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Turning Points 2000: A Blue Print for Middle Grades Education Reform

This week, Education World interviews Dr. Anthony Jackson. He is a director of the Walt Disney Company's Disney Learning Partnership and co-author, with Dr. Gayle Davis, of the University of Maryland, of Turning Points 2000, a highly acclaimed sequel to his original report on middle grades education reform. Find out what's different in Turning Points 2000 and what educators have learned through research and practice in ten years of implementing Turning Points recommendations.

"Turning Points 2000 is a guide of what middle schools should be," enthused Bonnie Rabe, the principal of Connecticut's new Thomas Edison Middle School, an interdistrict science and technology magnet school. "I have used Turning Points ideas for years. With Turning Points 2000, we have the research to show that these strategies really work!" The experiences of educators such as Rabe, and many others who put Turning Points into practice, provide what authors Jackson and Davis call the "muscle, heart, and soul" to the renewed push for middle grades reform. This week, Education World talks with Jackson about how educators can use Turning Points 2000 to provide an exemplary experience in middle grades education.

Education World: Why did you want to write this book?

Tony Jackson: We wrote the book for several reasons. First, people have learned so much about what to do and what not to do to implement the kind of middle grades school reforms talked about in the original Turning Points that we felt compelled to bring those lessons to broad public attention. There have also been enormous advances in research on "what works" to improve schools that we wanted to synthesize with what has been learned from practical experience. And, quite frankly, we wanted to write a book that provided evidence that the middle school movement has not failed, as some have charged, but that the implementation of needed reforms has not gone far enough. The middle grades community is willing and able to go much further to improve student learning and development.

EW: Is Turning Points 2000 a departure from the original Turning Points (1989) recommendations? What are the most important differences?

Jackson: Turning Points 2000 builds on the original Turning Points and is not a substantial departure from the original recommendations. What's most different is the level of detail that we go into regarding how to actually implement Turning Points recommendations and the added emphasis we place on improving curriculum, assessment, and instruction. In the first report, curriculum, assessment, and instruction were treated in seven pages. In the new book, they get two chapters and more than 60 pages! We did that because it's this core aspect of middle grades education that most needs changing. This by no means is meant to signal that the other kinds of changes we advocate, such as in the structures that support relationships and decision making in the school, are any less important. Rather, these kinds of structural changes must be accompanied by and support dramatic changes in what and how young adolescents learn.

What we have also tried to convey is that middle grades reform involves more than a "technical fix" to existing problems. It is a very human process of inquiry, analysis, experimentation, evaluation, and revision that should be personally and professional challenging if it is to lead to big, lasting improvements in student learning.

EW: You outline seven points of approach for middle grades school reform: rigorous standards and curriculum, equitable and excellent instruction, preparation and support of expert teachers, schools organized into small units and instructional teams, democratic governance, a healthy learning environment, and schools linked with parents and communities. Of these seven points of approach, which are the most critical?

Tony Jackson: That's like asking which is more important, your heart, brain, nervous system, bones, or muscles? I'd prefer to have all of them working well, thank you! Just as the body is a system made up of a number of essential elements, so too is a high-functioning middle grades school made up of a number of well-functioning elements. What's most important? The sum is much greater than the parts! In other words, a school gets to real, sustained high achievement and positive development for all its kids when all critical systems are working well together, with each element supporting and being supported by the others.

The value of a faculty's dividing into teams, for example, is to enable teachers to work effectively together to improve instruction and enable students to meet or exceed rigorous standards that are embodied in the curriculum. A main task of the governance system, for example, is to develop a plan for improving professional development and instruction school-wide. And so on. Everything is connected to everything else, so part of what we try to provide in the book is a method for continuously pursuing improvement across a range of critical elements in a logical and orderly fashion.

EW: What is "backward design" in developing units of study for middle grades students? Why is this the better approach to instruction?

Tony Jackson: Backward design refers to starting where you want to end up in terms of student learning and crafting the links "backward" that will enable you to get there. It means, first of all, that you consider what standards you want the students to meet or exceed and let those standards be the guide for determining the actual content (curriculum) of what students will learn. Then, unlike much common practice, the next step is to determine the kind of performance (assessment) that would provide evidence that students have mastered the standards that are the target of the lesson. Only then can you consider the kind of instructional activities, which nowadays are usually determined before consideration of the appropriate assessment, that will lead students to perform well.

In effect, the kind of assessment and a clear, well-communicated notion of what acceptable and excellent performance "looks like" on that assessment, should drive the form of instruction that a teacher utilizes. Assessment should not come only at the end of a unit. Benchmarks of progress leading to a successful culminating performance should be embedded in the instructional activities so that the teacher and the student get a continuous flow of information to guide the learning process. We think this is a better approach because it takes the mystery out of learning. Students know what they need to do to achieve well, and they know how close they are getting so that they can take control of their own learning to reach the goal.

EW: There is much controversy surrounding statewide standardized testing. Do statewide tests have a role in setting academic standards? If the most important academic standards are not rooted in a core of common knowledge, what form should they take?

Jackson: Statewide tests should not set academic standards. They should reflect academic standards established by scholars, educators, and citizens within a state. If that is so, it is not clear that tests of standards can or should be "standardized" in the way that we commonly think of, in which all students take the same paper-and-pencil tests and must show their knowledge in essentially the same ways. The fact is that we use standardized tests because they are relatively inexpensive to administer and score, not because they tell us a great deal about the capacities of individual students.

I think the performance assessments that should make the most difference for students should be developed by teachers to reflect state standards and the school's curriculum and provide flexibility so that students can show their capacity in multiple ways. The quality of such assessments needs to be monitored so that they do, indeed, tap key state standards and are equitable with regard to the opportunity all students have to show what they know. Statewide tests should really be used only as a gauge of overall school performance for purposes of resource allocation and other policy decisions and never to decide the fate of an individual student.

EW: Teaching would seem to be a naturally collaborative process, yet we know teachers are not always trained to work this way. What can a school administrator do to help create a climate in which teachers feel comfortable sharing ideas and receiving constructive criticism in pursuit of equity and excellence in middle grades education?

Jackson: Probably the best way to get teachers started in serious collaborative work is to get them to regularly look at student work as a means of inquiring deeply into what is evidence of students' mastery of standards, the quality of assignment that generated the work, and other aspects of instruction. Teachers need practice and appropriate protocols, which can be obtained from outside the school or developed internally, to develop their capacity to look at student work as a means of instructional improvement.

It is the role of the principal to establish such efforts as an expectation of "how we do business" at the school. Moreover, the principal may well need to lead such efforts, at least at first. Fortunately, there are resources to help principals learn how to structure "looking at student work" sessions, such as those provided by the Education Trust (see "Front End Alignment" and "Learning in Overdrive") or the Looking at Student Work: A Window into the Classroom from the Annenberg Center for School Reform.

EW: What is the next step after Turning Points 2000?

Jackson: The next step we hope will occur is for middle grades educators to use Turning Points 2000 as a guide for making needed changes in their schools. The book represents our best effort to delineate best practices from research and expert practice and to outline a process for systematically implementing them. What we hope now happens with this information isn't different from what we hoped would occur after the release of the original Turning Points. That report did, in fact, stir many educators to take action. There are differences between now and ten years ago, however.

First, Turning Points 2000 presents a much more detailed picture of what's needed in middle grades schools to achieve excellence and equity, so educators should have a much clearer on-the-ground idea of what needs to occur. We've tried to take the mystery out of what high performance looks like in middle grades education. That doesn't mean it's any easier to achieve, but at least the goal is clear, and the means for reaching it is identified.

What's also different is the urgency in the need for substantial change in most middle grade schools, especially in low-income communities. I don't think middle grade educators have another ten years to tinker at the margins but not show substantial improvement in student learning. The public won't and should not allow another generation of young adolescents to hit the skids after elementary school.

Even now, the transition from elementary to middle school is the time many parents decide to opt out of public schools because they recognize that their local middle grades school can't provide the quality of education they know their kids will need to be competitive in the 21st century. If there is to be a Turning Points 2010, (written by someone other than me!) the subtitle must be A Decade of Improvement in the Education of Adolescents. If not, the very concept of middle grades education may be in jeopardy.


  • Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University develops, shares, and acts on knowledge that improves the conditions and outcomes of schooling in the United States, especially in urban communities and in schools serving disadvantaged children.
  • The Education Trust The Education Trust works for the high academic achievement of all students at all levels, kindergarten through college.
  • What Works in Middle-Grades School Reform? This set of articles from the Kappan Professional Journal for Education provides early evidence of the necessity to continue middle grades reform.
  • Middleweb MiddleWeb, brimming with resources for educators and parents, explores the challenges of middle school reform.
  • A Kappan Special Report: Middle-Grades Reform This special report includes the following sections: Important Developments in Middle-Grades Reform, A Vision and Beyond, A Tale of Two Reform Strategies, The Vision, Schools to Watch, and An Interview with Anthony Jackson: Turning Points 2000.
  • The National Forum to Accelerate Middle-Grades Reform The National Forum to Accelerate Middle-Grades Reform is a distinguished group of individuals committed to promoting the academic performance and healthy development of young adolescents.

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