Academic journal article Middle School Journal

From "Muddle School" to Middle School: Building Capacity to Collaborate for Higher-Performing Middle Schools

Academic journal article Middle School Journal

From "Muddle School" to Middle School: Building Capacity to Collaborate for Higher-Performing Middle Schools

Article excerpt

High-performing middle level schools build capacity to support collaboration and student success.

We used to be called the "muddle school"-but not anymore.

-teacher, Vernon-Verona-Sherrill Middle School

During a recent study that identified some of the key differences between higher- and average-performing middle level schools, one teacher explained how her school had, for years, been called the "muddle" school by residents in the three communities it serves. She attributed this negative moniker to the fact that when the school made the transition from being a junior high to being a middle school, teachers were put on teams and simply told, "You will be on a team." Like educators in other schools in this study, this teacher went on to describe a number of practices through which she and her colleagues had built the capacity to work together to improve the school culture and student performance. A decade later, her school has become the "best kept secret" in the area. What practices helped to build capacity to collaborate in this school? In this article, we share findings from a study of higher-performing schools that exhibited four common characteristics: a culture that supports a shared vision of high achievement, a climate of respect and trust that enacts the school and district vision, structures and expectations that reinforce collaboratively supported instruction and a coherent program, and encouragement of teacher initiative taking and leadership. These four interrelated elements show how higher-performing schools embody two of the characteristics recommended in This We Believe: Keys to Educating Young Adolescents (National Middle School Association [NMSA], 2010): their leadership demonstrates courage and collaboration, and their organizational structures foster purposeful learning and meaningful relationships.

Capacity building for collaboration at the middle level

Capacity building at the middle level emerges from a complex web of factors that go beyond common planning time, teaming, and block scheduling (Brown, Anfara, Jr., & Roney, 2004; Mattox, Hancock, & Queen, 2005; Van Zee, Lay, & Roberts, 2003). Additional factors include shared academic goals and teachers' sense of shared mission, community support and programmatic integrity, and administrator leadership and resource support (Hoy & Hannum, 1997). In this study, capacity building is defined as the processes and practices used to increase the potential ability to perform, and performance includes not just teaching and learning but also attending to student needs more generally and participating in running the school (Tichy, 1983).

Others have explored the relationship between capacity building and student performance from a variety of angles. In a series of studies replicated in 20 states, capacity building and, specifically, the quality of collaboration as a component of capacity building, was found to be one of the most significant factors impacting student achievement in high-performing schools (National Center for Educational Accountability [NCEA], 2007). A recent national survey of middle level schools showed more collaboration in highly successful schools designated as Schools to Watch and Breakthrough Schools than in a random sample of schools (McEwin & Greene, 2010), further highlighting the need for collaborative practices at the middle level. Many other studies have found that the most effective schools are those in which administrators and teachers work together toward mutual goals, sharing responsibility for decision making and outcomes (e.g., Bartlett & Ghoshal, 1990; Friend & Cook, 1996). For such collaboration to occur, a broad base of staffneed the skills to be able to participate in the process (Lambert, 1998).

The importance of collaborative relationships and shared vision in schools is widely acknowledged in the middle level literature, including This We Believe: Keys to Educating Young Adolescents (NMSA, 2010), Turning Points 2000 (Jackson & Davis, 2000), and Breaking Ranks in the Middle (National Association of Secondary School Principals, 2006). …

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