Improving School and Classroom Practice

Schools to Watch® (STW): The National Forum has identified a list of criteria to describe high-performing schools that serve students in the middle grades. Such schools are academically excellent, responsive to the developmental changes of young adolescents, and socially equitable, with high expectations for all students. After a rigorous national search, in 1999-2000 the Forum selected four Schools to Watch® that exemplified many of the criteria: Jefferson Middle School (Champaign, Illinois), Barren County Middle School (Glasgow, Kentucky), Freeport Intermediate School (Freeport, Texas), and Thurgood Marshall Middle School (Chicago, Illinois). These schools have since received national recognition for their programs and practices and have been featured by the National Forum in case studies and online tours. In collaboration with NMSA, NAESP, NASSP, and the NSDC, the National Forum piloted its Schools to Watch® State program in 2002, providing extensive training to middle-grades leaders in California, Georgia, and North Carolina and equipping them to run STW programs in their states. In 2003 Colorado, Illinois, Kentucky, and Virginia, joined the program. New York and Ohio joined in 2004. Michigan and Arkansas joined in 2005 with Pennsylvania, South Carolina and Utah joining in 2006. The Forum continued to expand the program in 2007 with New Jersey and Oregon and then in 2008 with Florida.
Learn more . . .
Comprehensive School Reform (CSR): The National Forum counts among its membership developers of several comprehensive school reform models aimed at bringing about whole-school change. These CSR models are unique because they focus on the middle-grades. A USDE Grant was awarded to the National Forum and in 2006 four of its CSR partners began to develop a high-quality mathematics enhancement toolkit.
Learn more . . .

Engaging Key Stakeholders

By continually speaking with one voice and informing stakeholders about the need for educators to adopt new policies, programs, and instructional practices, the Forum changes the discourse about middle-grades education and mobilizes others to act on behalf of the nation’s middle-grades schools.

Advocacy: The message of the middle grades role in student success in high school and beyond is a priority effort. The National Forum unites with other partners to bring the voice of middle grades to federal policy makers. This united effort resulted in the introduction fo the Success in the Middle Act in the House and Senate in 2007.

Policy Statements: The Forum prepares policy statements and recommendations on critical education issues, including ability grouping, preparation and certification for middle-grades teachers, high-stakes testing, small learning communities, and grade configuration. The Forum disseminates these recommendations broadly to facilitate reforms.

Postsecondary Access: The Forum also seeks to unite stakeholders in promoting education beyond high school for middle-grades students. With funding from Lumina Foundation for Education, the Forum and the League of United Latin American Citizens launched the PALMS Project (Postsecondary Access for Latino Middle-Grades Students). Through PALMS, the Forum and its partners identify programs that are effectively reaching the parents of Latino middle-grades students with information about how to prepare their children for college. More . . .

National Conferences: The Forum seeks continuing opportunities to bring together policy makers and other education leaders. Each June at the National Forum Schools to Watch® Conference, all new and redesignated STW schools bring the middle grades message to the Hill.

Another example was in the summer of 2002, in conjunction with the Academy for Educational Development (AED) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), the National Forum convened a meeting of state education officials, policy makers, and advocates to explore the opportunities provided by the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 to improve the teaching and achievement of young adolescents.

Leadership Development

A high priority of the National Forum is strengthening the capacity of current and future middle-grades leaders. To spur middle-grades school improvement in the South, the National Forum convened key education leaders as part of the Southern Forum to Accelerate Middle-Grades Reform. This Forum sought to improve middle-grades education in 10 Southern states: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee. In 2003, John Harrison and Associates took over as the host organization for this group. The National, Southern, and other regional Forums plan to remain closely linked in the future.

To assist those who share its vision for high-performing schools and wish to increase the pace of middle-grades reform, the National Forum has developed a variety of tools, including a leadership development curriculum which is now available for purchase. The Forum ran a Leadership Institute based on this program in the spring of 2003. In the spring of 2005, the National Forum co-sponsored the Governor William Winter Principal’s Leadership Institute with Mid South Middle Start and the Southern Forum to Accelerate Middle-Grades Reform which featured the Forum’s Leadership Training Curriculum.

Background History

The National Forum to Accelerate Middle-Grades Reform is an alliance of over 60 educators, researchers, national associations, and officers of professional organizations and foundations committed to promoting the academic performance and healthy development of young adolescents. The Forum developed in 1997 out of a sense of urgency that middle-grades school improvement had stalled, amid a flurry of descending test scores, increasing reports of school violence, and heated debates about the nature and purpose of middle-grades education. All agreed that nothing short of collective and concerted action could result in high-performing middle-grades schools and students.

Over the past six years, the Forum has flourished, successfully reframing the national discourse about middle-grades education. Major organizations, foundations, and others of influence have articulated and affirmed that schools do not have to choose between equity and excellence, or between a healthy school climate and a strong academic program. Rather, as articulated in the Forum’s vision statement, they must focus on all of these if they want students to achieve at significantly higher levels. By endorsing this common vision, Forum members have developed common goals and understandings, strengthened individual efforts to improve schools that serve middle-grades students, collaborated across institutional and other boundaries, and worked together to mobilize others in the larger middle-grades community.

To accomplish its goal of improved academic and developmental outcomes for all students in the middle grades, the Forum identifies and disseminates best practices, articulates and promotes effective policies, recognizes and develops enlightened leadership, and informs and engages the public.
With funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Lumina Foundation, and W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the Forum has implemented several key initiatives. These initiatives include the following:

  • The Forum hopes to impact schools at the classroom level.Schools to Watch (STW) program: The Forum developed criteria for identifying high-performing middle-grades schools, selected four successful schools in a national search, and high-lighted their achievements. It also selects states to receive training in order to recognize their own model schools. Participating states include CA, CO, GA, IL, KY, NC, NY, OH,& VA.Comprehensive School Reform:The Forum convenes 7 CSR model developers counted among its membership to discuss common issues and work together to address them.
  • The Forum works to develop thenext generation of middle-grades leaders. In 1999 it brought together 60 leaders from 10 states to form the Southern Forum. The National Forum continues to work closely with this and other regional groups committed to accelerating school improvement. To extend its reach among emerging leaders, the Forum developed a leadership curriculum and runs training events based on it.• The Forum is committed toinforming and engaging the public. It articulates and broadly disseminates policy recommendations on critical education issues such as student assignment patterns, high-stakes testing, and teacher preparation and licensure. By educating policy makers, practitioners, parents and community members about the latest research, effective policy, and best practice, the Forum hopes to facilitate reform. The Forum also seeks to unite stakeholders in promoting education beyond high school for middle-grades students. Through the PALMS Project (Postsecondary Access for Latino Middle-Grades Students), the Forum and its partners will identify programs that are effectively reaching the parents of Latino middle-grades students with information about how to prepare their children for college.

Our Vision Statement

We, the members of the National Forum to Accelerate Middle-Grades Reform, believe that youth in the middle grades are capable of learning and achieving at high levels. We share a sense of urgency that high-performing schools with middle grades become the norm, not the exception.

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.

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 opportunity 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, and active support.

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.