Focus on Success: A Comprehensive Study and Follow-Up Interviews Expose the Strategies That Successful Middle Grades Principals Share

By Frey, Susan | Leadership, November-December 2011 | Go to article overview

Focus on Success: A Comprehensive Study and Follow-Up Interviews Expose the Strategies That Successful Middle Grades Principals Share


Frey, Susan, Leadership


Successful middle schools do not happen by accident--they happen through leadership. Principals promote a shared vision that empowers school staffs to set high standards and continuously improve student achievement. And these middle grade educators also try to help their adolescent students see the connection between their work in school and their futures.

Those are among the findings of "Gaining Ground in the Middle Grades," a landmark study by EdSource, published in 2010. EdSource interviewed nine of the 303 principals who participated in the study to learn more about how successful schools' leaders are implementing these strategies and what they've learned along the way. Each of the nine schools serves low-income students and is notable for its students' academic success (see sidebar on next page).

A collaborative culture

The interviews revealed that despite the tough economic times they face, the leaders and teachers in these schools continue to work hard to create a collaborative culture. They provide adequate time for teachers to plan lessons and work together to develop more effective approaches.

Take La Merced Intermediate School, which is east of Los Angeles in the San Gabriel Valley. This school of about 1,400 mostly Latino middle graders sets aside time on Monday afternoons so teachers can converse with each other, sharing strategies that have worked as well as approaches that have not worked so well, based on data.

"Everything is out in the open," says Principal Eugene C. Kerr. "In the old days, it used to be: 'I'm going great, but I'm not going to share with anybody because I want to be the shining star.' That's a cultural change we've been able to implement." The change at La Merced was intentional and took effort. Kerr and his assistant principal met with teachers to encourage the team approach.

Similarly, teachers at Vina Danks in San Bernardino County work in teams based on subject and grade level, says Principal Ellen Ransons. The school of about 1,000 mostly Latino seventh- and eighth-graders has an accelerated magnet school within it that serves grade six as well. If data from school benchmark tests show that one teacher's students did not understand a concept while another teacher's students showed that they had a good grasp of the academic standard, Ransons expects the first teacher to seek help from the second.

The school has also set aside a period in the day that can be used for interventions. Students from any class who tested poorly on a particular standard have an opportunity to learn the material from the teacher whose students best grasped the standard the first time it was taught. Teachers get together, look at the data, and then decide who would be the best one to reteach the material in a special class session to the group of students who tested poorly.

Schools in Los Angeles Unified School District, such as Stephen M. White Middle School in Carson, collaborate in developing common lessons through the Japanese educational practice of Lesson Study. Teachers take apart and examine all elements of a lesson, then discuss strategies for teaching each element effectively. They then implement the lesson, come back and debrief, and tweak it based on their experience with it as a group.

"It's a laborious process, but it has paid dividends for kids," Principal James Noble says. "We wound up with some 'polished stones'--some actual lessons that teachers can share." Noble says the math teachers in particular have embraced this approach. They met diligently, he says, and developed common end-of-unit tasks, assessments and agendas. That way, "any student at any given week can talk with any other student at the same grade level and discipline, and they are all on the same page."

Focusing on the standards

The principals interviewed also emphasized their schools' commitment to focus on key standards selected from the full set of state standards--what is most important for students to know and be able to do in core academic subjects (such as English, math, science, social studies and the arts) at each grade level. …

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