Middle School Matters Conference Focuses on Research-Based Practices

The Middle School Matters Institute, an initiative of the George W. Bush Institute at the George W. Bush Presidential Center, in partnership with The University of Texas at Austin’s Meadows Center for Preventing Educational Risk at The University of Texas at Austin (MCPER), held its annual summer conference June 17-19.

Educators and administrators from across the country gathered at UT Austin to learn about research-based practices and school improvement strategies from some of the nation’s leading education experts and researchers. Focused on grades five through eight, the Institute helps school districts improve reading, writing, and math instruction, and uses evidence-based practices to enable students to improve their performance, stay in school, and put themselves on a path to high school graduation.

The goals of the conference included sharing knowledge related to the research base of the 13 content dimensions included in the Middle School Matters Field Guide, including reading, performance management, and dropout prevention. Attendees learned how to implement these research-based practices and apply this new knowledge to develop implementation plans for the coming school year.

Conference participants included the program’s eight new Tier II schools, as well as four schools from last year’s cohort. Breakout workshop sessions addressed vocabulary and comprehension strategies to support content area learning, implementing research-based practices in mathematics, and improving student success in the middle grades.

The conference concluded with a special announcement that the Bush Institute now declares three of last year’s schools, including two from Texas, Middle School Matters Showcase Schools. These schools have observed increases in student attendance, positive behavior, and scores on standardized tests.

An additional highlight of the conference was an appearance by Margaret Spellings, former secretary of education to President George W. Bush and president of the George W. Bush Presidential Center. Spellings conducted a roundtable discussion with administrators and education experts, including MCPER Executive Director Sharon Vaughn.

“It’s been terrific to work with Sharon these many years,” said Spellings. “She and her colleagues have made a huge difference not only in Texas but all over the country.”

Vaughn’s praise for Spellings was equally glowing. “I have so much admiration for Margaret Spellings,” she said. “I’ve been working with her on education initiatives for 17 years, and she launched many of our Texas education initiatives. She gets things done.”

The discussion focused on how the Middle School Matters Institute’s work can be most effectively administered to make positive changes in all schools. Spellings discussed how a switch from craft-based to evidence-based education could be a key.

“It’s about teachers,” Spellings said. “It’s unique because teachers are our largest input in the process, and we’re providing intense professional development that helps change the way they practice.”

While a great deal of time and effort is focused on grades K-3, middle school is often treated as a way station en route to high school. The roundtable attendees agreed that middle school should be treated as importantly as foundation grades.

"These research-based practices have helped," Vaughn said of the Institute's school improvement strategies. "Grades five through eight have been a soft spot because we haven't had the research. Now we have it. What's really fun is how it brings research to life in the classroom."

- Jason Gelt, jgelt@austin.utexas.edu

Last updated on August 11, 2014