000 so-called “dropout factories” nationwide. Dropout factories are high schools where 60% or fewer of freshmen become seniors 3 years after ninth grade. These schools account for roughly half of the nation’s dropouts.

“It’s time for middle school supporters to step up to the plate and say there’s some major things to fix here,” says Kathy Christie, vice president of Education Commission of the States, who taught in one of the country’s first middle schools in 1973. She says that a top priority must be gaining back public confidence in the structure.

“Passing the legislation will be the first step,” says Edwards. “We will have to work together to implement the actions that lead to success, but I already hear so much discussion about what needs to be done and how we will do it. Representatives from NMSA, our state affiliates, state departments of education, and local school districts are already talking about what they can do with the assistance of this legislation.”

photo of a boy reading

Over the Horizon

Reauthorization of NCLB, currently underway, is widely seen as a crucial opportunity for the movement. The Success in the Middle Act has been paired with NCLB. Hopes for a quick victory are fading, however, as Congress increasingly appears unable to resolve key issues on NCLB soon. Negotiating a revision of the controversial law would be difficult at any time. In a campaign season, the process is especially thorny. If the House and Senate do not pass NCLB bills soon, the impending arrival of a new president is likely to further delay development of a compromise version for the two chambers to approve. NCLB reauthorization could take years.

“But they’re all talking about the middle grades now,” says Kasak, voicing a common belief that the introduction of federal legislation already is sparking conversation and action at the state and local levels. “We’re not going to go away.”

“National attention has focused almost exclusively on the early grades in the belief that giving students a strong start would put them on a path to success. More recently, policymakers have sought to improve high school education by raising graduation requirements and aligning curricula to better prepare students for college and careers. Yet the United States still does not have a cohesive national policy for the middle grades. . . . [T]he continued failure to recognize middle level education as the crucial link in the K–12 continuum is jeopardizing the efforts to improve America’s schools.”

— Success in the Middle, National Middle School Association

“It is a really important time for adolescents, and we really do need to get it right,” Christie insists. “At stake is a lot. The criticism from the public has been all about rigor and discipline.” All this cannot be lost on lawmakers, who must decide sooner or later what emphasis to place on middle schools in federal legislation.

“Under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, 57% of the students tested annually are in grades 5 through 8,” former NMSA Executive Director Sue Swaim noted on the release of Success in the Middle. “Much of the success of No Child Left Behind will depend upon the success of young adolescents.”

“If middle-level education is improved, K–12 education as a whole will be improved,” says Swaim’s successor, Edwards. “I don’t want that to sound arrogant or simplistic—it’s just that a comprehensive look at the middle level as it connects elementary with high school education is logical. It just makes sense.”

Geoffrey Alan is a freelance writer who writes frequently about education issues.

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