Martha Abele MacIver & Douglas J MacIver. 21st Century Education: A Reference Handbook. Editor: Thomas L Good. Sage Publication. 2008.
National policy makers are increasingly recognizing the need for more intensive focus on improving middle grades education, especially as recent research has shown how low attendance, course failure, or misbehavior in sixth grade are strong predictors of an eventual high school dropout outcome (Balfanz, Herzog, & Mac Iver, 2007). The problem of low-performing middle schools has led policy makers to focus increasingly on structural reforms or governance reforms. Many appear to have lost faith in the ability of middle school reform movement to accomplish the kind of changes necessary to assure that students leave the middle grades ready for high school. The middle school concept has often been reduced to a set of key practices (e.g., interdisciplinary team teaching, flexible scheduling, and advisory programs) that are not always fully implemented together (Juvonen, Le, Kaganoff, Augustine, & Constant, 2004). While foundation-supported middle school reform efforts have resulted in transformation in the climates and structures of middle schools, there has not been sufficient progress in heeding the call sounded a decade ago by Lipsitz, Mizell, Jackson, and Austin (1997) for schools to improve middle school curriculum and instruction.
This chapter summarizes the evidence regarding currently popular middle grades reform strategies focused on governance or gradespan, and then turns its focus to the technical core of middle grades education: staffing classroom with highly qualified teachers; equipping teachers with collaborative professional development opportunities that focus specifically on the content and pedagogy relevant to the classes they are teaching; providing teachers with standards-based curricular materials, engaging lesson plans, and assessment materials that will enable them to tailor instruction to student needs; and equipping school leaders to provide a supportive learning climate for all. These goals are addressed in the comprehensive school reform models endorsed by the National Forum to Accelerate Middle Grades Reform (2007), and have been scaled districtwide in such reform efforts as the district-led reforms in Philadelphia that occurred in tandem with privatization and the creation of new K-8 schools. Research evidence indicates the positive effects of these core components on middle grades student achievement. The challenge remains of how to ensure that students receive engaging and effective instruction in a challenging standards-based curriculum—in every classroom, every day—that will stimulate proficiency in the skills they need for successful transition to high school and postsecondary education and/or the workplace. It is also essential to respond to other important goals in educating young adolescents (e.g., meaningful work and good citizenship, and helping them become healthy, caring, and ethical people).
Privatization as a Reform Strategy
Faced with the inability of many schools to meet accountability demands, policy makers have turned to privatization solutions. Privatization captured headlines and provoked much editorial debate when Philadelphia turned over management of some of its lowest-performing schools to private educational management organizations (EMOs) in 2002. But analyses of the impact of the first 4 years of Philadelphia’s privatization experiment on student achievement growth in both reading and mathematics indicated no significant positive effect for EMO management overall or for the largest EMO provider, Edison, Inc., considered separately, despite receiving greater resources than did the publicly run schools (e.g., Gill, Zimmer, Christman, & Blanc, 2007; Mac Iver & Mac Iver, 2007). Research on the Philadelphia privatization story also resonated with earlier studies reporting lack of evidence, or at best, only mixed evidence, of student achievement gains under privatization models. Privatization has, however, sometimes resulted in other benefits (see review in Mac Iver & Mac Iver, 2007).
Many charter schools also fall under the broader “privatization umbrella,” and Mizell (2002) links the growth of charter schools for the middle grades to the failure of many middle grades schools to pursue reform, assure effective instruction and leadership, and overcome low expectations for students. But despite some positive effects of charter school expansion on parental satisfaction and teacher empowerment, there is not yet compelling evidence that charter schools do a better job educating students (e.g., Murphy & Shiffman, 2002).
The private charter school model for the middle grades that has drawn perhaps the most widespread media attention in the past several years is KIPP—The Knowledge Is Power Program—created in 1994 by two former Teach for America teachers. As of spring 2007, KIPP had expanded to include 52 schools in 16 states and the District of Columbia serving 12,000 students. A standard feature across all KIPP schools is the increased learning time. Recent studies (Mac Iver & Farley-Ripple, 2007; Ross, McDonald, Alberg, & McSparrin-Gallagher, 2007) have found significantly better achievement outcomes in both math and reading for KIPP students than for comparison group students. But there were also relatively higher retention in grade rates for KIPP students than for the comparison students, attrition from the KIPP program was not trivial, and students enrolled in KIPP may differ from control students in ways that could not be measured. Several components of the KIPP program have probably contributed to higher student achievement, including the increased instructional time, positive school climate (facilitated by smaller numbers of students and fewer behavioral problems), high expectations for students, and instructional leadership by the principal. Since enrolling every American middle grades student in a KIPP school is not feasible, the task for education policy makers is how to ensure that all middle grades students receive access to instruction of sufficient quality and duration for producing the kind of achievement effects seen in KIPP schools.
Returning to the K-8 Structure as a Reform Strategy
As middle schools have struggled to meet accountability standards over the past decade, districts have increasingly pursued a return to the K-8 structure. K-8 schools, the dominant venue of middle grades education in the 19th century, remained a pillar of parochial education in the United States even when the public system moved toward junior high schools in the first half of the 20th century, and then, in the 1960s and 1970s, toward the middle school model.
In contrast to the argument that the unique needs of young adolescents required a separate middle school, a theoretical case could be made for eliminating a school transition that has been shown to be problematic. Numerous studies have documented a decline in achievement performance during the transition from elementary to middle school. The decline in academic performance has been linked to decline in self-esteem, motivation, competence beliefs, and beliefs about the usefulness of particular subjects (Wigfield & Eccles, 1994). But researchers suggest that it is not so much the transition or lack of transition as it is the specific organizational and instructional practices, or learning environment characteristics of the middle school, that maintain student motivation and achievement performance at the middle school level (e.g., Midgley & Urdan, 1992).
The movement back to K-8 schools has been fueled, at least in part, by evidence of higher achievement in K-8 schools, compared to middle schools. But this K-8 achievement advantage is at least partially due to differences in student socioeconomic status and teacher quality, as Byrnes and Ruby (2007) have demonstrated. Echoing the findings of Weiss and Kipnes (2006), Byrnes and Ruby also point out the impact of a smaller number of sixth- to eighth-grade students in K-8 schools compared to middle schools. Though this size factor is separate from grade-span and school transition, policy makers may view K-8 conversions as the most cost effective way (in contrast to small middle schools) to achieve the benefits of a smaller number of students in Grades 6 to 8. Fewer students generally result in fewer disciplinary problems and other detractors from a focus on improving student achievement. The higher level of parental involvement at elementary (including K-8 schools), compared to middle schools, is another factor that could help to explain their relative achievement advantage, since parental involvement is so closely linked to student achievement. Observers have noted that parents often tend to prefer K-8 schools that are closer to home and where ties between school and family are stronger—in part because they are have been forged over several years and reinforced by the fact that younger family members are also in attendance there.
So far, there is no convincing evidence that newly created K-8 schools serving large percentages of low-income students are producing significantly larger achievement gains than the high-poverty middle schools in the same districts. Balfanz, Spiridakis, and Neild (2002) found that students in high-poverty Philadelphia middle schools that incorporated particular organizational and instructional practices had achievement scores comparable to those in high-poverty K-8 schools. This suggests that a simple policy focus on grade-span ignores the more crucial questions related to learning environment and instruction. Indeed, Yakimowski and Connelly (2001) noted that K-8 schools have more difficulty than middle schools in providing students access to higher level courses like algebra and foreign language. The small size of K-8 schools may often prevent students with particular academic needs or talents from receiving the type of instruction most suited to them. In addition, K-8 schools often isolate middle grades teachers so that they have few, if any, colleagues with whom to discuss student needs. The challenge of creating workable learning communities for middle grades teachers in K-8 schools demands thoughtful attention.
Policies focused merely on the structural issue of grade-span miss the point. Reforming middle grades education in the 21st century requires a systematic focus on what is happening in the classroom each day for middle grades students, and how those experiences are preparing them for the transition to their high school and beyond.
Attending to the Technical Core of Instruction
How will our society assure that every middle grades student can achieve a high level of intellectual proficiency? The existing literature demonstrates that the “teacher qualifications” variable tends to explain the most variation in student achievement apart from home and family variables. And teacher qualifications are an antecedent of the more salient variable: quality of classroom instruction. It is crucial to focus first on recruiting, retaining, and developing high quality teachers. In addition, four interrelated aspects of the social organization of learning need to be improved: the curriculum, instructional strategies, assessment, and school climate.
Recruiting and Retaining Highly Qualified Teachers
Presenting middle grades teaching as a special calling is an important systemic component in middle grades reform. Neild and colleagues (2005) contend that few middle school teachers did their student teaching in a middle school, and teacher transfer patterns indicate a definite preference for elementary or high schools over middle schools. Given the shortage of teachers for large urban districts, a large percentage of teachers in the middle grades hold no certification at all, though some of these may have received some training in a university teacher preparation program (Neild, Useem, Travers, & Lesnick, 2003). If they are certified, it is most likely elementary certification rather than secondary-or middle-level certification, though this may change as No Child Left Behind (NCLB) requirements for highly qualified teachers with subject-specific content knowledge are enforced.
There is growing evidence of the importance of teachers’ content knowledge (whether measured by college major/minor or examination) on student achievement growth in that subject—particularly in mathematics. Some studies have found higher achievement growth in mathematics and/or science for middle grades students with teachers who have secondary certification in those subjects than for those with only elementary certification.
Middle grades teachers also tend to be less experienced, on the whole, than teachers at other grade levels. As middle grades teachers gain experience, they tend to transfer either to elementary or high school level for which they were originally trained. Retention of middle grades teachers is therefore a crucial issue to address.
Conducting Effective Professional Development
Given the difficulties in recruiting and retaining highly qualified teachers, high-quality professional development for middle grades teachers is essential. There has been considerable criticism of the traditional delivery of professional development, especially when it is bureau-cratically organized, generic in approach and not directly related to the instruction teachers need to give in the classroom, and treats teachers as passive recipients of scattershot training rather than active participants in an ongoing process of training within a community of learners. A growing body of research has identified key components of effective professional development: a focus on content learning, opportunity for active learning; and coherence with other learning activities—delivered in a sustained format to a collective group of teachers from the same grade, school, or subject. Professional development efforts that target a handful of teachers or particular subject in a particular grade may lead to “pockets of excellence” but they do not create successful learning communities (Knapp, 1995). Another finding of note is the importance of continual technical assistance and follow-up. Although there was evidence of increased participation in content-focused professional development, especially in mathematics, during the 1990s, it is unfortunately the teachers who already have strong content knowledge who tend to take more content-focused professional development. This “Matthew effect” needs to be countered by finding structural ways to ensure that the teachers who most need more subject content actually receive this professional development. This will require systemic changes to add more time for professional development into teachers’ regular schedules rather than relying on voluntary participation in afterschool or Saturday workshops.
Providing Challenging and Engaging Curriculum
Curriculum issues provoked considerable debate within the middle school reform movement. The desire to move away from the junior high school model, with its isolated subjects approach, led to a focus on more interdisciplinary and integrative approaches to the middle grades curriculum. These were often extremely difficult to implement, given the requirement for teacher teaming and teacher-created materials relevant to theme-based units. Until the late 1990s, curriculum issues also took a back seat to climate and structural reform. As a result, the existing middle school curriculum was often fragmented and repetitive. Current NCLB testing requirements and demands for subject-specific training for teachers at the seventh- and eighth-grade levels are exerting pressure for schools to move away from integration and interdisciplinary approaches to instruction, as well toward a much more narrow “test prep” curricular approach almost certainly guaranteed to reduce student engagement in learning. The task facing reformers in the 21st century will be to help middle grades schools implement standards-based curricula that are coherent, challenging, and capable of providing opportunities for students to master skills and demonstrate the achievement growth necessary for success in high school coursework.
Middle grades curriculum must be engaging for students. Student engagement has been shown to be a key element in learning. Engagement is higher when academic tasks are more complex and involve interesting, real-world interactions. In addition, students should be reading well-written materials rather than the dull, opaque, and committee-written textbooks that are often middle grades course fare. Middle grades curricula have been produced that are engaging for students as well as standards-based and challenging, but the challenge is to ensure effective implementation.
Implementing Effective Instructional Strategies
While a coherent, focused, and challenging core curriculum is necessary, it is not sufficient to significantly increase the number of middle grades students achieving a high level of academic excellence. The quality of classroom instruction is the crucial mediating variable between the student achievement and the “teacher qualifications” variable (expertise, knowledge, skill, education, certification, experience). Equipping teachers with effective instructional strategies is crucial for preparing middle grades students for the 21st century.
The importance of guided instruction, in contrast to a primary reliance on “discovery learning” or other wholly constructivist approaches, cannot be overemphasized (Kirschner, Sweller & Clark, 2006). Students need systematic, explicit instruction in order to master new concepts and apply them in various situations. Although various forms of experiential or problem-based or inquiry-based teaching help deepen students’ interest and understanding, students require considerably more guidance than many constructivist educators normally provide.
In addition, middle grades classrooms are increasingly populated with students from more diverse backgrounds. Such classrooms often contain students at five or more instructional levels. This shift in the distribution of student characteristics at the classroom level has increased the complexity of middle school instruction. In the absence of new instructional strategies that enable teachers to effectively structure learning in more complex environments, some teachers simplify the instructional challenge by focusing on “easily teachable” students. Unless these teachers receive help in expanding their instructional repertoire to include approaches that are effective in heterogeneous classes, the institution of a common core curriculum may still not improve the learning of many.
A number of instructional strategies have shown promise in delivering high-level instruction to heterogeneous classes. Promising instructional strategies include, but are not limited to, reciprocal teaching, classwide peer tutoring, the East Asian whole-class method, and subject-specific variations of cooperative learning. The common threads which run through these approaches are the use of peer-assisted learning, explicit mechanisms for providing students with essential background knowledge, an emphasis on developing metacognitive strategies, and materials or strategies which engage students in an active way with questions which provoke higher-order thinking. At the same time, these strategies, especially those that involve peer instruction, all require the skillful direction of the teacher, who must provide the structure and scaffolding (often involving systematic introductory and summary guided instruction) to make these strategies effective for learning in the classroom.
Reforming Assessments to Promote Learning
Unfortunately, common interpretations of the abundant calls for aligning classroom instruction and assessment and acute assessment pressures under NCLB have yielded a situation in which education is often reduced to narrow assessment preparation. Finding ways to shape the assessments in state accountability systems so that they constitute worthwhile incentive structures for classroom instructional practice will be a challenge for educational policy makers in the 21st century. Finding ways to implement formative classroom assessments that will help students meet achievement goals will be the complementary task of educational practitioners. At the classroom level, students need to be provided with continual corrective feedback on their work. In addition, assessments at the classroom level need to facilitate a classroom environment in which every student is encouraged and motivated to work hard.
Improving School Climate
The overarching image of school as an engaging learning community for both students and adults brings together under the same umbrella several themes emphasized in Turning Points (Jackson & Davis, 2000): organizing relationships for learning, democratic governance, safe and healthy school environment, and involving parents and communities. Learning communities need to be small enough to foster personal relationships, and those relationships are fostered through interdisciplinary team teaching, flexible scheduling and advisory structures. Skillful principals will exercise democratic leadership by encouraging and equipping teachers to participate together in their own “inquiry groups” or learning communities of practice and including student representatives as well in a decision-making structure for the school. School leaders must give high priority to creating a pleasant work environment for students and adults alike, modeling positive interactions and implementing incentive structures to transform negative behaviors into positive ones. Contemptuous behaviors (whether by student bullies, or in their more subtle form by teachers in their classroom communication) can simply not be tolerated—but “zero tolerance” must be transformative rather than punitive. In addition, school leaders must create structures to welcome and include parents and community members in full participation within the school learning community.
What remains to be done to realize this vision in middle grades schools throughout America? The creation of a more personalized, nurturing school environment for young adolescents than the “junior” version of high school was a hallmark of the middle school movement, and it was in the domains of structure and climate that the middle school concept was most fully implemented (Lipsitz et al., 1997). But even when schools were broken into small learning communities and teacher teams and advisory periods were implemented, these components were often phased in over time in schools, not integrated with each other, and lacked such crucial supportive structures as common planning time for teacher teams. Brown (2001) points out the even when teams are functioning relatively well together in a school, such negative outcomes as isolation and competition between teams can undermine the larger school community. Schools continue to need technical assistance to realize even the basic structures of a personalized school environment.
The narrow accountability demands and pressure cooker environment of most urban districts deeply constrain the ability of middle grades principals to pursue the democratic vision of teachers (and students) learning and working together in decision-making roles within the school. Middle school principals tend to spend much more time dealing with discipline and behavior management issues than on the instructional leadership activities they deem most important (Juvonen et al., 2004). More in-depth training and mentoring for middle grades principals is crucial for ensuring that schools have the leadership needed to create productive learning communities.
The proportion of principal time spent on discipline issues reflects the malaise experienced by U.S. students who don’t feel safe from verbal or physical abuse at school (Juvonen et al., 2004). Helping U.S. middle grades schools address the issues of bullying and other antisocial behaviors is essential in its own right (though problem behavior and low academic performance are also related). Principals and teachers need targeted training in how to implement effective strategies to transform school norms and eliminate bullying.
Connecting families to secondary (including middle) schools continues to be a challenge, despite the progress made through such organizations as the National Network of Partnership Schools (Epstein et al., 2002). Parents tend to lessen their involvement in their children’s schools as they grow older, and middle schools must make intentional outreach to families a high priority. Juvonen and colleagues (2004) note that middle and high schools tend to offer parents fewer workshops and courses than elementary schools, and emphasize the importance of increasing these opportunities. As Epstein and her colleagues have shown, an action team approach can help middle schools develop strong, goal-oriented programs of family and community involvement, and increase the level of parental involvement in middle grades schools. Incorporating parents into the learning community through carefully constructed interactive homework assignments is a vital component of any middle grades reform agenda (e.g., Van Voorhis, 2003). And increased implementation of family involvement activities by secondary as well as elementary schools has been shown to be associated with fewer instances of disciplinary problems (Sheldon & Epstein, 2002).
Addressing the Challenges: Comprehensive School Reform and Whole-District Reform
The challenge then for middle grades reform is not simply to recruit, retain, and develop highly qualified teachers, and improve curriculum, instruction, assessment, and school climate, but to do it throughout the school, across all grades and all subjects. Then this must be accomplished throughout entire districts. This is a tall order. It is made even taller by the fact that it needs to occur not only in schools where the conditions for reform may be favorable, but also in middle grades schools that face extreme conditions of large class sizes, high mobility, and high concentrations of poverty. Schools facing these challenges typically need considerable technical assistance to address all these issues simultaneously. And some issues, such as teacher recruitment and retention, and the structural conditions for professional development and other school-level practices, need to be addressed at the district level and even at a broader systemic level. The following sections discuss the potential for comprehensive school reform models and whole district reform efforts to address the issues of middle grades reform.
Comprehensive or Whole-School Reform
Comprehensive or whole-school reform has been a major educational policy issue over the past 2 decades, and much research has been conducted regarding its implementation and effects (e.g., Aladjem & Borman, 2006; Borman, Hewes, Overman, & Brown, 2003). As Aladjem and Borman (2006) point out, comprehensive school reform models that provide schools with externally developed support seek to address common problems faced by many low-performing schools, including a “lack of coherence among instructional and related activities,” and “lack of information, knowledge, and skills needed for effective reform” A recent national longitudinal study emphasizes that “the impact of CSR [comprehensive school reform] implementation on student achievement is conditional on number of years of implementation, implementation level, and the specific CSR model being implemented” (Zhang, Fashola, Shkolnik, & Boyle, 2006, p. 325). Schools that continue implementing a CSR model over a 3- to 5-year period tend to perform better than comparison schools, but much is dependent on level of implementation, particular CSR model, and achievement domain and grade level considered.
The National Forum to Accelerate Middle School Reform (2007) has recognized and supported several CSR models focused particularly on the middle grades. While they share the overarching values of the middle grades reform movement, and incorporate all the components discussed earlier, they differ in the extent to which they provide specific curriculum and instructional support to teachers. Besides its extensive subject-specific professional development support, the Talent Development Middle Grades Program (Mac Iver et al., 2000) provides an extensive curriculum: discussion guides for more than 200 adolescent trade books as well as teacher materials for teaching writing as part of an integrated reading and language arts program; curriculum for use with the 10 volumes of Joy Hakim’s A History of US, a Career Exploration and Educational Decision-Making (CEED) curriculum; curriculum to accompany Joy Hakim’s The Story of Science: Aristotle Leads the Way and Newton at the Center; and teacher support materials for use with Full Option Science System (FOSS) kits and Science and Technology Concepts (STC) for Middle Schools modules; and lesson plans and other teacher support materials for use with several National Science Foundation-supported math curricula and National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) standards-based commercial math textbooks. The Success for All Middle Grades program offers “The Reading Edge” curriculum (Chamberlain, Daniels, Madden, & Slavin, 2007), as well as integrated curriculum units for language arts, social studies, science, and conflict resolution. Other CSR middle grades models, including Middle Grades Results, Different Ways of Knowing, Middle Start, Making Middle Grades Work/Making Schools Work, and Turning Points focus more on providing holistic professional development support in the key reform principles (National Forum to Accelerate Middle Grades Reform, 2007). Juvonen et al. (2004, p. Ill) view these CSR models as “a promising strategy for improving school achievement” based on research studies of their impact on student achievement.
The goal is not simply, however, to improve individual schools here and there, but to realize reform on a much broader scale. There is increasing evidence that the lessons of CSR have been scaled up at the district level, in view of the positive effect on student achievement of a number of district-led reforms. Increased coherence and coordination of curricula and professional development at the district level, together with increased focus on student outcomes and increased resources for low-performing schools, have led to notable achievement improvement in New York District #2, San Diego, Philadelphia, and other districts. Focus on recruitment of highly qualified teachers for the middle grades must occur at the district level, because individual schools are constrained by district-level factors. Some districts have made major strides in this area, though many hurdles remain (Useem, Offen-berg, & Farley, 2007).
Middle grades reform for the 21st century needs to be a part of holistic, district-led reform that scales up the important lessons learned from comprehensive school reform. As district leaders examine how to improve their middle grades schooling experience so it more effectively prepares students for high school and life after high school, they would do well to implement the key components from the CSR models recognized by the National Forum to Accelerate Middle Grades Reform. Such holistic, district-led reform is a massive undertaking for most urban districts. Historically districts have focused on reforming elementary schools and high schools because they could not undertake everything simultaneously, and the middle grades were left to flounder. While districts like Philadelphia have made important progress in the middle grades in implementing curricular reforms that include a large professional development component, coupled with efforts to recruit more highly qualified teachers, the Philadelphia experience indicates the need to incorporate much more time for professional development into the academic schedule. Besides the problem of yearly turnover in teachers, continuing teachers need more professional development at times when they can actually participate. All reform efforts, including district-led reforms, confront much more systemic issues, like the length of the work year for teachers (and associated remuneration issues). The 21st century may require deep paradigm shifts in how the United States has organized education over the past centuries.
Implementing Early Warning and Early Intervention Systems
Research detailing how poor attendance, behavior, and course performance in sixth grade are strong predictors of an eventual dropout outcome for students (Balfanz, Herzog, & Mac Iver, 2007) indicates the need to incorporate an “early warning system” and effective intervention strategies in existing comprehensive school reform and whole-district reform initiatives. While whole-school reform efforts should result in academic success (together with good attendance and behavior patterns) for most students, even in high-poverty schools, it is essential that district leaders equip middle grades administrators to use simple data collection and analysis tools to identify those sixth graders who don’t respond to the schoolwide reforms and continue to struggle with attendance, behavior, or course failure problems. Once these students are identified, early intervention strategies must be implemented to address these problems. This implies a three-stage model that involves: (1) schoolwide reforms aimed at alleviating most problems, (2) individually targeted shepherding efforts for the 15%-20% of students who need additional supports beyond the schoolwide reforms, and (3) intensive efforts involving specialists (counselors, social workers, etc.) for the 5%-10% of students who need more clinical types of supports. Such early intervention strategies are crucial to prevent the middle school disengagement that leads to large dropout rates among high-poverty urban students.
While middle grades reform faces unique challenges, as do the young adolescents served in this gradespan, it shares with K-12 educational reform in general the need for focused attention at the school, district, and systemic levels. Addressing the issues of low-performing schools in the nation’s urban centers will require considerable creative energy and resources. Providing every classroom with an effective teacher will require finding ways to address the more systemic issues of the value American society places on education and the prestige associated with the teaching profession. Systemic attention is also necessary to make sure that narrow academic testing requirements do not actually result in students’ receiving a lower quality education. Holding schools accountable for assuring that students receive quality instruction has been an important national development recent years, but when educational quality is defined only by what can be measured in a particular way, our society risks leaving behind the heart of the educational enterprise. One top priority for the 21st century is to expand ways of assuring that middle grades students are receiving high-quality instruction and making progress in developing the knowledge and skills they will need for productive lives.