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Boosting Performance in Middle Schools

How can middle school students achieve greater success? The Southern Regional Education Board offers a plan -- a plan that provides food-for-thought for all middle level educators. Included: Suggestions for developing "high expectations classrooms."

Middle school educators, we've got some good news and some bad news

The bad news is that the Southern Regional Education Board (SREB) finds a significant gap between eighth graders in the South and their counterparts in other parts of the nation.

The good news is that the SREB has put forth a plan to remedy the discrepancy.

SREB's plan might focus on the South, but it offers food-for-thought for all middle-school educators.


The second in a series of SREB reports on the condition of middle-grades education, "Raising the Bar in the Middle Grades: Readiness for Success," states that eighth graders in the South lag behind their counterparts nationwide. Perhaps, the report suggests, too little is expected of those eighth graders. For example,

  • nearly half of eighth graders in 15 Southern states never write a science report;
  • more than 60 percent have never given an oral presentation in science class; and
  • about one-third read less than five pages a day.


The first in the series of SREB reports, "Education's Weak Link: Student Performance in the Middle Grades," describes the middle grades as the "weak link" in education, nationally as well as in southern states. "The pattern of underperformance is pervasive," said Sondra Cooney, director of SREB's Middle Grades Education Initiative.

Among the findings of the first report are:

  • Eighth-grade students in rural areas and small towns of the South score lower than their counterparts across the nation in mathematics and science. Central-city eighth graders across the nation and in the SREB states have the lowest achievement.
  • Data suggest that math and science are often taught from a textbook with weekly tests, a pattern that results in scores almost 30 points lower on the National Assessment of Educational Progress than for students who do more hands-on learning and are tested less frequently.
But that report offered some good news too. "Schools that have made mathematics, science, or reading a top priority, by planning how to improve learning in all subjects and classes, have students who perform at higher levels," said Cooney. "In SREB states, eighth graders in schools that report positive parent support have the same NAEP scores as eighth graders nationwide."


"We should be putting everything we do in schools and classrooms to a simple test: How does this help students learn more?" Cooney said.

One reason students in middle school need to learn more is to prepare for high school work. In order to be ready for high school, the second SREB report says, students should meet challenging requirements that might include

  • reading 30 books a year,
  • writing a research paper,
  • completing an algebra course, and
  • designing, conducting, and presenting a science investigation.
When students aren't ready for high school, they have trouble attaining reading and math proficiency as well as doing investigative work in science and analyzing and synthesizing information in social studies.


There is a pattern of practices in schools with lagging performances, says the report "Raising the Bar in the Middle Grades: Readiness for Success." Changing these practices can eliminate the lag.

Data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) and the Third International Mathematics and Science Study report that sorting students into different levels, or tracking, limits their access to further opportunities; students for whom there are lower expectations often don't take on more challenging work.

Another widespread problem is that most middle schools do not put forth common expectations for the content knowledge and skills needed by all students to be ready for high school work.

In addition, the report notes, common key practices in many middle schools aren't used to their potential. For example, advisory periods that are supposed to provide middle school students with social and emotional support necessary for academic achievement in school instead are likely to consist only of roll call, school announcements, and social time for students.


How do administrators and teachers, working with parents, at middle schools with performance problems change course? Here are some suggestions from "Raising the Bar in the Middle Grades: Readiness for Success."

One key action to improve student achievement is putting student academic performance at the center of education. Leaders must avoid finger pointing and bring parents and teachers together to refine and update the curriculum and then put the emphasis on student academic performance. What students are expected to know and do should be described clearly and coupled with examples of quality student work.

What the second report calls "high expectation classrooms" should be developed. This kind of classroom, the report says,

  • devotes more time to learning,
  • clearly states goals and performance criteria for all students,
  • seeks clarity and comprehension of content and factual knowledge commensurate with grade level,
  • believes all students can do tasks and solve problems successfully,
  • requires students to reflect, analyze, synthesize, and evaluate,
  • uses various methods and materials and communicates joy in learning and doing,
  • provides time for students to cooperate and experiment with various learning strategies,
  • supports teamwork and challenges all students to take part, and
  • connects learning to students' lives.
In good schools, according to the report, learning "is based on challenging standards for all students, and quality is upheld consistently through descriptions of acceptable performance."

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Article by Sharon Cromwell
Education World®
Copyright © 2006 Education World

Links Updated 2/27/2006