Supporting Incoming Middle Schoolers

by Dr. Punita Rice Teaching

Supporting Middle Schoolers

For a discussion in my Turnaround School Leadership course, we were asked to list what top three pieces of information we would want in order to support an incoming class of students who were struggling to meet standard on various state assessments, in order to inform and design an effective set of supports for them. The students came from various elementary schools, some of which showed improvement in test scores, and others that showed worsening scores.

The three questions I came up with were: (1) in the elementary schools that showed growth, what factors contributed to the growth, (2) in the elementary schools that did not show growth, what was missing, and (3) what do the elementary school teachers of these incoming students recommend their middle schools provide them with?

(1) For the elementary schools that saw dramatic improvements in reading scores between fourth and fifth grade, what worked for them? And (2) on the flip side of this, what were some of the schools that saw their scores get significantly worse do that was so harmful?

Elementary School A went from 50% to 68%, Elementary School B went from 59% to 80%, and Elementary School C went from 49% to 65%. Meanwhile other elementary schools did not see such significant improvements, or, like Elementary School D, Elementary School E, and others, actually got worse.

If we can isolate what these schools are doing well, we can determine what works for the incoming sixth graders. Likely, much of the improvement might be attributable to teachers committed to the growth of these students, since it is often “strong teachers” that best ease a transition (Neild, 2009, p. 72). While Neild (2009) was referring to the transition into high school, it is reasonable to imagine that strong teachers are responsible for smoothing the transition from fourth to fifth grade as well.

(3) What do these incoming students’ elementary school teachers identify as crucial elements that their next set of teachers should provide for them?

Teachers who have been working with these students may be best suited to help us in identifying what the students need. They can identify exactly what their students might need to help smooth the transition into middle school. Likely, they would recommend ensuring their students have good teachers. Balfanz, Legters, and Byrne (2012) point out that when working in turnaround, particularly with a high minority and high poverty population, having new or inexperienced teachers can tend to create challenges. It is reasonable to imagine the elementary school teachers would recommend ensuring their highest needs students were supported by experienced staff as they transition into a new chapter in their schooling. However, they may also have other valuable insights; these may help us in identifying what we could need to do to best support the students once they are in middle school.

After these suggestions are made, however, it is the work of the new school to provide for the students. Neild (2009) points out that even after the work of elementary and middle school teachers, “ultimately, it is high schools that bear the most immediate responsibility for putting in place the curriculum, school organization features,” suggesting that this may also hold true for the transition into middle school (p. 72). Read on for references.


Balfanz, R., Legters, N., Byrne, V. (2012).  What the challenge of Algebra for all has to say about implementing the Common Core – A statistical portrait of Algebra I in thirteen large urban school districts. Baltimore, MD: Center for Social Organization of Schools.Retrieved from

Neild, R. (2009).  Falling off track during the transition to high school: What we know and what can be done.  Future of Children, 19(1):53-76.  Retrieved at:

About the Author

Dr. Punita Rice

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Dr. Punita Rice is a wife and mama, an education researcher, a writer, the founder and director of ISAASE, and an advisor with Johns Hopkins University School of Education's Doctor of Education program. Her work centers around multicultural education and equity, and South Asian American experiences in school. You can read more about Punita and her work here. Punita also writes about life, culture, education, and motherhood here on her blog. She works from home in Maryland, and drinks a great deal of coffee.