Research in urban middle schools shows that substantial improvement can be made quickly

iStock_000002424978XSmallThe Johns Hopkins Talent Development Middle School model aims to transform high-poverty, urban middle schools into strong learning institutions. The goal is to provide every student with a standards-based education and every teacher with the training, support, and materials needed to deliver it. Two of the model’s developers, Robert Balfanz and Douglas Mac Iver, report on lessons learned during the first five years of a 10-year field test of this model in five high-poverty middle schools in Philadelphia. They discuss obstacles and breakthroughs they have encountered in developing the knowledge, material and infrastructure needed to transform such schools.

These researchers at the Center for Research on the Education of Students Placed At Risk, focused their attention on middle schools because that is where, they believe, the battle of urban education is lost. They contend that most urban middle schools lack well-prepared teachers and strong curricula. And it is during these early adolescent years that students become disengaged from school and fail to receive the academic preparation they need to succeed in high school.

Their goal was to develop a powerful but flexible whole-school reform model for urban middle schools. Previous reform programs have been successful in helping many middle schools change their climates and structures to become more caring, happier and more peaceful places for students and adults. However, most of these schools have not been able to take the next step: improving the academic performance of their students.

Components for academic succsss

These researchers write that there are several critical elements needed to turn low-performing, high-poverty middle schools into strong learning institutions that take a “no excuses” approach to student success. Schools need to employ research-supported instructional strategies, a standards-based curriculum, and student assessment in core subjects. Teachers need intensive support (at least 38 hours per year for two years), including ongoing grade- and subject-specific staff development, sustained in-classroom implementation support, and contact with other teachers who are using the same instructional programs. Students need extra-help to enable them to succeed in high-level, standards-based courses. Ongoing research, evaluation and refinement of reform efforts are necessary, and reformers must have a deep commitment to develop school, district, and community capacity to sustain reforms.

These researchers have worked closely with five urban middle schools to develop and refine this model. Each school serves between 750 and 1,500 students, 75 percent to 90 percent of whom qualify for meal subsidy. There are generally high rates of student and teacher turnover, large numbers of apprentice teachers and long-term substitutes, substantial bilingual populations, low faculty morale, and limited student expectations. In four of the five schools, students entered with test scores approximately two years below grade level in math and reading and completed eighth grade testing three years below grade level.

Lessons Learned

1. Low-performing, urban middle schools can realize substantial and systematic improvements in learning and academic achievement in a relatively short time. For the three schools for which there is post-test data, significant gains in student learning across core subjects occurred on the Stanford 9 achievement test in the first year of implementation.

2. Inattention to the technical core of teaching and learning is a major source of poor student performance in these schools. The technical core includes curriculum, instructional materials, academic learning time, and professional development. Not surprisingly, achievement suffers when students lack a coherent, consistent and increasingly complex standards-based curriculum in each core subject. Students need organized and sustained extra help linked to their classroom lessons to increase their achievement. Teachers need coherent curriculum that builds grade by grade; essential supplies and learning materials; staff development that is immediately useful because it is linked to the program they are using and the grade they are teaching; and in-class coaching help from a peer who is there to support rather than evaluate.

3. An initial focus on academic development combined with an effort to create a sense of community is essential. The organization of teaching and learning, the nature of classroom practice, the roles and responsibilities of students and teachers, and belief systems regarding what constitutes success often need to be fundamentally changed. Students, teachers and administrators must all work hard to make these substantial changes. Balfanz and Mac Iver report that this has been achieved by initially placing emphasis on the teaching and learning tools that students and teachers need and then creating conditions that personalize and increase the quality and depth of student-teacher interactions. For students and teachers to function at a high level, a peaceful and respectful school climate must be created and maintained. Students and teachers develop caring and supportive attitudes toward one another when learning communities are small and teachers and students stay together for more than one year.

4. The most effective way to systematically achieve high standards is to implement and support high-quality, research-based instructional programs in each major subject school-wide. Many teachers initially express skepticism about their students’ ability to do high-level work. The experience of implementing a high-quality, research-based instructional program and working to customize and refine it for their students’ needs changes many of their minds. But they point out that even with high-quality materials, researchers and teachers often have to develop supports for students with poor skills.

5. Multiple layers of sustained technical assistance and support are needed for comprehensive reform. In this study, intensive, on-site technical assistance and support were needed for successful whole-school reform. Providing schools with a vision, a planning process, and even a blueprint accompanied by initial training and assessment tools is typically not enough. Day-to-day stress and high turnover rates sap the energy, divert the focus and undermine the follow-through needed to implement and sustain reforms in these schools. When these researchers were able to provide multiple layers of support, they saw significant success even in the most difficult schools. Intensive organizational support is needed as well, to help schools reorganize their scheduling, staffing and budgeting. Help ordering and delivering materials, diagnosing the source of school climate problems, and reconceptualizing leadership and responsibilities of staff and administrators are all necessary. Schools need support in all these areas on a continuing basis. Any less support, or even a phased approach, will not turn around the lowest-performing schools.

6. Customizing and localizing these proven school reforms creates ownership among the administrators and teachers in these schools. These researchers present a comprehensive model to schools which then incorporate their own successful strategies and strengths into the model. Schools’ recognizing their prior achievements and investments in reform is critical for adopting the more comprehensive reform program.

7. The pervasive mobility of teachers, administrators and students continually threatens the sustainability of reforms. This is perhaps the biggest obstacle to implementing and sustaining reforms, even proven ones. Change of principals is particularly challenging, since each new leader brings a vision with her. However, these researchers have found that a key to surviving high rates of administrative change is for them to build a strong relationship with the faculty. It is a mistake, they find, to put too much faith in the ability of the principal to carry out and sustain whole-school reform initiatives. Teacher turnover presents a serious problem as well. As soon as teachers in these schools gain experience with effective teaching strategies, they are sought after by other higher-performing schools. The only antidote to high rates of mobility is for administrators and researchers to work with the school to create a better environment in which teachers feel a strong sense of community and receive the support they need.

8. You can get the technical aspects of school reform right and still be undone by getting the relationships wrong. Because these reforms are so comprehensive, they require a lot of time to develop support at the district level. Positive relationships must be built with many individuals without the participants’ being pulled into district politics. Each school and district is unique and requires constant attention.

9. To succeed in large, complex school districts, you need local friends and partners both in and out of the school district.There is a constant need to introduce and reintroduce the reform to multiple audiences, convince them of its merits, demonstrate its accordance with local initiatives, and show that you are willing and able to work in the best interests of the district.

10. Key to creating widespread reform is to get schools and districts to understand and fund the true costs of reform. The costs of comprehensive reform include instructional materials, professional development and implementation support. The costs of instructional materials are the same as schools traditionally spend. Professional development can be expensive if teachers must be paid to attend. However, in this field test in Philadelphia, the school system teamed up with a university to offer credits for professional development and reduced the cost of 35 hours of development to $175 per teacher per year.

The most expensive part of the reform model is providing sustained in-class implementation support. These researchers have learned that at a minimum, each school needs one day a week of support in each core subject. This requires each school to fund one position and then share the services of three subject-specific instructional coaches. In this way, schools reform up to three core subjects at one time. Instructional coaches cannot successfully work with more than three schools at a time. Coaches spend one day a week at each of three schools, a flex day at the school most in need, and one day planning and developing materials. In total, these researchers estimate that the cost of reform will be approximately $100,00 to $150,000 a year for about five years to successfully turn low-performing, high-poverty, urban middle schools into strong learning institutions.

The challenge is convincing schools and districts that this is not a large sum. For a middle school with 1000 students that spends $5000 per student, it means finding one to two percent of the budget for effective comprehensive reform. In many of the Philadelphia schools in the study, there was almost a 1:1 ratio between teaching and nonteaching positions. Part of the challenge is to convince schools to husband their resources, and fund one comprehensive reform rather than support multiple piecemeal efforts. These researchers stress that obvious cost-cutting measures such as giving their own teachers release time to serve as instructional coaches, do not work.


Five years of research with this comprehensive reform model for poor, urban middle schools reveals that it is possible to achieve substantial improvements quite quickly. However, it takes constant attention and an enormous amount of energy and hard work. The key reforms in this model appear to be broadly reproducible across schools, but creating the will to support such reforms in school districts is difficult. In order for poor middle schools to become strong learning institutions, we have to reject the attitude that we will do the best we can under difficult circumstances and adopt a “no excuses” approach that insists on finding ways to help all students succeed. This study will continue for another five years to determine how this can be accomplished and sustained on a large scale in multiple settings.

“Transforming High-Poverty Urban Middle Schools into Strong Learning Institutions: Lessons from the First Five Years of the Talent Development Middle School” Journal of Education for Students Placed At Risk Volume 5, Number 1 & 2, 2000 pp. 137-158.

Published in ERN May/June 2000 Volume 13 Number 5.

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