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Schools to Watch: High-Performing Middle Grades Schools for the 21 st Century. Middle Grades—At the Crossroads. Recognition that too many schools are middle schools in “name or grade configuration” only

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Middle Grades—At the Crossroads

  • Recognition that too many schools are middle schools in “name or grade configuration” only
  • When middle grades reform recommendations are implemented with consistency, over time we know middle grades schools can be powerful communities of learning
  • Comprehensive middle grades reform yields higher achievement
  • “Structural” changes are necessary but not sufficient to accomplish all that needs to be done
  • Need to focus on rigorous curriculum, effective instruction, and multiple forms of assessment
  • Need for targeted, ongoing professional development and preservice teacher preparation for middle level educators

What is the National Forum?

The National Forum is a group of sixty-five educators, researchers, state and regional school leaders, national education associations and foundations dedicated to improving education for middle-grades students across the country.


The Work of the Forum

  • Establish a common vision and language for speaking about middle-grades school improvement among stakeholders
  • Forge sustainable partnerships among state agencies and organizations seeking to improve middle-grades schools
  • Train leaders at the state, district, and school levels to assess school performance using a set of rigorous criteria
  • Provide exemplars and inspiration for schools seeking to improve their performance.

Schools to Watch History

  • n1994-1995 - Program officers of Carnegie, Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, W.K. Kellogg Foundation, Lilly Endowment and others meet to discuss middle grades reform issues
  • n1997 - Joan Lipsitz, Tony Jackson, Hayes Mizell, and Leah Meyer Austin write, Speaking With One Voice, published in Kappan. National Forum convenes
  • n1999 - Following development of criteria, first four pilot Schools to Watch selected and recognized
  • 2002 - Schools to Watch national recognition moves to the state level—California, Georgia, and North Carolina are selected & trained at NMSA Headquarters by the Forum’s STW Committee
  • 2003 - Colorado, Illinois, Kentucky, & Virginia join Schools to Watch effort & are trained in Indianapolis by STW co-chairs and new state leaders. 14 STW recognized

Schools to Watch History

  • 2004 – National Forum incorporates and becomes an independent 501(c)(3) organization. New York & Ohio join Schools to Watch. As governance issues develop, state leaders work with Forum leadership to create an oversight committee to further the work. 40 Schools are recognized.
  • 2005 – Arkansas & Michigan become STW states and are trained in Indianapolis by Forum & state leaders. 55 schools recognized. The first state STW go through re-certification, with three schools retired. The first national STW conference draws over 400 participants to Washington, DC. States identify “archivists” to collect data about the impact of STW.
  • 2006 – Pennsylvania, South Carolina & Utah join STW. 50% of the nation’s middle schoolers in STW states. 86 STW.
  • 2007 – New Jersey & Oregon become STW states. 126 STW across the nation.










The Vision


Academic Excellence

High-performing schools with middle grades are academically excellent. They challenge all students to use their minds well, providing them with the curriculum, instruction, assessment, support and time they need to meet rigorous academic standards. They recognize that early adolescence is characterized by dramatic cognitive growth, which enables students to think in more abstract and complex ways. The curriculum and extra-curricular programs in such schools are challenging and engaging, tapping young adolescents\' boundless energy, interests, and curiosity. Students learn to understand important concepts, develop essential skills, and apply what they learn to real-world problems. Adults in these schools maintain a rich academic environment by working with colleagues in their schools and communities to deepen their own knowledge and improve their practice.


Developmental Responsiveness

  • High-performing schools with middle grades are developmentally responsive. Such schools create small learning communities of adults and students in which stable, close, and mutually respectful relationships support all students\' intellectual, ethical, and social growth. They provide comprehensive services to foster healthy physical and emotional development. Students have opportunities for both independent inquiry and learning in cooperation with others. They have time to be reflective and numerous opportunities to make decisions about their learning. Developmentally responsive schools involve families as partners in the education of their children. They welcome families, keep them well informed, help them develop their expectations and skills to support learning, and assure their participation in decision making. These schools are deeply rooted in their communities. Students have opportunities for active citizenship. They use the community as a classroom, and community members provide resources, connections, & active support.

Social Equity

High-performing schools with middle grades are socially equitable. They seek to keep their students\' future options open. They have high expectations for all their students and are committed to helping each child produce work of high quality. These schools make sure that all students are in academically rigorous classes staffed by experienced and expertly prepared teachers. These teachers acknowledge and honor their students\' histories and cultures. They work to educate every child well and to overcome systematic variation in resources and outcomes related to race, class, gender and ability. They engage their communities in supporting all students\' learning and growth.


Academic Excellence

Vision Statement

“The school challenges all students to use their minds well, providing them with the curriculum, instruction, assessment, support and

time they need to meet rigorous academic standards.”

    • STW Criteria
  • • All students are expected
  • to meet high academic
  • standards.
  • • Curriculum, instruction,
  • assessment, and appropriate interventions are aligned with
  • standards and are rigorous.

Developmental Responsiveness

Vision Statement

“The school creates small learning communities of adults and students in which stable, close, and mutually respectful relationships support all students’ intellectual, ethical, and social growth.”

  • STW Criteria
  • The school creates a personalized environment that supports each student’s intellectual, ethical, social, and physical development.
  • The school provides access to comprehensive services to foster healthy physical, social, emotional, and intellectual development.

Social Equity

Vision Statement

“The school has high expectations for all their students and is committed to helping each child produce work of high quality.”

  • STW Criteria
  • To the fullest extent possible, all students, including English learners, students with disabilities, gifted and honors students, participate in heterogeneous classes with high academic and behavioral expectations.

Organizational Structures & Processes

  • STW Criteria
  • A shared vision of what a high-performing school is and does drives every facet of school change.
  • The principal has the responsibility and authority to hold the school-improvement enterprise together, including day-to-day know-how, coordination, strategic planning, and communication.

Vision Statement

“These are the norms, structures, and organizational arrangements that support and sustain school’s trajectory toward excellence in all areas.”


Schools to Watch States 2002

Number of

STW States:


Nation’s Middle Level

Students in STW States



Schools to Watch States 2003

Number of

STW States:


Nation’s Middle Level

Students in STW States



Schools to Watch States 2004

Number of

STW States:


Nation’s Middle Level

Students in STW States



Schools to Watch States 2005

Number of

STW States:


Nation’s Middle Level

Students in STW States



Schools to Watch States 2006

Number of

STW States:


Nation’s Middle Level

Students in STW States



Schools to Watch States 2007

Number of

STW States:


Nation’s Middle Level

Students in STW States



Nationwide-- Schools to Watch

There are currently 126 Schools to Watch

State# of STW

Arkansas 1

California 18

Colorado 5

Georgia 11

Illinois 12

Kentucky 10

Michigan 4

New Jersey 1

New York 7

North Carolina 26

Ohio 14

Oregon 1

Pennsylvania 3

South Carolina 1

Texas 1

Utah 3

Virginia 9


Common Threads

  • While each school faces different challenges related to its location, student demographics, levels of district support, and other factors, we have seen common themes emerge.
  • Our Schools to Watch:
  • Know and articulate the academic outcomes they seek. In some cases, the outcomes are prescribed by the state or district; in others the faculty have adopted the outcomes recommended by their various disciplines.
  • Are taking deliberate steps to help students achieve those outcomes by making strategic changes in curriculum, teaching, and school services.
  • Enjoy a high degree of family & community involvement (but are never satisfied with their current levels).
  • Demonstrate a high level of faculty commitment.

Common Threads

  • Have set benchmarks for implementing their strategies, and hold themselves accountable for specific results. We cannot stress too much the importance of data in the lives of these schools.
  • Strategically concentrate their energies on important focus areas. As a result, the changes in each school are burrowing deeply into its culture.
  • Have strong, visionary leaders who can articulate challenging goals, and motivate faculty and staff to reach those goals.
  • The schools are filled with happy, positive, and involved students and adults who are all actively learning!

How can I get involved in STW?

  • Visit
  • Take a virtual tour of a current School to Watch
  • Join the visitation team
  • Discuss STW criteria with your school community
  • Complete an application this fall

Oregon STW Criteria

  • Must have at least 2 grade levels, including 7th grade
  • Must have 3 years of State Report Card data for current configuration
  • Can not be in School Improvement w/sanctions
  • Must be designated as Strong or Exceptional on State Report Card for the most recent school year


  • Must have above the state average in math, reading/language arts, science, and writing in all grades tested within the school\'s middle level program for the most recent school year

Oregon STW Commitment

  • Present at the OMLA Annual Conference (March 2009)
  • Open school doors for site visits from other Oregon


  • 3 year authorization and commitment
  • Attend National STW Conference in Washington D.C. (June 2009)

Is our school ready?

  • Consider the following statements.
  • Is your school there or are you still progressing?
  • Our school meets the minimum requirements.
  • Our school’s programs are replicable by schools with challenging and diverse populations.
  • Our school has an operational, school wide progressive discipline plan. All students receive consistently fair and equitable treatment. The suspension data reflects that no subgroup is being unreasonably suspended.
  • Our school actively supports the mental, physical, emotional, and social health, welfare and safety of our students with counseling, health services, adult advocacy, developmentally responsive activities, and positive incentives. Cognitive and non-cognitive programs are designed and implemented to encourage, motivate, resolve conflict, and build character, resiliency, attendance, and achievement for all students.

Is our school ready?

  • Consider the following statements.
  • Is your school there or are you still progressing?
  • The district (superintendent and school board) provides strong support for its middle schools to meet the needs of young adolescents with financial resources, highly qualified teachers, administrators, and counselors, curriculum and instructional materials, and professional development for its teachers
  • The school has an operational and formalized structure of distributed leadership that embraces a clear and current vision and mission for the school. Groups meet independently and regularly with a clearly articulated system of norms, collaborative purpose, communication, and ability to make meaningful decisions.
  • The school is an integral part of the community. It seeks support from the community (universities, colleges, businesses, non-profits) and provides support to the community in terms of student volunteer services, facilities, and joint projects.

Is our school ready?

  • Consider the following statements.
  • Is your school there or are you still progressing?
  • The master schedule of the school is a reflection of students’ needs and school mission. It is flexible and innovative in providing time and opportunity for coherent, rigorous, standards-based instruction for all students within the school day. It provides students with curricular opportunities in core subjects, targeted intervention opportunities, electives, and physical education. It provides common planning time for teacher teams in the school to work collaboratively on the behalf of their students. It creates smaller, closer learning communities for students.

Is our school ready?

  • Consider the following statements.
  • Is your school there or are you still progressing?

9. Students are heterogeneously placed on teams and in classrooms to the fullest possible extent. Instruction is differentiated for interventions and enrichment opportunities. Resource specialists collaborate or co-teach. Additional intervention or content specific classes are provided for students with specialized needs that cannot be met in the regular classroom (i.e. math intervention, beginning and early English language development, remedial reading). Enrichment and leadership opportunities are accessible by all and not determined on the basis of IQ and test scores. Advanced content classes (algebra, geometry) may have prerequisite standards and support classes for student success. All classes have high expectations and high levels of student engagement.


Is our school ready?

  • Consider the following statements.
  • Is your school there or are you still progressing?
  • Curriculum, instruction, school-wide strategies, pacing, assignments, homework, assessment, grading and reporting, enrichment projects and activities (i.e. History Day, Science Fair, field trips) in each subject area is consistent and coherent across the school.
  • By the time application is submitted, the entire administration and faculty will have participated in an extensive and ongoing discussion of the Schools To Watch-Self-Rating and the development of the application. If selected, we will be prepared to honorably fulfill the obligation of sharing with others statewide and nationally what it takes to be a high performing, high impact middle school that is on its own continuous journey of improvement.


  • August 2008 Applications Available
  • Nov. 8, 2008 Applications Due
  • Dec. 2008 Reading of Applications
  • Jan. 2009 Site Visits
  • Feb. 2009 Announcement of Oregon STW
  • Mar. 2009 STW Presentations at OMLA Annual Conference in Bend

Research supporting the National Forum’s Vision

Lee & Smith, 1993

Purpose: To evaluate impact of school restructuring on student achievement and related outcomes

Sample: Data from over 8,800 8th grade students in 377 schools

Results:Elements of restructuring were positively associated with academic achievement & engagement.

►Modest increases in academic achievement (e.g., reading & mathematics)

►Increase in student engagement (e.g., homework, feeling bored, prepared for class)

►Greater equity of student outcomes


Felner et. al, 1997

Purpose: Assess & evaluate impact of Turning Points’ recommendations on middle grades reform (achievement, social-emotional, and behavioral)

Sample: Survey and achievement data from 31 Illinois schools.

Results:Students in more highly implemented schools had higher achievement and better adjustment

►Higher achievement in more highly implemented schools (language arts, reading, and math)

►Lower levels of behavior problems in more highly implemented schools.

►Students in highly implemented schools had higher levels of self-esteem and lower levels of worry and fear.


Pattern of Impact of Levels of Turning Points Implementation for Economically and Socially Disadvantaged Students


Chicago Consortium Studies, 1990’s

Purpose: To study the relationships of student social support & academic press to gains in student achievement.

Sample:Survey and achievement data from 6th & 8th grade students and teachers in 304 Chicago schools in 1997.

Results:Levels of both social support and academic press are positively related to gains in achievement.

►Social support & academic press impact student achievement (reading & math); combined effect produces greatest achievement gains

►Students attending the least racially integrated, lowest-achieving, economically poorest, and largest schools are least likely to experience the combined impact of support and press known to impact student achievement


CPRD –University of Illinois

Purpose: Assess & evaluate impact of comprehensive school reform elements on middle grade schools

Samples:Survey and achievement data from hundreds of middle grade schools in several states (AR, IL, LA, MA, MI, MS)

Results:Implementation of middle school reform elements impacts student learning & achievement

►Achievement scores are higher for students in schools that are teaming with high common planning time

►Team size and length of time teaming also affect student achievement scores

►Teachers with middle-grades certification engage more frequently in “best practices,” which impacts achievement


Other Studies

►Backes, Ralston, & Ingwalson (1999) examined impact of middle school practices on student achievement in 6 BRIDGES schools in North Dakota

•Found that most achievement scores were higher in BRIDGES school implementing Turning Points recommendations

►Lee & Smith (2000) examined impact of school size on student achievement

•Found that students in small schools (<400 students) perform better and teachers have a more positive attitude about responsibility for student learning


Other Studies

►Sweetland & Hoy (2000) studied relationship between school characteristics and educational outcomes

•Found that teacher empowerment (decision making) was linked to student achievement (reading & math)



•Backes, Ralston, & Ingwalson (1999). Middle level reform: The impact on student achievement. Research in Middle Level Education Quarterly, 22 (3), 43-57.

•CPRD publications available at

•Felner, Jackson, Kasak, Mulhall, Brand, & Flowers (1997). The impact of school reform for the middle years: Longitudinal study of a network engaged in Turning Points-based comprehensive school transformation. Phi Delta Kappan, 78(7), 528-532, 541-550.

•Lee & Smith (1993). Effects of school restructuring on achievement and engagement of middle-grade students. Sociology of Education, 66, 164-187.



•Lee, Smith, & Smylie (1999). Social support, academic press, and student achievement: A view from the middle grades in Chicago. Chicago: Consortium on Chicago School Research, University of Chicago.

•Lee & Smith (2000). School size in Chicago elementary schools: Effects on teachers’ attitudes and students’ achievement. American Educational Research Journal, 37(1), 3-31.

•Sweetland & Hoy (2000). School characteristics and educational outcomes: Toward an organization model of student achievement in middle schools. Educational Administration Quarterly, 36(5), 703-729.


For Questions or More Information,

Please Contact the Oregon STW Core Team:

Colin Cameron [email protected]

Joni Gilles [email protected]

Jill O’Neill jill_o’[email protected]

Bill Rhoades [email protected]

Joel Sebastian [email protected]

Visit Schools to Watch at