California students have a greater chance of succeeding in high school if their school collaborates closely with their middle school before the students even enter 9th grade, according to a new report.

“Aligning curriculum and increasing communication between middle grades and high school staff about curriculum and instructional strategies” is key, according to the report issued by the Comprehensive Education Center at WestEd. “Communication with teachers at feeder schools about incoming students also appears to be an important component of a successful transition plan.”

The report was released the day after a Harvard University study that raised major questions about the effectiveness of middle schools. Compared with students who attended a K–8 elementary school, middle school students did worse in English and math and were more likely to drop out of high school, the study of 450,000 3rd through 10th grade Florida students found. Transitions, the researchers said, appear to be “particularly costly for younger students.”

The Harvard study raises questions about grade configuration in California, where the vast majority of 6th to 8th grade students are in separate middle schools. But the WestEd report and an earlier study by EdSource offer strategies to help California’s more than 1,200 middle schools handle these crucial transitions.

The report, whose lead author is Tom Parrish of the American Institutes for Research, looked at middle-school-to-high-school transition strategies at California high schools with high graduation rates. The researchers selected nine high schools and interviewed the principals and nine administrators. They then visited four of the schools and their feeder middle schools and conducted interviews and focus groups with staff and students.

The researchers found that these high schools employ the following strategies:

  • Creating opportunities for staff across school levels to jointly plan and collaborate;
  • Arranging activities for transitioning students to become familiar with the high school campus and culture prior to enrollment;
  • Ensuring all students feel connected to the new school;
  • Identifying students who are struggling prior to entering high school and preparing timely and individualized supports for them.

EdSource focused on middle grades schools in its 2010 study, Gaining Ground in the Middle Grades. The study looked at what distinguished successful middle grades schools from less successful ones with similar student characteristics, such as family income, based on California Standard Test (CST) scores in English and math. The researchers surveyed more than 4,000 principals, superintendents, and teachers in middle grades, including K-8, 6-8, and 7-8 schools. The study found no clear differences in middle grades success based on whether students attended a K-8 elementary school or a separate middle school, after taking into account factors such as reported school practices. But a big difference between the studies is that EdSource did not follow students into high schools like the Harvard researchers did.

However, the EdSource study did find that higher-performing middle grades schools had a clear “future orientation.” They design their curriculum and instruction to set the stage for high school and beyond. They make it clear to students and parents how much academic success in middle grades matters to students’ futures in college or career.

In 2010 and 2011, EdSource interviewed principals from some higher-performing middle grade schools. They often emphasized what their schools were doing to help ease transitions in and out of the middle grades. They employed strategies such as getting thorough reports from the elementary school about incoming 6th graders, including their academic history, interests, and challenges they have faced. Some principals said they work closely with the high schools attended by their graduates to determine if students are succeeding and adjust their curriculum if necessary. And almost all of the principals said they emphasized to their students the importance of middle school grades to their futures.

Ellen Ransons, then principal at Vina Danks Middle School in Ontario, had many conversations with her students about college. “College is not a dream,” she would tell her students. “It’s a plan, and the plan starts now.”

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