Stuck in the Middle

Chris CarusoAs in many parts of the country, NYC middle schools are struggling to effectively educate our adolescents. Last September, responding to the fact that middle school students are underperforming—less than 40 percent of 8th graders are currently at or above proficiency on standardized reading and math exams—NYC Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott announced a targeted set of initiatives to “turn around” middle schools.

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NYU’s Research Alliance for New York City’s Schools (which released this report on conditions for successful middle school turnarounds and strategies to improve teaching and learning) brought together a terrific collection of educators, researchers and policymakers this week to explore challenges and opportunities for middle grades. In this colloquium we touched on school climate, instructional leadership and curriculum development.

There was a seriousness and richness to the many conversations. The stakes felt high—underscored by the Chancellor’s statement in his opening remarks that “the middle school years can be ‘make or break’ for our students. We can do everything to strengthen our pre-K programs, elementary schools and high schools, but it is extremely difficult to climb back after falling off track in the middle grades.”

These were my three top takeaways:

1. Notions of Accountability Should Be Expanded
When thinking about preparing students for high school, college and beyond, we must embrace a broader set of accountability strategies—both in terms of what we are measuring and who is responsible. Pedro Noguera rightfully argued that accountability cannot just flow “in one direction from the top.” Principal empowerment should not minimize the responsibilities of Tweed, nor does it negate the roles of parents, communities, and businesses to share accountability for providing middle school students with learning opportunities.

2. Expectations of Students Should Be Broadened
Calls for high expectations for students and teachers are tossed around a lot in ed reform conversations. Often these expectations are poorly defined and limited to proficiency on standardized tests. I was encouraged to hear several DOE principals speak about instilling expectations for their students’ character as well as their academic performance. I was especially impressed with the standards around “Habits of Work and Learning” that Brett Kimmel uses at the Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School.

3. Relationships Are Key
A foundation of positive youth development is strong relationships between young people and adults. What I learned from this colloquium is that school leaders believe that close and sustained relationships benefit not just students, but their teachers too. It was refreshing to hear principals discuss practices to intentionally break down the barriers between teachers, students and families.

All of the above can be applied to schools at any level, including the new kindergarten-through-eighth grade and sixth-through-twelfth grade schools DOE will open in September.