James Kemple Answers Questions on the Department of Education’s Middle School Reform Agenda

On April 3, Dennis Walcott, chancellor of the New York City Department of Education, will offer the keynote address, “Informing New York City’s Middle School Initiative,” at a day-long colloquium at NYU Steinhardt.  James Kemple, executive director of NYU Steinhardt’s Research Alliance for New York City Schools, answers questions on middle school reform and the upcoming colloquium.

Explain the focus of the Research Alliance’s upcoming colloquium.

The colloquium on middle grade reform is part of our effort to inform the New York City Department of Education’s middle school reform agenda, which Chancellor Walcott proposed in his first major policy address this past September, at NYU. The colloquium will convene a diverse group of stakeholders, including policymakers, practitioners, researchers, and funders, to identify what we know, and what we need to know, about how best to improve the quality of education for students in grades 6 through 8.  Panel sessions during the colloquium will focus on some of the key factors that need to be addressed in any effort to improve middle grades education. These include 1) establishing learning environments that foster positive behaviors, 2) creating conditions that support effective teaching, 3) training and deploying strong leaders; and 4) building curricula that support literacy development and align with common core standards.

What is the current climate of middle school grades in NYC?

There are nearly 213,000 students in grade 6 through 8 enrolled in New York City’s public schools. They attend more than 500 of the city’s 1,600 public schools. Approximately 70 percent of middle grade students are enrolled in traditional middle schools (encompassing only grades 6 through 8). The remainder is enrolled in schools that reflect a range of grade configurations including K-6, K-8, 6-12, and K-12.

Over the past 10 years, the city has seen substantial improvements in student achievement, with 57 percent of 8th grade students meeting the New York State ELA proficiency standard and 71 percent meeting the New York State mathematics proficiency standard in 2009 (compared with 30 percent both ELA and mathematics in 2002). However, important challenges remain, as signaled by the recent change in proficiency standards by the State Board of Regents. Although average test scores for New York City 8th graders held steady in 2010 and 2011, the proficiency rate dropped to 35 percent in ELA and 53 percent in mathematics under the more rigorous standards. Even with the drop in overall proficiency rates, New York City continued to outpace the achievement levels of 8th grade students in the State’s other urban school districts. Similar patterns are reflected in the National Assessment of Education Progress (the Nation’s Report Card), which indicates that less than a quarter of the City’s 8th graders met the national proficiency standards in math and reading.

Why focus on the future of middle schools?

The middle grades mark a critical transition for students, academically and developmentally.  A large body of research provides compelling evidence that students’ attendance, test scores, and grades during the middle school years can strongly predict whether or not they graduate from high school. Unfortunately, many young people see a decline in these indicators as they move toward 8th grade. As importantly, the middle grades are an important phase of youth development and schools are often ill equipped to support students’ social and emotional growth.

What do you hope to achieve on April 3rd?

Our goal for the colloquium is to inform the ongoing development of the city’s ambitious reform agenda by engaging educators, policy makers, researchers and funders in a discussion about the unique challenges of middle grades education and about the most promising strategies for addressing those challenges. Chancellor Walcott’s 2011 policy address has directed the City’s attention toward the unique challenges of supporting students in the middle grades. Adding to the recommendations of the Campaign for Middle School Success, the Chancellor has outlined an ambitious framework that includes building strong middle school leadership, establishing nurturing and supportive learning environments, addressing the literacy needs of adolescent readers, and creating conditions for effective teaching. We have attempted to align the content of the colloquium with that agenda in an effort to help the DOE and other stakeholders reach decisions that are informed by the best knowledge in the field.