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Solid Leadership Key to Good Middle Schools


A multi-year, national study of leadership in middle schools led by professor Jerry Valentine of the University of Missouri-Columbia's Middle Level Leadership Center showed in part that successful schools had good leaders with positive attitudes. Included: Some ingredients for a successful middle school.

The right people can make or break a middle school, according to a multi-year study of middle-level education conducted by the University of Missouri-Columbia's Middle Level Leadership Center.

One of the key elements to a school's success is an experienced principal with training in middle-level education, who has a positive attitude and is able to a create school environment that encourages cooperation and communication among staff members and between staff and administration, and between staff members and students.

Jerry Valentine

Professor Jerry W. Valentine, director of the Middle Level Leadership Center and the lead researcher for the study, talked with Education World about his findings and finding ways to create more successful middle schools.

Education World: What are the key elements for successful middle schools?

Jerry W. Valentine: In our national study of highly successful middle level schools, we found that an essential key, possibly the most essential key, to student educational success is the quality of the personnel responsible for implementing the educational programs. More specifically, we repeatedly found through our interviews, observations, surveys, and analyses of other school data that the relationships established by teachers and school administrators with each other, with students, with parents, and with the community was a key factor in school success.

When resources are scarce, when curriculum is unaligned, when external standards are imposed, when students arrive absent self-discipline or skills -- whatever the challenge -- the one variable that allowed a school to overcome the challenges and provide a high-quality educational experience for the students was the human variable. These schools stood out because of the individuals within the schools who were responsible for educating their students. The exact words of several teachers were "We do whatever it takes" for our students to be successful. So my initial response is obviously the individuals and the relationships they create.

EW: What about your study's findings surprised you the most?

Valentine: That's a good question and I am not sure I would offer the answer you might expect. What we found among the variables of the schools we studied was relatively consistent with what we have found and what others have found in studies of effective schools.

But what was most surprising to me was the challenge we had in finding our pool of 100 highly successful schools. We began the identification process in the fall of 2000 by developing criteria from existing research that could be used by school leaders from across the nation to nominate highly successful schools. Three to five educational leaders in each state who were knowledgeable about the middle level schools in their state were asked to nominate the schools by responding to questions about the best middle level schools in their state.

Approximately 275 schools were nominated and the principals of those schools were invited to respond to a survey that allowed them to document exactly how they were effectively meeting the needs of their students, particularly the academic needs. Many principals did not complete their respective questionnaires and thus voluntarily removed their schools from the search process.

"We repeatedly foundthat the relationships established by teachers and school administrators with each other, with students, with parents, and with the community was a key factor in school success."

When queried, many of those principals who did not complete the invitational survey noted that their school did not really meet the criteria effectively enough to be considered. So what was surprising was two-fold. First, the lack of knowledge about highly successful middle level schools among state leaders who should know where the highly successful schools are located, because they have the data and should have the first-hand experience with the school. Second, that even among those nominated, almost 50 percent of the principals chose not to participate, often because they knew their school was not successful enough to withstand the scrutiny of how they were meeting their students' needs.

EW: How is the principal of a middle school more critical (if at all) to creating a highly successful school than an elementary or high school principal?

Valentine: A simple "not at all" would be a safe, but somewhat incomplete, answer. The reason it would be incomplete is because we know that all levels of building leadership require similar competencies and each level has its uniqueness. Many find young adolescents to be the most challenging age group with whom to work. The profound physical, emotional, and social changes that this age group goes through are well documented.

The downward pressures of higher academic expectations and the dramatically changing social pressures of drugs, alcohol, and early sexual activity compound the normal challenges of maturation. The challenges and stresses on the students today make their young lives more complex than ever before. Among the leaders of the schools we studied, each principal and most teachers were individuals who understood those maturational issues and found it challenging, stimulating, and rewarding to work with young adolescents.

We found educators who embodied some of the commonly accepted characteristics of both the elementary and secondary levels. They were a blending of the child-focus of the elementary educator and the content-focus of the high school educator. While we know those characterizations are stereotypic, the concept of blending the stereotypes into one individual underscores the uniqueness needed by a middle level principal who must find ways to establish both concepts in today's middle-level school.

EW: What are some small steps schools can take to start them on the path to being highly successful schools?

Valentine: The mistake that most schools make is to try to quick-fix their school, often in the form of efforts to change a set of sub-par achievement scores with one or two strategies, rather than standing back, studying the bigger picture, and identifying the many components of the school that influence the sub-par scores.

Our study and those of many others confirm that becoming a highly successful school requires a comprehensive, systemic effort sustained for at least three or four years.

For some schools the starting point is often a new dynamic leader, a traumatic event, or a state or district mandate, followed by collective soul searching and a determination to do whatever it takes to become a highly successful school. The steps to be taken are many and include the patience necessary to have the honest discussions about what we value and believe as a faculty, what we know about best practices, and what we want to become as articulated in a written vision and set of goals.

The path toward becoming a highly successful middle level school begins with an honest assessment of existing values and beliefs, an understanding of best practices in curriculum, instruction, assessment, middle school practices, and change processes, and the establishment of a vision grounded in the above. That is more of a complex process, rather than a simple set of small steps.

In our study of highly successful middle level schools we found that the schools had a comprehensive process for continuous change. Though those processes were described by a variety of names, they all were built on the foundation of

  • common values, beliefs, and expectations
  • knowledge of best practice
  • a vision to guide the change
  • a plan to implement the vision
  • monitoring of pertinent data
  • patience and persistence
And without exception, the champion of the change was a talented, determined principal; not necessarily a heroic or charismatic individual, but always a knowledgeable, capable individual. So maybe the most appropriate starting point is to groom or hire that capable, talented principal, who can then lead the faculty in the development of the common expectations, vision, etc.

EW: What are your feelings on some districts' decisions to move from the middle-school model back to the K-8 schools? Is there anything in your study that would support or discourage that decision?

Valentine: I realize the espoused rationale for shifting to K-8 is to create a learning environment that protects students from the influences of urban crime and youthful juvenile behavior while providing a setting for academic emphasis and success. The shift toward a K-8 setting is reminiscent of what some of the early writers of the middle school movement called a "cocoon environment."

"Without exception, the champion of the change was a talented, determined principal; not necessarily a heroic or charismatic individual, but always a knowledgeable, capable individual."

The architects of the K-8 issue expect higher levels of achievement for the students in the more highly protected environments. The espoused plan has logical merit, but no greater merit than the espoused rationales for shifting from the K-8 elementary schools of the 1970s where well-intentioned teachers over-protected the young adolescents or the 7-8-9 junior high schools, where content-driven teachers and associated curricular programs treated young adolescents as mature adolescents.

In 1980 I had the opportunity as a young professor to lead a research team that conducted the first of three "decade" studies about middle level schools and leaders. We found, at that time and continued to find over time, that most school districts change patterns for reasons of enrollment and facilities more frequently than reasons of pedagogy. I believe that few educators today fully understand the unique and significant academic, social, emotional, and physical challenges students face and thus adapt programs accordingly.

Whether the K-8 environment is a more productive environment for students is yet to be defined empirically. Early results, primarily from the urban settings that have made the shift in recent years from 6-7-8 to K-8, are generally mixed. Other studies from rural settings, however, have noted the academic value of the K-8 setting for years.

I believe strongly that any effort short of comprehensive, systemic change that addresses the culture and climate, the pedagogy of curriculum, instruction, and assessment, the leadership of principals, teachers, and many others, and the implementation of structures such as grade patterns, schedules, and student policies, all grounded in developmental-responsiveness, will fall short in the long run. In 20 years, I will not be surprised to see that same urban district that I worked with in the 1980s that shifted from K-8 to 6-7-8 and now back to K-8 shifting to another grade pattern. It is not the pattern but the programs and the people who implement them that will make the difference.

EW: How should policy and decision makers apply this study?

Valentine: Combined with data from other studies completed in recent years, including one I am currently preparing for publication, it is clear to me that highly successful middle level schools happen because teachers and administrators know, understand, and apply the knowledge/research of best practices. They understand the importance of interface between standards, "taught" curriculum, instructional practice, and assessment. They understand that school structures designed to foster relationships and collaboration among teachers and students, students and students, teachers and parents, and principals and all groups are essential and only work if the individuals within the school want to build the critical relationships. They understand the importance of shared, distributive leadership that focuses the school on a vision of excellence and the effort they must invest to achieve excellence. They understand that all aspects of the school affect other aspects and that school-wide systemic change means that all members of the school community must constantly engage in collaborative discussions and problem solving about issues that directly affect student success.

Unfortunately, policy makers and decision makers are often minimally knowledgeable about the most current research and yield to the general pressures of those who see failure in our middle level schools and offer simplistic, quick remedies to complex problems. Above all else, policy makers and decision makers need to understand the importance of the human element in the success of schools. They should support those policies, programs, and practices in professional development, in teacher and leader preparation, and in the retention and evaluation of personnel that place only the highly capable educators in our schools.

In the end, it all boils down to whether the teachers and the formal school leaders are knowledgeable, capable, and committed enough to excellence to put forth the effort to make a poor or an average school a highly successful school for their students. Any policy that supports the placement of more capable individuals in teaching and administrative roles is a good policy. It is not rocket sciencewe know so much more about how it should be done than we see implemented in the daily practices of schooling. It takes the commitment of capable individuals to make it happen.

This e-interview with Jerry Valentine is part of the Education World Wire Side Chat series. Click here to see other articles in the series.


Article by Ellen R. Delisio
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