Paying attention to the middle

By S. Dallas Dance, Ph.D., Superintendent

Middle school challenges students just as much as it does educators. While students wrestle with their emotional and hormonal changes and struggle to establish themselves as individuals and as community members, educators must try to maintain student interest and academic performance in increasingly difficult subject matter.

But it is we the educators who must institute changes to make middle school work.

Earlier this month, a PBS Frontline report pointed to a series of indicators that can predict how likely a middle school student is to drop out of high school. Work by Johns Hopkins researcher Dr. Robert Balfanz looked at Grade 6 students in schools where at least 40 percent of students qualify for free and reduced price meals. Balfanz found that if a student has low attendance, fails English or mathematics, or has unsatisfactory behavior in a core course, the chance that he or she will drop out of high school is 75 percent.

We have known for a while that middle school academic performance is a serious issue. For example, in 1995, U.S. students in Grade 4 outperformed the average by 28 points in math on the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) assessment. In 1999, those same students, now in Grade 8, fell nine points behind the average. Reading scores for U.S. 13-year-olds have remained essentially flat for several years on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

A 2005 Fordham Institute report, Mayhem in the Middle, described middle schools as places “where academic achievement goes to die.”Fordham Institute president Chester E. Finn, Jr., said, “Trying to fix high schools while ignoring middle schools is like bandaging a wound before treating the underlying infection.”

The Fordham report concluded that a major cause of the slump in middle school academic performance is that too much emphasis was being placed on social adjustment and not enough on academics. As a result of a spate of such reports, in 2005, the Maryland State Department of Education revamped its regulations to require middle school social studies, mathematics, science, and English language arts teachers to have special certification.

In Baltimore County Public Schools, the most recent Maryland State Assessment scores brought attention to our need to make middle school academic performance an even greater priority in the coming year. While our middle school students made gains on the 2012 tests, scores in mathematics improved only slightly and scores in reading slid back a bit, as they did throughout the state.

While our plans for middle school improvement are still underdevelopment, I know that we will be looking at:

  • Strengthening our college-bound culture. The earlier and the more that students understand the connection between their classroom learning and their opportunities for the future, the more likely they are to succeed.
  • Increasing the relevance and rigor of middle school instruction.
  • Establishing high standards for academic performance and behavior for all students.
  • Increasing parent involvement.
  • Enhancing professional development for teachers.

We know that the middle matters, and we are committed to middle school success.


5 thoughts on “Paying attention to the middle

  1. Having worked in education for 18 years and spending many of those years working with middle school students, I cannot agree more. The need for ramping things up cannot be ignored. Too often I have seen the need for academic rigor dismissed in favor of making excuses due to emotional, hormonal, and social adjustments that are indicative of middle school students. In a time when students benefit from increased structure and guidance there is a tendency to take the hands off the wheel and wait and see. As an educator, I am outraged. As a parent, I am frightened. I have been extremely fortunate in terms of the middle school experience for my two daughters. I applaud the efforts of the administration and faculty of the Pikesville Middle School. I have a daughter who is now going to be a Junior in High School who had a wonderful experience at Pikesville and was very prepared for the demands of high school because of the high expectations of the teachers of Pikesville Middle. Currently, I have a daughter who is going into the 7th grade at Pikesville and her first year of middle school has been nothing short of amazing. Although she is enjoying her summer as any 12 year old might, she is looking forward to returning to school. It’s not so much all of her friends, but the classes she loves that has her feeling excited. My daughter is going to be a part of the engineering class and is already talking about how amazing it is going to be and the fact that she can continue the class in high school, and how important it is to have students who are good with math and science so we can have great engineers . . . When I hear my daughter talk with such enthusiasm for learning, and an appetite for challenging academic content, I feel very fortunate to know that she is a part of a learning community that is striving for excellence in academic rigor. Oh, and the emotional and social part, they seem to not be a problem when your child is excited about learning! I applaud the administration and faculty at Pikesville Middle School as an educator and as a parent.

  2. Dr. Dance, Thank you very much for this renewed interest and emphasis on our middle school programs. While I have generally been very happy with our elementary and high school choices, with a few exceptions our middle schools are falling short. I look forward to learning about the innovative ideas and approaches you will help bring to these crucial educational years.

  3. I am a parent as well as a BCPS employee. My son graduated from BCPS, and my daughter is now a senior. However, I began homeschooling her last year. Unfortunately, if you are a not GT or Special Ed student, you are pushed along and expected to conform to the same mold as everyone else. We know that all children do not learn on the same level, however, if they are struggling in an honors class, you are discouraged from placing them in a standard class. I have been told that there are too many behavior problems in standard classes. We push them along not ready for the next level. This leaves kids discouraged and frustrated. When they no longer feel successful, they give up.

    Several years ago, I suggested a mentoring program between the high schools and the middle schools and never got a reply. My kids attended Perry Hall Middle and Perry Hall High School. There are lots of wonderful kids at the high school who would make great role models for our middle school students. These two schools are very close together, and it would be easy to form a working relationship between the two. What better way to help prepare for the expectations of high school than to learn from kids who have been there, kids who have already made the transition, sharing their experiences and offering tips, introducing them to what is available to them when they reach high school.

    These peer mentors could offer advice on how to develop solutions to problems that they have already encountered a few short years ago. These mentors could provide information to at-risk eighth graders throughout the year about clubs and programs available and possibly start an after-school tutoring program. Perhaps these eighth graders could be given the chance to shadow their mentors for a few hours and possibly be assigned the same buddy when they first enter 9th grade.

    If we can get these kids vested and involved from the first day and alleviate some of their concerns, they would be able to put more effort into their school work. This would also benefit the high school students by developing leadership skills and possibly earning service-learning hours in a meaningful way. I know that a program such as this would have been a great benefit to both of my children when they were in middle school. There are several published articles about schools that have successfully implemented such a program. When school budgets are suffering, maybe this could be a way to utilize the resources we already have.

  4. Thank you so much for your comment. I want to share with you that there are at least a few initiatives going on in our school system to link high school students as mentors to middle school students. Two that immediately come to mind are projects that link Parkville High School students to Loch Raven Technical Academy students and another that uses technology to link students from George Washington Carver Center for Arts and Technology and Eastern Technical High School to Catonsville Middle School students. Here are two articles about those projects: and

  5. I could not agree more that partnerships between high schools and middle schools for the purpose of mentoring are effective and beneficial to the students in each school. I am the principal of Catonsville Middle School, and when my English department chairperson, Cecily Anderson, first approached me with the idea of using Web 2.0 tools to partner with high schools to help our middle school students improve on the Maryland School Assessment (MSA), I knew that she had found the elusive missing link to engaging our middle school students. Now entering its fourth year of implementation, the MSA Blast! program links Catonsville Middle School (CMS) students with students in the Literary Arts prime at the Carver Center for Arts & Technology for reading assistance and links CMS students with students in the Maryland Teacher Academy at Eastern Technical High School for math support.

    Our middle school students use web cams and headset microphones (and a secure, monitored communication program called Safari Live) to communicate with motivated high school students in two BCPS magnet high schools. At first we believed that the technology would engage the middle school students, and we were right; however, the real engagement comes from using high school students as peer tutors/mentors. It is not always easy for us as educators to acknowledge that we have not reached every student in our care, but how could we argue with test scores that indicated that we were not moving some students to the level of achievement where they needed to be? We soon discovered that sometimes high school students could relate to and explain concepts to middle school students more effectively than we could (and I include myself among the ranks of valiant educators who tried to reach every student but could not, so there is no blame here).

    The middle school students who are invited to participate in the MSA Blast! program have one thing in common: they have not demonstrated proficiency on the prior year’s MSA in reading and/or math. While I cannot claim a 100% success rate (yet!), I can tell you that approximately 50% of the middle school students in the MSA Math Blast! and about 67% of the students in the MSA Reading Blast! scored at the proficient level after one year of involvement in the program.

    Of course, we were delivering multiple academic interventions to our students, but before the MSA Blast! program, we found that most students who scored at the basic level on the MSA in grade 7 had the same result on the grade 8 MSA. We also found that our MSA support classes in years past were viewed by students as a punishment. In contrast, our MSA Blast! students believe that their involvement in the program is a privilege–and it is. What middle school student wouldn’t want to learn from a “cool high school kid” in a video chat-type environment?

    Setting up a program like the MSA Blast! is not as difficult as you might think. In fact, the educators who started the program at our school were technology novices at the beginning. Thanks to partnerships with the Office of Library Science and the Office of Instructional Technology, we learned the basics of video chatting and Web 2.0 tools, and we were off and running in no time at all. In fact, it didn’t take long for our students to take over the technological aspects of the program.

    In addition to the student achievement gains that we witnessed, we also saw an increase in self-esteem and a decrease in off-task behaviors and misbehaviors in our students. That is no mystery. After all, students focus and behave themselves when they are engaged. The high school students made our students feel at ease, and our students were, therefore, more willing to try their best. Meanwhile, using Web 2.0 applications such as Dabbleboard, ToonDo, vokis, wiki pages, and Wordle to deliver the content, the high school students (working under the direction of their teachers) were able to present the material in a very engaging manner.

    So successful was the MSA Blast! program in its inaugural year that it was awarded the Special Interest Group for Online Learning’s first place prize from the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) in 2010. I would be happy to share information with any school that is looking for ways to connect with other schools for peer tutoring or mentoring. Email:

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