October 31, 2022
Report Outlines Research, Offers Recommendations for Strong Middle Schools

Chiefs for Change, a bipartisan network of district and state education leaders, today released a new report to help school districts better support students’ academic and wellbeing needs during the critical middle school years. The report, titled, Middle School Strategy: Leveraging the Science of Learning and Development to Inform Education in Middle School, guides leaders in building a deep understanding of what students experience during this time of rapid change, and then helps educators tailor their instructional approaches and support services accordingly.

Specifically, the report explains:

  • What is unique about middle school and middle school students by outlining the research on the developmental needs of early adolescents and the challenges they face during periods of transition in the middle school years.
  • How districts can better support middle school students by considering the intellectual, emotional, social, behavioral, and physical changes that occur in these grades.

Middle School Strategy is based on work that Chiefs for Change and its technical assistance partners supported in Hamilton County Schools in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Although Hamilton County is one of the fastest-improving school systems in the state, district leaders found the gains students were making in elementary and high school were not occurring in middle school. The district engaged Chiefs for Change and its partners to provide research and best practices on how to serve middle school students. Hamilton County then developed actionable strategic priorities and launched an innovation grant process to spur new ideas—aligned with the research—aimed at building stronger middle school programs throughout the district.

“To minimize and clear as many obstacles for our middle school students as possible, focusing on academic press and personalization is essential, ensuring balance,” said Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Justin Robertson. “By teaching at a high level and building a strong culture of care, we will get to know our students well enough to understand what they need to be successful.”

 The report offers recommendations on how to drive student achievement in middle school; develop middle school teachers and staff; engage parents and caregivers when their kids are in middle school; and pair students with advisors and mentors to help them through middle school and the transition to high school.

Research shows the single most predictive indicator of high school completion is a student’s academic standing during ninth grade. To promote academic growth in middle school, the report emphasizes the need to set high expectations and personalize instructional methods. Leaders should also establish partnerships between middle and high schools and work to identify students who may need extra support in the transition from eighth to ninth grade.

In terms of students’ social and emotional development, research indicates that the changes early adolescents experience may influence their actions in a variety of ways, and behavioral health conditions such as anxiety or depression often begin to develop during the middle school years. To support students’ wellbeing, the report recommends creating interdisciplinary teams of teachers who foster positive relationships with students and developing opportunities to increase social bonding among children. In addition, districts should establish student-led support networks and encourage families to actively engage with their child’s school and peer groups.

Chiefs for Change operates the largest community of practice for education leaders in the nation and has produced a library of resources, available here, to support K-12 systems in responding to the pandemic. The network also provides technical assistance for promising initiatives in members’ systems, advocates for policies and practices that make a difference for students, and builds a pipeline of talented, diverse Future Chiefs ready to lead major school systems.