EXCELLENT schools have a sense of purpose that drives every facet of practice and decision making. But what are the critical priorities that fuel that sense of purpose? The National Forum to Accelerate Middle-Grades Reform is a group of educators who believe that young adolescents are capable of learning and achieving at high levels and who are dedicated to improving schools for middle-grades students across the country. Believing that there is nothing as practical as a vision, the first step taken by the members of the forum was to develop a vision statement that would both answer the question posed above and express our shared convictions about school excellence. Through this process, we identified three interlocking priorities that are critical to the sense of purpose that permeates all aspects of successful schools. Briefly, high-performing schools with middle grades are:
* academically excellent--they challenge all of their students to use their minds well;
* developmentally responsive--they are sensitive to the unique developmental challenges of early adolescence and respectful of students' needs and interests; and
* socially equitable, democratic, and fair--they provide every student with high-quality teachers, resources, learning opportunities, and supports and make positive options available to all students.
The forum also concluded that in order to pursue these priorities, high-performing schools must be learning organizations that establish norms, structures, and organizational arrangements that will support and sustain their trajectory toward excellence.
There isn't anything in the forum's work that is exclusive to the middle grades; we believe our vision applies to all schools teaching all grade levels. However, the forum was created to advocate for dramatically improved schools for young adolescents, and, therefore, our emphasis is on the middle grades.
After developing and adopting our vision statement by unanimous consent, we all celebrated--but only briefly. We recognized that for our work to be practical, the forum would need to turn the vision statement into specific criteria for evaluating schools. We needed to develop an instrument that identified the qualities to examine and the questions to ask when assessing a middle-grades school. Could we come up with a set of criteria that would be as useful to a team of classroom teachers as it would be to a group of community members on a school governance committee, or to citizens advocating for school improvement, or to individual parents seeking a good school for their children? And would this set of criteria help the forum identify high-performing schools that others could visit and learn from?
The forum identified a set of criteria on which to evaluate each of the three priorities for high-performing middle-grades schools. The priorities and their criteria are complementary and interdependent. So, for example, an academically excellent school is one in which all students are learning to use their minds well in challenging classrooms where the curriculum, instruction, and assessments are responsive to children's developmental needs. The truly high-performing school sits at the intersection of academic excellence, developmental responsiveness, and social equity.
It is extremely difficult to find schools that excel in all three areas, as the forum discovered in 1999 when it launched its Schools to Watch (STW) program to identify, recognize, and learn from exemplary schools. Since the vision was developed, STW has become a national movement in middle-level education. Fourteen states have recognized 87 STWs, and new states and schools are being added each year. Far more important, the forum's Schools to Watch have become models from which many other schools can learn to "get it right."
In the pages that follow, we describe a selection of the criteria for each of our three priorities for excellent schools. …