The middle grades will play a pivotal role in enabling the nation to reach President Obama’s goal of graduating all students from high school prepared for college or advanced career training. In high-poverty neighborhoods, in particular, our research and school improvement work indicate that students’ middle grades experiences have tremendous impact on the extent to which they will close achievement gaps, graduate from high school, and be prepared for college.
Consequently, there is a need to reconceptualize the role the middle grades play in the public education system. The middle grades, broadly defined as fifth through eighth grade, need to be seen as the launching pad for a secondary and post-secondary education system that enables all students to obtain the schooling and/or career training they will need to fully experience the opportunities of 21st century America.
This brief, drawing on our research and field work, illuminates key policy and practice implications of the middle grades playing a stronger role in achieving our national goal of graduating all students from high school prepared for college or career and civic life. The brief is based on more than a decade of research and development work at the Center for the Social Organization of Schools at Johns Hopkins University. It also draws on direct field experience in more than 30 middle schools implementing comprehensive reform and a longstanding collaboration with the Philadelphia Education Fund.
We first highlight our major research findings in two critical areas—the role of the middle grades in determining the likelihood that a student will graduate from high school and their role in closing achievement gaps.
Role of Middle Grades in Determining the Odds of High School Graduation
Our fundamental finding is that in high-poverty environments a student’s middle grades experience strongly impacts the odds of graduating from high school.
Role of the Middle Grades in Closing Achievement Gaps
Efforts to keep students on the graduation path should be paired with efforts to close achievement gaps. It is during the middle grades, particularly in lower-performing schools that serve high-poverty populations, that achievement gaps often become achievement chasms. To achieve the nation’s goal of graduating all its high school students ready for college and career, it will be essential for students to enter high school with at least close-to-grade-level skills and knowledge. Many high schools have been able to provide additional supports for succeeding in high standards environments if their students enter with skill and knowledge levels equal to those of average seventh or eighth graders. However, the number of programs able to achieve similar results with students entering with upper elementary level skills—those typical of fifth and sixth graders—is much smaller. Yet in high-poverty environments, nonselective high schools often educate primarily students who enter with the skill levels of typical fifth or sixth graders. In short, these are students who lack a solid middle grades education.
Moreover, while it is arguable that a long-term solution involves better pre-K through elementary instruction so that nearly all students enter the middle grades having mastered elementary skills, middle grades schools must find ways to accelerate student learning and close rather than widen achievement gaps.
What do these research findings on the role of the middle grades in determining high school graduation and in closing achievement gaps, particularly in schools that serve high- poverty populations, imply for policy and practice in a college-and-career-readiness-for-all era?
First and foremost, the research demonstrates that the middle grades matter—tremendously. During the middle grades, students in high-poverty environments are either launched on the path to high school graduation or knocked off-track. It is a time when they can close achievement gaps and enter high school ready or at least close to ready for standards-based instruction that leads to college readiness. Alternatively, it is a time when students’ achievement gaps widen, forcing them to enter high school still in need of a good middle grades education.
These findings also demonstrate why reform is difficult, as no single reform stands out as the major action required. Using our combined Philadelphia data from our achievement gap and staying on the graduation path studies, we were able to model explicitly the contributions of major school reform elements. Essentially, we found that everything one might think matters, does so, but modestly at best. This included parental involvement, academic press, teacher support, and the perceived relevance of what was being taught and its intrinsic interest to students. Some of these factors influenced attendance, others influenced behavior or effort, and they either indirectly or directly impacted course performance, achievement gains, and graduation outcomes. It was only when all the elements were combined in a well-functioning system that major gains were observed.
Download the full policy and practice brief, available here in pdf.