Academic journal article Middle School Journal

Middle Grades Education Policy: From Stagecraft to Strategy

Academic journal article Middle School Journal

Middle Grades Education Policy: From Stagecraft to Strategy

Article excerpt

When Turning Points 2000: Educating Adolescents in the 21st Century (Jackson & Davis, 2000) was released, the 15 states that had been involved in Carnegie Corporation of New York's Middle Grade School State Policy Initiative (MGSSPI) had just spent most of the 1990s focusing attention on state-level policy involving middle grades education. In the years since the book's release and since the MGSSPI ended, middle grades education policy, too often, seems to have become more stagecraft than strategy, trotted out under the spotlight as the villain when test scores were low and then hustled back off stage before the villain could be redeemed. Turning Points 2000 did not give adequate attention to the policy or advocacy implications of its recommendations for developing and sustaining high-performing middle grades schools or how to go about drawing policymakers' attention and support. In this article, I use theater as a metaphor to highlight efforts in Georgia to bring the middle grades to center stage in state policy. I use my adopted home state as an example of how middle grades advocates might take the first steps toward a policy and advocacy strategy that goes beyond stagecraft and represents real potential to generate attention and, eventually, applause.

Overview of the issue: The ties that bind

The campaign to earn applause must begin with getting the audience's attention. The audience for policy and advocacy efforts involving middle grades education draws from multiple levels: community, district, region, state, and nation-everyone from the taxpaying neighbor without children to the local school board member, state education agency staffer, and representative to the U.S. Congress. To capture the attention of Georgia's state policymakers, particularly legislators in a state facing a long-running economic crisis, the ties that bind middle grades education to dropout prevention and the economic success of the state have to be made visible and irrefutable. What makes middle grades education a viable candidate for a leading role in the state's drama? This overview section highlights the argument used in Georgia to demonstrate the ties that bind.

Historically, education for young adolescents has occupied a shadowland in the world of federal and state legislation and policy. Caught between early elementary and high school interventions, middle grades education (considered grades 4-8 in Georgia) has been overlooked by policies intended to establish strong foundations in language and mathematics in the early grades, on the one hand, and policies meant to improve high school graduation rates and career and college success on the other. However, recent research underscores the middle grades as a critical turning point for young adolescents and their prospects for high school graduation (e.g., Balfanz & Byrnes, 2006; Balfanz, Herzog, & Mac Iver, 2007). Students gradually disengage from their schooling, often making the decision to drop out long before high school, when most dropout prevention efforts get underway (Reschly, 2009). In short, the middle grades cannot be ignored in national and state efforts to reduce dropout rates and to improve high school graduation rates, college preparedness, and career readiness. A report from ACT (2008) highlights this shadowland status of what the report calls "the forgotten middle."

The results of our research show that the amount of progress students have made toward college and career readiness by eighth grade is crucial to their future success. Despite the fact that students may pass eighth grade exit tests, too many are arriving at high school so far behind academically that, under current conditions, they cannot become ready for college and career, regardless of the rigor of the high school curriculum, the quality of high school instruction, or the amount of effort they put into their coursework. (p. 9)

High school dropout and completion rates have an undisputed and significant impact on the economy at the local, state, and national levels. …

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