Writing Makes Middle School Students Better Learners

This installment of the Middle School Matters Institute Blog focuses on the importance of writing in the middle grades.

Steve Graham, Ph.D., Arizona State University (Research Perspective)
Leslie Feinglas, Ed.D., Principal, Wilkinson Middle School in Mesquite, Texas (Practice Perspective)

The Research Perspective

There are many reasons why people write. One of my favorite explanations comes from the present day master of horror, Stephen King, who indicated that he writes such gross books because “I have the heart of a small boy—and I keep it in a jar on my desk.” Another explanation that resonates with me as an educator is E.M. Forester’s observation: “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” Or as Alfred Kazin, the American writer and literary critic, succinctly put it: “The writer writes in order to teach himself.”

The basic idea underlying Forester’s and Kazin’s observations is that writing helps you understand better what you already know and what you are coming to know. So what does this mean for middle school students? It means that writing provides a tool to help them learn and more fully comprehend ideas presented in class and their textbooks. On average, students experience about a 10-point percentile jump in learning when they write about information presented in science, social studies, math, and other content classes (Graham & Perin, 2007). Comprehension scores increase by almost 20 percentile points when students write about the text they are reading in these same classes (Graham & Hebert, 2011).

Why does writing make such a difference in students’ learning and understanding? Simply put, it makes you think more deeply about ideas. Writing fosters explicitness, as students must decide what to write and which ideas are most important. Writing is integrative, as it encourages students to establish relationships between selected ideas and organize the ideas into a coherent whole. Writing facilitates reflection, as the permanence of writing makes it easier for students to review, re-examine, connect, critique, and even construct new understandings of ideas they have committed to paper. Writing fosters a personal involvement with ideas, as it requires active decision-making about what is written and how it is treated. Writing involves students putting ideas into their own words, making them think about what the ideas mean. In short, writing about ideas provides middle school students with a tool for visibly and permanently recording, connecting, analyzing, personalizing, and manipulating information to be understood and learned (Applebee, 1984; Graham & Hebert, 2011; Klein, 1999).

This does not mean that comprehension and learning are automatically enhanced when students write about ideas. Consider the following examples from four students:

A hamlet is a little pig.
The Treaty of Trianon cost Hungary more than sixth-fifths of its land.
An active verb shows action, as “he kissed her”; and a passive verb shows passion, as “she kissed him.”
With all the uses of rubber, it was necessary to find a substitute. After all, rubber does not grow on trees.

In each of these examples, writing provides a window into students’ misconceptions about specific ideas, but it did not appear to facilitate learning. Like any tool, writing is likely to be of little use if a student does not know how to apply it effectively. Fortunately, there is an easy remedy for this situation—students can be taught how to apply specific writing strategies as learning tools.

To illustrate, writing a short synopsis or summary of material presented in class or a textbook can improve students’ understanding of such information (Graham & Hebert, 2011). Writing a short synopsis is not an easy task, however, as students must determine which ideas are most important, which ideas are trivial and redundant, how ideas connect to one another, and the core idea underlying the material to be summarized. One way to ensure that students can write such a synopsis successfully is to present them with a strategy for creating a summary, describe how the strategy works and when to use it, model how to apply the strategy to relevant classroom material, and provide guided practice in using the strategy until students can apply it effectively and on their own.

Another approach for teaching summarization is to show students model summaries of classroom material, discussing with them what makes these models good summaries. Next, students are shown additional models with one part of the summary missing (e.g., a sentence providing important details). They supply the missing part and discuss how well their various attempts to solve this problem worked. This basic approach is repeated with additional material deleted from the summary until students complete the full summary on their own.

Other writing activities that can effectively support middle school students’ understanding and learning of academic content include taking notes from a lecture or text; answering or generating written questions about classroom material; writing journal entries guided by open-ended questions about key concepts; and working on extended writing projects that involve applying key ideas to a new situation, defending a specific perspective related to these ideas, or personalizing the ideas (e.g., asking students to write about how their life as an adolescent differs from the life of Frederick Douglas as an adolescent).

I would like to close with a simple, but not much practiced proposition. Teaching middle school students how to use writing as a tool to support learning is not the responsibility of the English teacher. It is the responsibility of all middle school teachers (Graham, Cappizi, Harris, Hebert, & Morphy, 2014). It is clear that writing about academic content can improve learning, but students need to know how to do write academic content in each discipline. Although middle school students sometimes use similar writing strategies for learning in subjects such as science, English, and history, they typically use these strategies for different purposes and in different ways (Southern Regional Educational Board, 2013). A social studies teacher is much more qualified than an English teacher to teach students to think and write like a historian, just as a science teacher is better at teaching students to think and write like a scientist.

Below, Leslie Feinglas of Wilkinson Middle School, a Middle School Matters “Tier III support” school, shares the school’s experience incorporating research-based writing practices within each content area to support students’ reading comprehension and content area learning.

Reflections From the Field

Wilkinson Middle School is in Mesquite, Texas, and has 950 students in grades 6 to 8. The student population is roughly 60% Hispanic, 33% African American, and 7% Caucasian. We receive Title I services because we are 88% economically disadvantaged. Many students come to us struggling with reading, so our campus decided to focus on reading and writing across all content areas after attending the Middle School Matters Institute Summer Conference. With the help of the Middle School Matters Institute, we implemented three practices to increase the amount of time our students spend reading and writing across the content areas: (1) the writing to learn strategy, (2) exit tickets, and (3) explicit instruction with modeling and think-alouds. The following is a description of how each content area uses the strategies in the classroom.

Wilkinson Leadership Team
Wilkinson Leadership Team

Writing to Learn

Writing to learn is a research-based practice that typically incorporates four strategies: (1) note taking, (2) summary writing, (3) answering or creating and then answering questions, and (4) extended writing. At Wilkinson Middle School, we combine three of these practices and refer to this as the “Wilkinson close reading” strategy, which is used in several of our content areas.

With below-grade-level reading and comprehension difficulties posing a prevalent problem for so many students, we have noticed that the writing to learn strategy levels the playing field and helps even our struggling readers gain meaningful insight when reading passages. We use a three-step process that includes having students (1) take notes while they read, (2) write a brief summary after reading, and (3) generate two questions about the text and answer those questions. Before we began using this strategy, we asked students to read information above their grade level, but we did not support the students. By using this strategy at least twice each week in our science classrooms, students learn how to read critically and gain a better understanding of the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills. We are the most economically disadvantaged middle school in our district, and we now have the highest science scores.

The history department also uses a version of the writing to learn strategy with expository texts and primary source documents. When applied in our history classes, students find the important information while they read, turn and talk with their neighbors, and create questions about what they read. We feel this strategy helps our seventh- and eighth-graders understand how to read these texts and locate and understand the important information. The strategy helps students comprehend what they read without becoming overwhelmed with the reading passage.

We also use exit ticket quick writes. This is a great way for students to process what they learned and for teachers to see whether students mastered the content. (See more information about this strategy below.)

In reading classes, the writing to learn strategy has helped teachers understand what students should do before, during, and after reading a text. Before using this strategy, teachers spent far too much time in the prereading phase and not enough time actually reading the text. Teachers now have a better understanding of how much time to spend in each stage and what exactly to do and have students do. It has also provided teachers with research-based strategies for students to use while reading. The strategy has greatly improved reading comprehension and has given teachers a way to monitor comprehension, so they can make proper adjustments.

For more information, see the following resources:

Learning Across the Curriculum packet from Teaching That Makes Sense
Writing Across the Curriculum packet from Public Schools of North Carolina
Adolescent Literacy Toolkit (sample lesson plans) from the Council of Chief School State Officers

Exit Tickets

The math department asks students to create an exit ticket at the end of each class period by writing about a specific topic from the day’s lesson. This exercise requires students to process what they learned in math and write about it in their own words. The following day, we ask the students to go back to their exit tickets and read what they wrote the day before. This review helps put their minds on the right track for the new day and provides another reminder about what they learned the previous day. This year, we have passed the seven other middle schools on our district testing, which makes us the highest-scoring middle school in seventh- and eighth-grade math.

For more information, see the following resource:

Information and video on exit tickets from The Teacher Toolkit

Explicit Instruction With Modeling and Think-Alouds

English has seen incredible gains in writing by making instruction more explicit. First, teachers keep the “I do, We do, You do” phases of instruction in mind as they plan and teach. Teachers first model a particular writing skill, then teachers practice the skill with students, and finally, students practice the same skill independently while the teacher monitors. It is essentially a way to scaffold that begins with a high level of teacher support that gradually decreases until students are confident and competent enough to move to independent practice. In addition to building confidence, this process has helped students understand exactly what is expected of them. In the past, writing tasks were unclear and even somewhat abstract. Because teachers now begin by modeling exactly how they would approach the particular writing task, students are clear as to what is expected. If students continue to struggle after the teacher modeling stage, there are plenty of opportunities for more practice with the help of the instructor in the “We do” stage. Teachers can spend as much time in this stage as necessary until they feel their students are ready to move to the “I do” stage. This flexibility is crucial because it allows teachers to move at an appropriate pace.

Another strategy we have implemented is think-alouds, which we use simultaneously with the “I do” stage of instruction. Think-alouds allow teachers to voice their own thought process during a writing task, so students understand the internal dialogue of a good writer. Students do not inherently know how to have this internal dialogue, so we need to teach them. As a result of listening to their teachers, students learn to have their own internal dialogue wherein they analyze their writing and make changes and improvements.

As a result of both strategies, writing test scores have improved immensely. We were significantly below the district average on our district testing when the school year began, and now we are even with the district average. Additionally, teachers have reported that student writing has improved and that students are much more confident in their abilities. Teachers have also reported being able to decrease the amount of support they must provide, which will undoubtedly help students to be more successful on our upcoming state exams.

For more information, see the following resources:

Video of I do, We do, You do from The Teaching Channel
Professional development module on Self-Regulated Strategy Development from The IRIS Center (an example of explicit writing instruction)

Overall, we are pleased with the gains we are making in every subject area. Next month, we will train our teachers on a strategy called talk, read, talk, write, which is another way to increase the reading and writing that happens on our campus. We know that for our students to be successful in our classrooms, on state tests, in college, and in their careers, they have to become critical readers and writers.


Applebee, A. (1984). Writing and reasoning. Review of Educational Research, 54, 577–596.

Klein, P. (1999). Reopening inquiry into cognitive processes in writing-to-learn. Educational Psychology Review, 11, 203–270.

Graham, S., Cappizi, A., Harris, K. R., Hebert, M., & Morphy, P. (2014). Teaching writing to middle school students: A national survey. Reading & Writing: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 27, 1015–1042.

Graham, S., & Hebert, M. (2011). Writing-to-read: A meta-analysis of the impact of writing and writing instruction on reading. Harvard Educational Review, 81, 710–744.

Southern Regional Educational Board. (2013). Get it in writing: Making adolescent writing an immediate priority in Texas. Retrieved from http://publications.sreb.org/2013/GetItInWriting_TX_Final.pdf

Graham, S., & Perin, D. (2007). Writing next: Effective strategies to improve writing of adolescents in middle and high schools. Washington, DC: Alliance for Excellent Education.

References for Quotes of Students’ Writing

Brodie, D. (1997). Writing changes everything. New York, NY: St. Matins.

Charlton, J. (1980). The writer’s quotation book: A literary companion. Boston, MA: Farber & Farber.

Henriksson, A. (2001). Non campus mentis. New York, NY: Workman.

Linkletter, A. (1962). Kids sure are funny! New York, NY: Random House.

Safire, W., & Safir, L. (1992). Good advice on writing. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

Developing Effective Teachers Through Targeted Professional Development

This month, the Middle School Matters Institute Blog focuses on why effective teachers are important for middle grade students and the role that professional development plays in developing and supporting effective teachers.

Marcia Kosanovich, Ph.D., Florida Center for Reading Research at Florida State University (Research Perspective)
Erica Rodriguez, Dean of Instruction, Lyndon B. Johnson Middle School in Pharr, Texas (Practice Perspective)

The Research Perspective

A large body of research demonstrates that effective teachers who implement and sustain proven practices are the foundation of middle grade reform. In fact, other school reform elements are unlikely to succeed unless a school is staffed with effective teachers.

The Middle School Matters Field Guide outlines various research-based strategies for recruiting and developing effective teachers. Because many school districts struggle with finding and hiring teachers that are already well-versed in research-based practices, classroom management, and data-based decision-making, it is essential that schools and districts understand how to develop effective teachers through quality professional development.

The underlying theory of professional development is that enhancing teacher knowledge and skills changes instructional practice, which in turn increases student achievement (Yoon, Duncan, Lee, Scarloss, & Shapley, 2007). Professional development can encourage and support teachers to adopt and implement, with fidelity, research-based practices that accelerate and increase student achievement (Kosanovich, Reed, & Miller, 2010).

Effective Professional Development Practices

Even though we do not have all the answers about effective face-to-face professional development, there is a consensus in the literature about “best practices” of professional development. Below, we describe four such practices.

1. Institute frequent and ongoing site-based professional development. Teachers are more likely to implement new instructional practices well if they receive ongoing support while trying the practices in the classroom. As stated in the Center on Instruction (2006) guide Designing High Quality Professional Development, ongoing support includes the following:

  • Sessions during which additional lessons and techniques are demonstrated
    Opportunities to practice techniques in role-play situations
  • Time for teachers to work together
  • Opportunities to work with experts, such as coaches, consultants, or other instructional leaders. Effective coaches and expert consultants can observe teachers’ practices and offer guidance and feedback, demonstrate lessons, help create solutions to instructional problems, and assist teachers in using assessment results to inform instruction.

2. Provide time and resources for professional development that focus on the subject matter content teachers are expected to teach and that aligns with district, state, and national standards. Professional development is more effective when it is part of a school reform effort, as opposed to an isolated event (Cohen & Hill, 2001; Elmore & Burney, 1997; Garet, Porter, Desimone, Birman, & Yoon, 2001; Penuel, Fishman, Yamaguchi, & Gallagher, 2007; Supovitz, Mayer, & Kahle, 2000). Therefore, it is important that every professional development experience aligns with school improvement and student learning goals and addresses the teaching of specific curriculum content (Kosanovich et al., 2010). For example, if content area teachers have learned about the Frayer model as a method to teach vocabulary, the facilitator should model the process, using text from a particular discipline, rather than simply describing the steps of a Frayer model.

3. Provide targeted professional development in an intensive format that is continuous throughout the year. Teachers need high-level, long-term support from instructional leaders to make major changes in their behaviors, habits, and knowledge, and this process can take a considerable amount of time (Snow-Renner & Lauer, 2005). Examples of this support include building the capacity of individuals and teams to be leaders and learners, improving teachers’ knowledge of pedagogy and student learning, and promoting collaboration among educators to build shared responsibility for student achievement (Hirsh & Killion, 2007). Instructional leaders can strategically create master schedules in a way that protects teachers’ time to work with academic departments or grade levels. This effort can facilitate consistent instruction, a willingness to share instructional practices, and successful problem-solving among teachers (American Institutes for Research, 2007; McLaughlin & Talbert, 2001). For example, engaging in professional learning communities helps teachers deepen their knowledge, build their skills, and improve instruction (Calkins, Guenther, Belfiore, & Lash, 2007; Goddard, Goddard, & Tschannen-Moran, 2007; Supovitz & Christman, 2003). Professional learning communities are one way to target professional development that can be continuous throughout the year.

4. Monitor implementation of the practices from professional development and related teacher and student outcomes for at least 2 years to determine the association between them. Evaluating a professional development program includes gathering data from sources such as teacher effectiveness evaluations and student academic outcomes. Because the change process takes time and requires ongoing support, data beyond the current year should be considered when determining the long-term effects of professional development. Evaluating professional development helps instructional leaders determine whether to maintain, improve, or remove professional development programs.

Important Considerations

There are many important considerations for schools striving to implement the practices described in this blog. It is essential to keep in mind that professional development is not a series of events, but should be part of a coherent, focused program designed for a specific outcome. Here is a list of questions for instructional leaders to seriously consider when planning a professional development program:

»Does the professional development directly connect to school improvement and student learning goals and address the teaching of specific curriculum content?
»Is the professional development based on teacher needs and results from student assessments?
»Is the professional development plan coordinated across the state, district, and school, so that efforts are not duplicated and training sessions do not compete for time or send contradictory messages?
»Does the professional development include active learning for teachers?
»Do teachers from the same grade levels and disciplines participate together to foster collegial networks and a shared understanding of program goals?
»Does the professional development include training and support for administrators, instructional leaders, instructional coaches, and teachers?
»Are there follow-up sessions and ongoing support for classroom implementation throughout the year?
»How can time be provided for teachers to work together and with experts such as district specialists, a job-embedded professional development support person, consultants, or other instructional leaders?
»How can I provide opportunities for teachers to observe classrooms where the program or strategy is being implemented with fidelity and students are successful?
»What are the needs of the teachers? Do some need more individualized support, while others assume a leadership or coach role?
»Is there a systematic, ongoing needs assessment process to inform short- and long-term professional development planning?
»How will the professional development program be monitored over a 2-year period to determine the association between the practices from the professional development and teacher and student outcomes?

A Note About Online Professional Development

With the increase in budget challenges, there is a push for online teacher professional development. However, the evidence for this type of professional development is limited (Whitehouse, Breit, McCloskey, Ketelhut, & Dede, 2006). Some studies suggest that online teacher professional development can be effective. For example, Pianta, Mashburn, Downer, Hamre, and Justice (2008) report that Head Start teachers made significant improvements in their student interactions after they watched online videos, participated in structured responses, and received online consultation with an expert. The comparison group of Head Start teachers participated in the videos and structured responses, but not the online consultation. The researchers did not use a comparison group of teachers who used the traditional face-to-face professional development, and they did not analyze the program’s effect on student achievement. Overall, more research regarding middle school student outcomes associated with online teacher professional development is needed.

The Middle School Matters Research Platform encompasses research-based principles that support effective teachers. Below, Erica Rodriguez of Lyndon B. Johnson Middle School, a school receiving the Middle School Matters Institute’s Tier II support, describes the school’s professional development model and how it supports and enhances student learning.

Targeted Professional Development

Reflections From the Field

LBJ Middle School, in a small town deep in the Texas Rio Grande Valley, is home to approximately 980 students. On a typical school day, buses unload sleepy passengers, mockingbirds rustle among the live oaks, and parents dropping off their children steal a quick kiss before they zoom off to work.

At about 7:25 a.m., students bustle to their first-period classrooms to eat breakfast and listen to the morning announcements. Just like the birds chirping outside, students rambunctiously speak to one another—mostly in English but sometimes in Spanish and sometimes both at the same time.

About 33% of the students at LBJ Middle School are identified English language learners (ELLs). “Code switching” is quite common, and Spanish can be heard often. Teachers and staff members are so accustomed to the students that communication flows flawlessly in either language, and in our Dual Language Program, code switching is encouraged.

The reality is that for several years, our ELLs have struggled to perform satisfactorily on State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR). Our data show that our ELLs underperform in all content areas and struggle to meet federal and state safeguards, and many students who have been in the United States for more than 5 years haven’t progressed to the next level. They haven’t acquired the academic language to succeed in middle school, high school, and in postsecondary settings. Despite our best efforts and our students being able to communicate socially in either language, our students are falling short in the areas of speaking, listening, reading, and writing when it comes to academics in the English language.

This year, we have committed to providing our teachers with sustained professional development on best practices for ELLs. We truly believe that the Middle School Matters Institute has provided us with the appropriate level of direction, support, and resources to transform our campus into one in which all stakeholders are empowered to continuously expand their capacity and raise student achievement for those who would otherwise falter in high school and beyond.

Our Professional Development Model

To begin, we shared the Middle School Matters Research Platform and field guide with the staff and committed to the principles and practices therein. We discussed the research-based principles and practices that support effective teaching, shared what those principles meant to our school, and described what they looked like in the classroom.

A team consisting of administrators, the dean of instruction, an instructional coach, and department heads attended district training with the intention of improving implementation of the English Language Proficiency Standards (ELPS) on the campus. We assembled this team to focus on slecting motivated, knowledgeable, and experienced teachers with strong academic backgrounds and above-average performance in raising student achievement.

This team immersed themselves with foundational ELL material. The two resources we shared were an ELL Participant’s Manual and the ELPS Academy Resource Guide provided by Texas Education Association Education Service Center, Region 20. We prepared these materials for teachers and created a slideshow to facilitate our training. Teachers attended a 6-hour Saturday training and participated in various activities on the ELPS, Texas English Language Proficiency Assessment System (TELPAS), language objectives, performance-level descriptors, and instructional strategies targeted for ELLs. One activity involved the teachers accessing TELPAS results through the DMAC software system and creating progress-monitoring reports for every ELL in their classrooms. Teachers ended the training by creating an exit ticket—a red heart that prompted them to reflect on how difficult it is for students who don’t know the language and how challenging it is for teachers to differentiate for these students. In addition, teachers wrote the best strategies for ELLs in the heart as part of the “contract.” These hearts are displayed in our data room and serve as a reminder that this labor of love is the only way to address the needs of our ELLs.

Now that the initial training had been established, the administrators and instructional coaches had a plan and knew what to look for during the 10 learning walks we are required to complete each week. These learning walks targeted were designed to monitor teacher performance in a systematic way that is connected with a plan for instructional improvement and professional development.

Content and language objectives displayed in a student-friendly way? Check. Interactive word walls? Check. Rich print environment? Check. Students speaking in English, listening to English, reading English, and writing in English? Check. Check. Check. Check. Now we had evidence to discuss. In our postobservation conference, we could now provide teachers with feedback on what we observed. And we made sure to recognize and acknowledge the effort and commitment teachers gave day in and day out.


We knew we couldn’t just provide 6 hours of training and hope that teachers magically would retain this information in addition to the myriad of other initiatives they have to manage. So every Wednesday, all departments meet for 45 minutes as a collaborative learning community. This time was built into the master schedule at the beginning of the year, and it has been a blessing. The department heads serve as collaborative learning facilitators and are responsible for carrying out the professional development. The dean of instruction collaborates with the collaborative learning facilitators to provide data or resources. The collaborative learning facilitators provide an agenda focused on professional development and use protocols that facilitate discussions and ensure participation from all teachers. We focus on meeting the needs of ELLs. An example of this participation is a teacher sharing what he did to activate prior knowledge in the classroom. The teacher would talk about the activity and share student work samples with the collaborative learning facilitator. Or a collaborative learning community could take the form of a book study to learn about instructional strategies for ELLs and create an action plan to use in the classroom.

These meetings created opportunities to provide effective demonstrations, professional development, and leadership support to teachers on the necessity of using data to inform, plan, and adjust instruction, in addition to other areas. Likewise, it allowed us to implement ongoing, intensive professional development that targeted what teachers are expected to teach in alignment with district, state, and national standards and that matched teacher and student needs.

Lessons Learned

This is our first year being a part of the Middle School Matters Institute, and many of the principles are new to us. We are slowly but surely embracing our professional development model, and time will tell whether we see student success.

The following are some factors to consider:

  • We have “built-in” professional development time within our school day, and teachers still have 45 minutes of uninterrupted conference time within 2 weeks, ensuring regular, systematic, and structured time for professional development.
  • Because we took a risk and stretched the leadership capacity of our department heads by having them lead professional development, we did have some resistance early on, so strong support and reassurance are critical.
  • You must have materials readily available to support and facilitate each professional development session, such as agendas, books for book studies, and student work samples.
  • We meet with the department heads, who also are the collaborative learning facilitators, once every 2 weeks after school to share our experiences and help with the agendas.
  • Our teachers have embraced the collaborative planning model, which in turn helped our professional development model.
  • There is a difference between planning and professional development. Teachers plan their instruction on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday and have professional development on Wednesday.

Learn More

To learn more about research-based practices that support the development of effective teachers, explore the following resources:

The IRIS Center learning modules

National Center on Teaching and Learning

Additional resources on effective teachers are available in the Middle School Matters Clearinghouse. These resources can be filtered by intended audience or resource type.


American Institutes for Research. (2007). Successful California schools in the context of educational adequacy. Washington, DC: Author.

Calkins, A., Guenther, W., Belfiore, G., & Lash, D. (2007). The turnaround challenge: Why America’s best opportunity to dramatically improve student achievement lies in our worst-performing schools. Boston, MA: Mass Insight Education & Research Institute.

Center on Instruction. (2006). Designing high quality professional development: Building a community of reading experts in elementary schools. Portsmouth, NH: Author. Retrieved from http://www.centeroninstruction.org/designing-high-quality-professional-development-building-a-community-of-reading-experts-in-elementary-schools

Cohen, D. K., & Hill, H. C. (2001). Learning policy. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Elmore, R. F., & Burney, D. (1997). Investing in teacher learning: Staff development and instructional improvement: Community School District 2, New York City. New York, NY: National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future and Consortium for Policy Research in Education.

Garet, M. S., Porter, A. C., Desimone, L., Birman, B. F., & Yoon, K. S. (2001). What makes professional development effective? Results from a national sample of teachers. American Educational Research Journal, 38(4), 915–945.

Goddard, Y. L., Goddard, R. D., & Tschannen-Moran, M. (2007). Theoretical and empirical investigation of teacher collaboration for school improvement and student achievement in public elementary schools. Teachers College Record, 109(4), 877–896.

Hirsh, S., & Killion, J. (2007). The learning educator: A new era for professional learning. Oxford, OH: National Staff Development Council.

Kosanovich, M. L., Reed, D. K., & Miller, D. H. (2010). Bringing literacy strategies into content instruction: Professional learning for secondary-level teachers. Portsmouth, NH: RMC Research, Center on Instruction.

McLaughlin, M. W., & Talbert, J. E. (2001). Professional communities and the work of high school teaching. Chicago, IL: University Of Chicago Press.

Penuel, W., Fishman, B., Yamaguchi, R., & Gallagher, L. (2007). What makes professional development effective? Strategies that foster curriculum implementation. American Educational Research Journal, 44(4), 921–958.

Pianta, R. C., Mashburn, A. J., Downer, J. T., Hamre, B. K., & Justice, L. (2008). Effects of web-mediated professional development resources on teacher-child interactions in pre-kindergarten classrooms. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 23, 431–451.

Snow-Renner, R., & Lauer, P. A. (2005). Professional development analysis. Retrieved from http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED491305.pdf

Supovitz, J. A., & Christman, J. B. (2003). Developing communities of instructional practice: Lessons from Cincinnati and Philadelphia. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania.

Supovitz, J. A., Mayer, D. P., & Kahle, J. B. (2000). Promoting inquiry based instructional practice: The longitudinal impact of professional development in the context of systemic reform. Educational Policy, 14(3), 331–356.

Whitehouse, P., Breit, L., McCloskey, E., Ketelhut, D. J., & Dede, C. (2006). An overview of current findings from empirical research on online teacher professional development. In C. Dede (Ed.), Online professional development for teachers: Emerging models and methods (pp. 13–30). Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

Yoon, K. S., Duncan, T., Lee, S. W. Y., Scarloss, B., & Shapley, K. (2007). Reviewing the evidence on how teacher professional development affects student achievement (Issues & Answers Report, REL 2007-No. 033). National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Regional Educational Laboratory Southwest. Retrieved from http://ies.ed.gov/ncee/edlabs


Understanding the Importance of Teacher Buy-In for School Improvement

This installment of the Middle School Matters Institute Blog focuses on gaining teachers’ support when beginning new educational initiatives.

Christy Murray, Middle School Matters Institute Principal Investigator and Project Director (Research Perspective)
Earnest Brooks, Assistant Principal, Baytown Junior School in Baytown, Texas (Practice Perspective)

The Research Perspective

This past year, the Middle School Matters Institute (MSMI) was fortunate to work with eight outstanding schools that serve middle grade students, and we’ve just begun the journey with eight additional schools. MSMI supports and works collaboratively with these schools to implement research-based practices that prepare students for high school and postsecondary success. These schools endured a lengthy application and selection process to receive our “Tier II” targeted support. Schools were invited to attend the annual MSMI Summer Conference with a six-person leadership team to learn from national education experts (e.g., Dr. Sharon Vaughn, Dr. Robert Balfanz, Dr. Mark Dynarski, Dr. David Chard); attend informative breakout sessions; and engage in focused planning time to assess their current level of implementation for a variety of research-based practices, determine needs, and set specific goals.
After 3 intensive learning days in Austin, schools traveled home, invigorated and full of excitement. There was an abundance of positive feedback, including the following:

  • “I feel that this conference was the most useful of my teaching career—very informative, interesting, inspiring, and motivating!”
  • “So excited to design and work with our plan. Very rarely do I leave a conference with an actual design for a plan in place.”

The summer break had just begun, but our schools were already focused on the coming school year and putting research-based practices in action. However, schools were warned that the really hard work was still ahead.

“Just because your leadership team is excited today, don’t assume that the rest of your staff will feel the same way,” I told them on the final day of the conference. “One of the most critical elements of your school’s success in the coming year is the way in which you introduce your participation in Middle School Matters to the rest of your staff. How will you convey to educators that instructional adjustments can and need to be made? How will you achieve buy-in that supports effective implementation of practices?”

These days, education reform initiatives are a dime a dozen and come and go more quickly than we like to admit. Who can blame educators for thinking (and hoping) that “This too shall pass”? But Middle School Matters is different. Our national education experts compiled the most effective practices (as proven by rigorous research) to enhance the performance of middle grade students into the Middle School Matters Field Guide. MSMI then translates this research into practice by providing resources and support for schools’ implementation of these practices. Therefore, Middle School Matters is not an “initiative of the day,” but instead reinforces implementation of sound practice that will not “go out of style.” Schools can be assured that their participation is indeed worthwhile.

Schools are often anxious to reap the benefits of participation in a new program and begin without proper training or consideration of their ability to implement the program in a meaningful way. Schools may introduce a new program with a staff development day or “kickoff” celebration, achieving immediate (short-term) buy-in. However, sustainable, long-term buy-in is not achieved in 1 day, 1 week, or even in 1 month or year. It is an ongoing process, achieved over time, and involves focusing on factors that research demonstrates can lead to teacher buy-in of school improvement efforts.

Christy Murray
Christy Murray

Teacher Participation and Shared Decision Making

An assumption exists that school improvement models that incorporate teacher participation in school-level decision making have a greater chance of success. The belief is that teachers have “bought in” before implementation begins. But there is disagreement among researchers on how effective this practice is.

Participatory decision making—or shared decision making, as it is sometimes called—has been linked to an increase in job satisfaction (Imber, Neidt, & Reyes, 1990; Smylie, Lazarus, & Brownlee-Conyers, 1996; White, 1992), goal commitment (Bacharach, Bamberger, Conley, & Bauer, 1990; Turnbull, 1999; Weiss, 1993), and teacher attendance (Griffin, 1995; Hart, 1990; Taylor & Bogotch, 1994; Weiss & Cambone, 1994).

In contrast to these positive findings, other research indicates that teacher participation in school-level decision making may have negative side effects. While acknowledging that it is not exactly clear why, Turnbull (2002) found that teacher participation in program selection was not a strong predictor of either immediate or long-term buy-in. The demands of participation can detract from teacher time spent on classroom work and decrease commitment and motivation to take action (Griffin, 1995; Weiss & Cambone, 1994; Weiss, Cambone, & Wyeth, 1992).

Removing teachers’ ability to participate in school-level decision making could be interpreted as undermining teacher professionalism. After all, teachers can provide valuable insight to improve schools. The key is not whether schools should use participatory decision making but when and in what areas it is most beneficial. Turnbull recommends administrators and small groups of teachers (e.g., a leadership team) lead efforts in actual selection of school reform programs. Schools can then focus more time and resources on the factors described below.

Factors That Contribute to Buy-In

Rigorous research is limited, but Turnbull (2002) indicates that teachers are more likely to buy in to a school reform program when they receive the following:

  • Adequate training and resources: Have teachers had enough training to know how to implement in their classroom? Is there an opportunity for ongoing training? Do teachers have the necessary resources to implement with fidelity?
  • Support from program developers: Is the program’s field staff helpful to teachers?
  • Support from staff members: Does the school leadership team address teacher concerns related to implementation? Do colleagues help each other when questions or challenges arise? Does the staff meet periodically to discuss classroom issues?
  • Administrator buy-in: Do administrators believe that the program is a good choice for the school?
  • Teacher influence over classroom implementation: Can teachers decide what changes are needed and how those changes can be made? (Note: Teachers cannot make changes that compromise fidelity of implementation.)

Guidance for Achieving Buy-In for Middle School Matters

Predictors of Buy-In
(Turnbull, 2002)
Application to Middle School Matters
Adequate  training and resources
  • Ensure that staff members understand the purpose of Middle School Matters, why the school chose to participate, and how this participation will affect them and their instruction in the coming year.
  • Provide staff members with Middle School Matters materials (booklets, practice briefs, etc.) to supplement the information they receive orally from administrators and the leadership team.
  • Deliver ongoing professional development related to implementation plans. Contact MSMI for assistance.
  • Provide ongoing coaching and feedback to teachers on instructional practices during professional learning communities or individually during teachers’ planning time.
Support from program developers
  • Participate in MSMI ongoing support (community-of-practice calls, booster sessions) and ask for assistance with implementation when it is needed.
  • Download the free implementation tools and resources from our website.
Support from school staff members
  • Engage in frequent meetings with various groups of teachers to understand their concerns, misunderstandings, and celebrations.
  • Allow teachers to meet in small groups (professional learning communities) and observe one another’s instruction as a way to share and scale up successful implementation.
Administrator buy-in
  • Demonstrate your commitment and enthusiasm for Middle School Matters not only during a kickoff meeting, but also throughout the year. Participate in all planning and problem-solving meetings, provide clear expectations to the staff, and follow up on all planned activities and timelines to ensure that work is being accomplished.
  • Involve the superintendent or other district staff members in the school improvement efforts.
Teacher influence over classroom implementation
  • Use student data to select and implement practices from the Middle School Matters Research Platform and Field Guide. (Because the practices are research based, teachers cannot modify the actual instructional practices; doing so will compromise the fidelity of implementation and may result in undesirable student outcomes.)
  • Assure teachers that practices are not meant to add to their workload but instead align with existing school improvement efforts and enhance the instruction already occurring.
  • Allow flexibility in terms of scheduling, student grouping, and materials and topics that align with district adoption and state standards.

Below, Earnest Brooks, the assistant principal at Baytown Junior School, one of the schools receiving MSMI Tier II support, offers insight into the experience of introducing Middle School Matters to the school staff.

Reflections From the Field

The Baytown Junior School leadership team
The Baytown Junior School leadership team

Our Background

Baytown Junior is a Title I school in the older section of Baytown, Texas. Nearly 80% of our students are economically disadvantaged and are served by the free or reduced-price lunch program. Baytown Junior is home to the New Arrival Center, which serves students who are new to the United States and are identified as non-English-speaking students. Our student breakdown is approximately 14% African American, 13% white, 70% Hispanic, and 3% other. These details form a general picture of our campus, but they don’t provide the full picture. Our students, faculty, and staff are “Baytown Junior proud” and strive to achieve greatness. We continue to build upon the strong academic and social foundation that our students bring with them from elementary school. Our faculty and staff are committed to providing our students with the tools they need for a successful future.

School Improvement Goals

The leadership team at Baytown Junior felt that support and professional development from MSMI would build our capacity to improve student performance and achievement. The support received to this point has allowed the leadership team to effectively lead our core academic teams. The research-based strategies build on the instruction our teachers provide on a daily basis. The “Tier II” support helps teachers increase the rigor and relevance of their instruction. These measures are designed to give each student the opportunity to grow academically and achieve levels II and III on the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR).

Over the past few years, administrative leadership has experienced a great deal of turnover. As a second-year administrator, I am the veteran of our administrative team. The turnover has caused a fragile overall campus culture and climate. In assessing our campus needs of support from MSMI, our school’s climate and culture were quickly identified as areas in need of honest and forthright attention. Positive school climate and culture are fundamental to student academic success. To continue to see measurable growth in our most important stakeholder, our students, we must build our capacity to have the best school climate and culture possible. The end result will be the most nurturing climate for our Baytown Junior students to attain a well-rounded middle school education.

The first academic content dimension we felt needed to be addressed was math. The math department has shown tremendous growth over the 2013-2014 school year as compared to the previous year. Data from assessments informed our instruction in all classes, including the intervention classes. We provided training and assistance to our co-teach teams to maximize the working relationship between the teacher and co-teacher. The campus established Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol teams to concentrate on meeting the needs of our limited-English-proficient students and structured professional learning communities to provide training and allow for team discussion.

We will continue these strategies in the upcoming year with more focus on the seventh-grade team. The math department will work on establishing schoolwide practices for enhancing mathematics understanding within content areas, use our universal screener to guide intervention, and discontinue practices that are not associated with improved outcomes for students. We are striving for a 10% increase in all grade levels on the 2014-2015 STAAR Math test.

We have begun to address literacy by increasing reading and writing strategies across all content areas. We began this process in April 2014 with a cross-curricular reading response strategy used in all classes, including electives. We plan to continue this strategy, increasing the rigor of questions asked and increasing the complexity and clarity of students’ answers. We have new personnel in our department for the 2014-2015 school year, particularly in seventh grade. The instructional specialist/coach will work closely with new hires and returning faculty to discontinue ineffective practices, replace ineffective practices with research-based strategies and practices, and continue to make data-informed decisions that have positive impacts on student achievement.

Initial Staff Buy-In

Once areas of need were identified, the focus turned to getting our staff on board and sharing information effectively. This effort began by discussing the honor of being selected by the Bush Institute for inclusion in MSMI. We simply described the process of being selected and the nearing conference the leadership team was to attend. Once we concluded the summer conference and returned to school, the real work began and the pieces of the puzzle began to take shape. The leadership team structured and framed our back-to-school meeting as a celebration of the return of faculty and staff, the beginning of a new school year, and the initial rollout of our MSMI Implementation Plans. We served cake, decorated our building with balloons, and played Cool and the Gang’s “Celebrate” over the PA system. The leadership team provided a brief overview, emphasizing the Middle School Matters Clearinghouse and research-based strategies. We provided the faculty with details in terms of the overall selection process and the plans moving forward. Teachers were open and inquisitive to the information. The day was a success.

Next Steps: Achieving Sustained Buy-In

At Baytown Junior, we are open, honest, and transparent with our teachers. Moving forward, we will continue to achieve buy-in and work collaboratively with our staff by doing the following:

  • Aligning all school improvement efforts: The administrative and leadership teams worked hard to align the Campus Improvement Plan, the Campus Action Plan and the MSMI Implementation Plans. The alignment has made the process a bit more palatable for teachers, as the strategies are implemented as part of their teaching—not as something new.
  • Implementing slowly and deliberately: We will continue to implement our MSMI plans in small chunks, provide instructional support, and keep morale high.
  • Displaying administrative support for MSMI: By continually celebrating our successes and assessing and addressing areas of need related to our MSMI Implementation Plans, we intend to convey how important this initiative is to our administrative team and our entire school.
  • Emphasizing the longevity and effectiveness of the research-based practices we implement: Educational trends come and go, but research-based strategies, those that are “battle tested,” improve instruction. These strategies improve the learning environment and “stick” in the brain of the students. The end result is growth and achievement of our students!
    A special thanks goes to Ms. Leslie Garcia, Ms. Margaret Parker, Ms. Judy Mackyeon, Mr. Jerry Shafer, Ms. Janie West, and Dr. Donna Woodstellman for their continued work to assess, review, and implement MSMI plans. I would also like to thank and encourage our faculty and staff for their continued efforts to strive to be the very best!


Bacharach, S. B., Bamberger, P., Conley, S. C., & Bauer, S. (1990). The dimensionality of decision participation in educational organizations: The value of a multi-domain evaluative approach. Educational Administration Quarterly, 26, 126-167.

Griffin, G. A. (1995). Influences of shared decision making on classroom activity: Conversations with five teachers. The Elementary School Journal, 96, 29-45.

Hart, A. W. (1990). Work redesign: A review of literature for education reform. In S. B.
Bacharach (Ed.), Advances in research and theories of school management (Vol. 1; pp. 31-69). New Haven, CT: JAI.

Imber, M., Neidt, W. A., & Reyes, P. (1990). Factors contributing to teacher satisfaction with participative decision-making. Journal of Research and Development in Education, 23, 216-225.

Smylie, M. A., Lazarus, V., & Brownlee-Conyers, J. (1996). Instructional outcomes of school-based participative decision making. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 18, 181-198.

Taylor, D. L., & Bogotch, I. E. (1994). School-level effects of teachers’ participation in decision-making. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 16, 302-319.

Turnbull, B. (1999). The mediating effect of participation efficacy on evaluation use. Evaluation and Program Planning, 22, 131-140.

Turnbull, B. (2002). Teachers’ participation and buy-in: Implications for school reform initiatives. Learning Environments Research, 5, 235-252.

Weiss, C. H. (1993). Shared decision making about what? A comparison of schools with and without teacher participation. Teachers College Review, 95, 69-92.

Weiss, C. H., & Cambone, J. (1994). Principals, shared decision making, and school reform. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 16, 287-301.

Weiss, C. H., Cambone, J., & Wyeth, A. (1992). Trouble in paradise: Teacher conflicts in shared decision making. Educational Leadership, 28, 350-367.

White, P. A. (1992). Teacher empowerment under ‘ideal’ school-site autonomy. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 14, 69-82.

Implementing Student Behavior Supports to Improve the Success of Middle Grade Students

This installment of the Middle School Matters Institute Blog focuses on school leadership and establishing student behavior supports.

Robert Balfanz, Ph.D., Johns Hopkins University (Research Perspective)
Dan Scully, Roosevelt Middle School, Erie School District (Practice Perspective)

The Research Perspective

The mission of public schools is to impart academic knowledge and to educate students to become productive, well-functioning citizens. Positive behaviors contribute to students’ success in school, and maladaptive behaviors prohibit students from maximizing their opportunities to learn in school. Past research has found preliminary evidence not just that behavioral skills are important for the social development of students, but also that such behavior, both positive and negative, shows relationships with academic outcomes.

A positive school climate promotes the emotional well-being and growth of every student while providing a safe and secure environment. Teaching and learning are challenging in an environment that poses psychological and physical threats. Therefore, it is important to have common behavioral and academic expectations, recognitions, and firm and fair consequences that are consistently applied across the classes a student attends. It is also necessary to teach, model, and recognize the positive behaviors we want students to employ and to create multiple opportunities for students to learn and demonstrate these skills. Finally, a proactive student support system needs to be built to address the circumstances or individual student needs that drive nonproductive and disruptive behaviors. This support system takes strong school leadership, coordination, professional development, and teamwork among all stakeholders.

Research-based principles and practices related to school leadership and student behavior supports can be applied in middle grade education to improve student outcomes. School leaders and teachers can consider these strategies for establishing a positive climate for learning and for assisting students in demonstrating positive behavior. These research-based strategies enable middle grade students to have the behavior skills they need not only for high school success, but also success in postsecondary education and/or future careers.

student behavior supports

Develop Discipline Policies and Procedures

School leaders should provide leadership in developing an appropriate school discipline code that includes the following:

  1. A description of expected student behavior and conduct
  2. Mechanisms for teaching, modeling, and recognizing positive behaviors
  3. Consistently and fairly applied guidelines and consequences for students who do not display appropriate behaviors. Guidelines should not inadvertently lead students to attend school less, get in more trouble, or fail their courses.

Such a code should reflect the input of parents, students, teachers, youth-serving professionals, and community leaders and be informed by current evidence of effective and ineffective strategies and policies. Effective educational leaders have school safety and behavior plans that include systematic, ongoing, and consistent processes that try to prevent and eliminate disruptive behaviors, intimidation, drugs, violence, and gangs in the school.

Support Teachers in Classroom Management

School leaders can support teachers by consistently instructing, modeling, and recognizing appropriate and positive academic and social behaviors across all classrooms. These practices can significantly reduce antisocial and maladaptive behaviors-such as acting out, being disrespectful, or not paying attention-that reduce and inhibit effective classroom instruction and student learning.

Positive behavior needs to be taught like any other skill by breaking it down into concrete, teachable steps, and explaining to students the rationale for learning the skill, creating opportunities for guided and independent practice, prompting and cuing students about the use of the behavioral skill, and recognizing the effective use of the skill. What follows are some sample topics for teachers to use to assist their students in developing appropriate behavior skills:

  • How to gain attention from the teacher in an appropriate and respectful manner
  • How to gain attention from peers in an appropriate and respectful manner
  • How to take turns sharing, communicating ideas, cooperating, and problem-solving in small groups
  • Ways to self-monitor and self-manage one’s social behavior and completion of academic work
  • How to develop emotional awareness, tolerance, self-regulation of emotions, and personal responsibility

Respond to Individual Student Needs

School leaders can implement a prevention and intervention framework focused on student attendance, behavior, and course performance. An effective framework includes whole-school prevention programs, targeted supports of moderate intensity or duration delivered to groups of students, and cases managed one on one or in small groups. Schools should make early warning indicator data (daily attendance, behavior, and course performance) available to teacher teams and other adults who provide student supports (counselors, community-based organizations, and national service corps members). Schools should also analyze the data to ensure that student supports of sufficient intensity and scale are available. On a regular basis, schools should have teacher teams and other student support providers meet and review the early warning indicator data, assign students to appropriate interventions, monitor student progress and intervention effectiveness, and make adjustments as needed.

Encourage Positive Behavior

Administrators, principals, teachers, and community organizations should work collaboratively to develop extracurricular activities and extended day programs that provide students with opportunities to build upon their strengths and interests and that serve as positive alternatives to situations that can lead to negative behaviors. Examples include youth-service networks, student leadership and peer assistance programs, organized school sports, and academic enrichment programs. These stakeholders should also work together to develop specific programs to prevent drug use and abuse and eliminate gang influence in schools.

One way for middle grade students to develop important academic and healthy behaviors is through activities linked to their developmental needs, including activities for adventure and camaraderie. Service learning, in which teams of students participate in the design of a service project and its execution, and electives that combine rich cognitive content with teamwork, performance, and tangible outcomes (debate, drama, robotics, etc.) over relatively short durations (a few weeks or a month or 2), are particularly well suited to this task.

Below, Dan Scully, of Roosevelt Middle School in Erie, Pennsylvania, a Middle School Matters Showcase School, shares the school’s experiences in implementing research-based practices that promote positive student behavior and, in turn, improve academic outcomes for students.

Reflections From the Field

Our Background

Roosevelt Middle School’s focus on student behavior supports was driven largely by its new, diverse student population. Previously, Roosevelt Middle School served approximately 300 students in grades 7 and 8. As a result of district budget decisions, several schools in our district closed and merged into one at Roosevelt Middle School, and we found ourselves in a rather challenging situation. Our student population doubled, our staff size tripled, and we were expected to adapt to an entirely new administrative team. The new student population consisted of diverse ethnic and socioeconomic groups, with nearly 75% of students from low-socioeconomic, disadvantaged backgrounds.

While attending the Middle School Matters Institute Summer Conference, we realized that the key to our success would be supporting positive student behavior while developing a unique school culture with our new students, staff, and administrative team-while simultaneously transitioning to the Common Core State Standards. As a result, we developed a Middle School Matters Institute Implementation Plan focused on student behavior supports.

Our Goals

Some programs and basic interventions were already in place that offered support and outlined student behavioral expectations. However, we wanted to sharpen our focus on students’ needs for positive behavior supports, and we were especially mindful of the students at risk of eventual dropout. We believe it is imperative to identify these students early and lend supports to ultimately prevent them from dropping out of school. Therefore, we created a Data Team to define risk indicators and criteria and identify students with the greatest degree of need. By charting and reviewing the data, as well as considering teacher input, we further identified the students in need of the most immediate support. This attempt to increase student achievement, decrease discipline incidents (which distract from instruction), and motivate students to stay in school is a lofty goal for any middle school. However, we are committed to ensuring our students receive their high school diplomas and become “college and career ready.”

Our Challenges

We faced several difficulties once the Data Team had identified at-risk students. The first challenge was finding time for the Data Team to discuss and outline a basic educational plan for each student. Developing comprehensive plans is a timely process, making it difficult to assist all students in need. A second challenge was finding time in the school day for targeted students to meet in small groups designed around similar need (e.g., organization, study skills) in a way that did not interfere with students’ core classes. A third challenge was effectively implementing the interventions outlined in students’ plans. Our school often lacked the necessary resources to implement the interventions as intended. As a temporary solution, we made the best possible use of existing resources (staff, time, materials, programs, and processes) until new interventions could be scaled up and implemented with fidelity.

Our Success

We have successfully defined indicators and criteria to identify students at risk of eventual high school dropout. As a result, Roosevelt Middle School will pilot a program for the state of Pennsylvania. The state program will identify students by using many of the indicators we already monitor. Additionally, Pennsylvania’s system has a catalog of interventions (e.g., www.dropoutprevention.org/effective-strategies) that can be implemented and monitored, so we can more closely gauge students’ growth.

Lessons Learned

We learned many lessons this year as we implemented our Middle School Matters Institute Implementation Plan in the area of student behavior supports, including the following:

  • Set reasonable, achievable goals.
  • Make sure you have all the information, resources, and data to implement plans with fidelity.
  • Be patient. Implementation of any new program or initiative takes time and is susceptible to challenges. Make sure your plan addresses all necessary steps and address possible problems or weaknesses ahead of time.
  • Don’t bite off more than you can chew. After attending the Middle School Matters Institute Summer Conference last year, we were anxious to implement our plans. We were a bit overzealous and unrealistic about what we could do and by when we could achieve it. We revised our plans and made practical decisions with more realistic deadlines.

student behavior supports


Balfanz, R. (2010). Putting middle grade students on the graduation path: A policy and practice brief. Westerville, OH: National Middle School Association.

Brookover, W., Beady, C., Flood, P., Schweitzer, J., & Wisenbaker, J. (1979). School social systems and student achievement: Schools can make a difference. New York, NY: Praeger.

Day, C. (2005). Principals who sustain success: Making a difference in challenging circumstances. International Journal of Leadership in Education, 8(4), 273–290.

Epstein, M., Atkins, M., Cullinan, D., Jutash, K., & Weaver, R. (2008). Reducing behavior problems in the elementary school classroom: A practice guide (NCEE #2008-012). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance. Retrieved from http://ies.ed.gov/ncee/wwc/publications/practiceguides

Hurwitz, E., Menacker, J., & Weldon, W. (1996). Critical issue: Developing and maintaining safe schools. Retrieved from http://www.ncrel.org/sdrs/areas/issues/envrnmnt/drugfree/sa200.htm

Marzano, R. J., Walters, T., & McNulty, B. A. (2005). School leadership that works: From research to results. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Murphy, J. (2009). Turning around failing schools: Policy insights from the corporate, government, and nonprofit sectors. Educational Policy, 23(6), 796–830.

Stephens, R. D. (1995). Safe schools: A handbook for violence prevention. Bloomington, IN: National Educational Service.

Establishing Effective Early Warning Indicator Systems

This installment of the Middle School Matters Institute Blog focuses on using early warning indicator systems to improve student performance and reduce the risk of future high school dropout.

Doug Elmer, Diplomas Now, Johns Hopkins University (Research Perspective)
Kelsey Lyons Trojacek, School Social Worker, Revere Middle School, Houston Independent School District (Practice Perspective)

The Research Perspective

Over the past decade, educators, researchers, and policymakers have worked together in a concerted effort to increase graduation rates and end the dropout crisis in this country. Although significant progress has been made, far too many students leave the school system before graduating. Nationally, one in five students drops out prior to graduation, with students of color making up a disproportionate number of dropouts across the country. The good news is that through the use of early warning indicator (EWI) systems, educators can accurately identify before high school the students most likely to drop out, empowering teachers and schools to provide supports and interventions to remedy the challenges these students face and to substantially increase the likelihood that they complete high school and move on to postsecondary education.
In recent years, EWI systems have emerged as critical, strategic tools in the effort to ensure that every student remains on track toward a high school diploma and postsecondary opportunities. EWI systems use readily available data to alert teachers and administrators to students who are on the pathway to dropping out. EWI systems grew out of a simple premise—that data could identify students who, absent intervention, were likely to leave the education system. EWI systems guide educators toward the most efficient and effective responses, which include not only student-level interventions, but also classroom, school, and even district actions.

The research behind EWI systems grew out of the larger body of research on dropout prevention and recovery. Researchers noted that a disproportionately small subset of America’s high schools produced the majority of the nation’s dropouts (Balfanz & Legters, 2004) and that performance during the freshman year—particularly with regard to attendance and credit attainment—was closely correlated with high school graduation (Allensworth & Easton, 2005). Researchers at the University of Chicago Consortium (Allensworth & Easton, 2007), Johns Hopkins University, and the Philadelphia Education Fund (Balfanz, Herzog, & Mac Iver, 2007) built on these studies by looking more closely for patterns in longitudinal data and individual student records. Their analysis found that the following three factors—now commonly referred to as the ABC indicators—were the strongest predictors of dropping out:

  • Attendance—students who missed more than 20 days of school
  • Behavior problems—students who exhibited serious behavior problems (resulting in suspension) or who exhibited persistent, lower-intensity misbehavior, as evidenced by a conduct grade or referrals
  • Course failures—students who received a failing grade in language arts or mathematics
early warning indicators to identify students at risk of dropping out
At the 2013 Middle School Matters Institute Summer Conference, Dr. Robert Balfanz of Johns Hopkins University presents on the use of early warning indicators to identify students at risk of dropping out.

Further, the Philadelphia study found that students at risk of dropping out could be identified as early as sixth grade. Since the publication of these initial studies, their findings have been validated many times with state and large district longitudinal studies in Arkansas, Boston, Colorado, Florida, Indianapolis, Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, and Tennessee (Bruce, Bridgeland, Fox, & Balfanz, 2011). More recent studies have demonstrated that districts can identify students at risk of dropping out at nearly any grade level (West, 2013).

The growing body of research validating EWI systems provides several important criteria that effective EWI systems share (Bruce et al., 2011; Mac Iver & Mac Iver, 2009). Districts and schools seeking to launch an EWI system should use these criteria as guideposts during the development phase:

  • Build an effective EWI data system: An effective EWI data system provides clear, accurate information around “high-yield” indicators. High-yield indicators—especially attendance, behavior, and course performance—are highly predictive of a majority of dropouts. Although the thresholds for these indicators may vary across districts and states, numerous research studies have confirmed the validity of these primary indicators. EWI data systems should emphasize accuracy over complexity and strive to update data, so that information is as close to real time as possible. All educators, support providers, administrators, and other stakeholders invested in the EWI system should be given appropriate initial and follow-up training and access to the EWI data system.
  • Develop a tiered intervention system to respond to EWI data: Although EWI data effectively identify students in need of additional intervention, schools must effectively organize their staff and leverage resources to meet the needs of off-track students. Schools need to engage the “second team” of adults in their school building—counselors, social service providers, tutors, and other student support personnel—in developing a resource map and strategic plan to guide the school’s response to EWI data and use the EWI data to allocate resources and prioritize the work of this team. Further, this team must be integrated with the teaching staff and administration, so that every adult responsible for identifying students in need of support and designing and delivering interventions engages in this work in a coherent, coordinated manner.
  • Provide time during the professional day to discuss EWI data as a team: A common trait among districts and schools that effectively use EWI data to develop student interventions and guide school improvement is the creation of common planning time among educators who share groups of students. A common practice among middle schools is to build in common planning time for grade-level teams to analyze EWI data and determine interventions. Schools that effectively use EWI data during common planning times employ a designated facilitator for these discussions, establish protocols for discussion and decision making, and keep careful records of decisions teams make regarding the design and delivery of student interventions. Teachers, administrators, and student support personnel mentioned above are all included in these EWI team meetings, and every team member plays a distinct role within the EWI analysis, intervention delivery, and progress-monitoring process.

Below, Kelsey Lyons Trojacek of Revere Middle School in Houston Independent School District, a Middle School Matters “Tier II” school, shares the school’s experience in establishing an EWI system and the resulting challenges, successes, and lessons learned.

Reflections From the Field

At Revere Middle School, we strive for our students to be Ivy Leaguers, sports stars, scientists, business leaders, inventors, engineers—you name it! However, we noticed too many students becoming ineligible for sports and activities, not enough National Junior Honor Society members, too many average students at risk of not moving on to high school, and unbalanced grade distribution reports. Our campus has amazing teachers and a dedicated staff, so apathy and incompetence were not concerns. But data indicated that our current practices were not preparing students for success. As a result, we began implementing an EWI system to identify and intervene with students on the verge of heading toward failure. Houston Independent School District is a school-of-choice district and has a widespread magnet program. Students may apply to any magnet school, regardless of home address, and transportation is provided with acceptance into the school. These magnet schools have a number of foci: science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM); energy; law enforcement; aviation; performing arts; business—the list goes on. We want these magnet high schools to want Revere Patriots in their student body, but we have to do our part in getting our kids ready!

Revere Middle School
The Revere Middle School leadership team attended the 2013 Middle School Matters Institute Summer Conference and learned about early warning indicator systems along with other research-based practices that improve outcomes for middle grade students.

Early Warning Indicator System Goals: Changing Our Student Portrait

Our ultimate goal at Revere Middle School is to make school a better place for everyone. In setting up an EWI system and targeting specific student needs, we hoped to reduce discipline referrals, so teachers and administrators could focus their time and energy on instruction, not consequences. Specifically, we set out to do the following:

  • Reduce the number of students failing multiple classes (core and elective)
  • Reduce the risk of dropout due to behavior, absences, grades, age, and status
  • Reduce the number of discipline referrals
  • Increase teacher awareness of student needs (personal and educational) and grading practices

Overcoming Obstacles

All systems-level changes must overcome challenges. Our biggest obstacle was the large number of students initially flagged as being at risk. The initial EWI report in our system resulted in more than 75 pages of students!

We had to refine our indicators to generate a more manageable number of target students. This first cohort included (a) every student who was at least 2 years overage and (b) every student who was absent more than 8% of the total school days. We excluded (a) every student who was failing three or fewer classes and (b) every student failing only elective classes. The list of students was still large, so we examined the data for patterns. For instance, we hypothesized that recently immigrated students failed classes because of their limited English proficiency or did not attend school simply because their parents didn’t bring them regularly. This hypothesis prompted us to educate teachers on appropriate accommodations for newly arrived students and to partner with our district’s refugee department to work with parents on educational expectations and concerns in our country.

A second challenge was monitoring intervention effectiveness and following up with teachers in a timely manner. Even though I worked diligently “behind the scenes,” running reports, identifying students at risk, and filling out worksheets designed to give teachers a comprehensive understanding of students’ needs, it was still difficult to keep track of the interventions teachers implemented and how students responded. Meetings occurred every 3 to 6 weeks, but that is long enough to lose documentation or forget exactly what one student’s behavior was like in class several weeks ago. To overcome this obstacle, I kept a copy of each student’s intervention record and asked teachers at the next EWI meeting what interventions they had implemented with each student. This method was effective but time consuming, so we are still piloting different systems.

A third challenge was intervening effectively, so students were no longer at risk. One available support for students was assignment to a school mentor. Many students needed their mentor for longer than 6 weeks, and even with every teacher mentoring two to three students, there often were too many at-risk students for the available resources. This obstacle made supporting new students who would benefit from a mentor even more challenging. Some teachers took on more students, and even a few deans agreed to check in with students. This extra effort helped us reach the top-priority students as best we could.

Our final challenge was realizing that some students would not make progress, despite our best efforts. Teachers worked diligently with students, provided positive reinforcement, involved parents, provided incentives, and created innovative systems and solutions, but—for some students—seemingly to no avail, which is disheartening. We realized we wouldn’t achieve a 100% success rate right away. However, we continue to keep our goal in mind and are hopeful that in time, a student may remember some of the things taught to him or her by our teachers.


The most rewarding experience was observing changes in the targeted students. Numerous students improved by one or even two letter grades. Student discipline referrals decreased drastically. We observed students who disliked coming to school (and frequent skippers) have a complete change of attitude and begin participating in class regularly. This change affected not only the student, but also the teacher and classroom as a whole.

A second success was the increased communication between teachers. The EWI system included time built into teachers’ busy planning schedules to meet with their team and discuss the targeted students, with support from both administration and support services at the school. During these conversations, we’d commonly hear “I never knew he was going through that…” or “I hadn’t thought of trying that; I’ll do it next time I see her…” Increasing awareness of students’ lives outside of the classroom by communicating with the deans and social workers (our campus doesn’t have counselors) was a benefit for all parties.

From an administrative perspective, a big success was seeing improvement in grade distribution reports. The beginning of the year showed too many students failing classes. When teachers were presented with their grade distribution at every progress report and report card, they could see that too many of their students were failing. Teachers made changes, and the peak of the bell curve started shifting to the right. Deans could review the school’s grading policies, and teachers could examine both their grading procedures and their teaching habits.

Interventions that support the improvement of coursework
The Revere Middle School leadership team reviews student writing samples to identify student needs, refine research-based practices in the core curriculum, and develop appropriate interventions. Interventions that support the improvement of coursework are an integral part of an EWI system.

Lessons Learned

  • Involve school staff members with various perspectives (e.g., teachers, administrators, counselors, nurses). We learned so much about each student just by being in the same room together. By hearing what the nurse says about health, and what the dean says about discipline, and what the social worker says about home life, and what the teacher says about classroom behavior and participation, we could then assemble the puzzle pieces and work together to reach a student.
  • Talk to teammates about successes in their classrooms and share successes about building rapport. Through our EWI meetings, we brought teachers together to share strategies that were particularly helpful with specific students who presented a challenge for another teacher. We also identified patterns. Sometimes, teachers who had a student in the morning could tell when that student hadn’t taken his or her medicine, and the social worker could help the family find affordable medication or healthcare. Other times, teachers in the afternoon encountered difficulties with a student and later learned that student didn’t eat lunch that day.
  • Dig even deeper than what your EWI report tells you. If a student received 3 days of in-school suspension, ask why. Tardies? Disrespect? Fighting? Target those issues because often, when one thing improves, it has a positive impact on several other things.
  • Don’t “pile on” to the teachers’ workload. Frame the work in a positive light. By helping a student, they help their class and their fellow teachers. When assigning mentors, let the teachers choose their mentee students, so that teachers choose students with whom they have a positive relationship.

Learn More

Additional resources on early warning indicator systems are available in the Middle School Matters Clearinghouse. These resources can be further filtered by intended audience or resource type.


  • Allensworth, E. M., & Easton, J. Q. (2005). The on-track indicator as a predictor of high school graduation. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research.
  • Allensworth, E. M., & Easton, J. Q. (2007). What matters for staying on track and graduating in Chicago Public High Schools. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research. Retrieved from http://ccsr.uchicago.edu/publications/what-matters-staying-track-and-graduating-chicago-public-schools
  • Balfanz, R., Herzog, L., & Mac Iver, D. J. (2007). Preventing student disengagement and keeping students on the graduation path in urban middle-grades schools: Early identification and effective interventions. Educational Psychologist, 42(4), 223–235.
    Balfanz, R., & Legters, N. (2004). Locating the dropout crisis. Which high schools produce the nation’s dropouts? Where are they located? Who attends them? (Report 70). Baltimore, MD: Center for Research on the Education of Students Placed at Risk.
  • Bruce, M., Bridgeland, J. M., Fox, J. H., & Balfanz, R. (2011). On track for success: The use of early warning indicator and intervention systems to build a grad nation. Washington, DC: Civic Enterprises & Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University.
  • Mac Iver, M., & Mac Iver, D. (2009). Beyond the indicators: An integrated school-level approach to dropout prevention. Arlington, VA: George Washington University Center for Equity and Excellence in Education.
  • West, T. C. (2013). Just the right mix: Using an early warning indicators approach to identify potential dropouts across all grades. Baltimore, MD: Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University.