Remember the crucial middle school years

By Kathreen Harrison | Jan 23, 2014

As budget season heats up, school board members should make sure they are basing decisions at least partially on current research about what makes schools successful.

A recent report out of the Center for Education Policy, Applied Research, and Evaluation at the University of Southern Maine conclusively — and not surprisingly — establishes that “…levels of school poverty and average student achievement are related.”

The good news is that the report suggests that some schools with high poverty rates do significantly better than others at educating students. Students born to poverty, in other words, are not necessarily fated to do worse than their wealthier peers. The report tries to tease out the factors that contribute to a better school performance.

One conclusion of note is that high poverty K-8 schools seem to be doing a better job of educating their older students than high poverty middle schools. Student achievement at the eighth-grade level in higher poverty schools is better statewide in K-8 schools than in middle schools. This is particularly true of K-8 schools with a sizable percentage of teachers holding master’s degrees.

The data about K-8 schools should impact school board discussions about merging, closing, and consolidating schools. Before school boards move to close any community schools they should be prepared to explain to their stakeholders why student achievement in the case of their particular schools will not suffer.

Overall in Maine the trend is for achievement in students in higher poverty schools to begin to decline after the elementary school years. The middle school years, in other words, are the vulnerable point in our system.

School boards should therefore think very carefully about the decisions they make that involve middle schools. I suggest they reach out to experts of all kinds — from teachers, to administrators, to researchers — to help them make decisions that will reverse the trend toward declining achievement at the middle school level in higher poverty schools.

If I were on a school board that was considering change at the middle school level I would start by getting in touch with the Center for Education Policy, Applied Research, and Evaluation at the University of Southern Maine. I would ask them for advice on where to turn for guidance on how to configure the schools in my district.

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