Whitehouse Calls on U.S. Education Secretary to Issue Guidance to Help Support Middle School Students
Rhode Island middle schools inspire Senator’s work to build success for students in middle grades
Providence, RI – On the heels of a visit to West Broadway Middle School in Providence this week, U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse wrote to Secretary of Education John King requesting that the U.S. Department of Education build on the parts of the federal education reform law that focus on middle schools, which Whitehouse authored as a member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee. Specifically, Whitehouse requests in the letter that the Department provide clear, ready-to-use written guidance for states and school districts on how to support middle school students as required under the new law. The new requirements for states and school districts are designed to ensure that students successfully transition into and out of middle grades.
“My interest in middle schools stems from my time as Rhode Island’s Attorney General,” writes Whitehouse, who served in that post from 1999 through 2002. “There I saw a significant number of juvenile cases which shared the common thread of extreme absenteeism in middle school. Again and again I saw students falling off track in the middle grades. It was such a compelling situation that my office actually adopted a middle school—Oliver Hazard Perry Middle School in Providence. I saw first-hand how the middle grades are a tipping point. The observation that the middle grades are a critical time in a child’s development—academically, socially, and emotionally—is an intuitive one that parents, teachers, and school administrators understand.”
In the letter, Whitehouse cites a Johns Hopkins University study that showed 60 percent of highly impoverished sixth graders who were reported as having either poor attendance or behavior, or had failed math or English, do not end up graduating high school on time. Chronic absenteeism is a severe issue in the middle grades, with up to 12 percent of middle school students nationally missing at least 10 percent of school days each year, according to a Brookings Institution report. Rhode Island ranks last in New England in chronic absenteeism, with one in four high school students missing over three weeks of school last year, according to data from the Rhode Island Department of Education.
Full text of the letter is below.
December 14, 2016
The Honorable John King Jr.
U.S. Department of Education
400 Maryland Ave. SW
Washington DC 20202
Re: U.S. Department of Education Guidance Supporting Middle School Students
Dear Mr. Secretary,
The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) recognizes the importance of the middle grades, and in particular the need to ensure students make successful transition from middle to high school. Now that ESSA is in the implementation phase, I ask that the Department of Education (ED) build on the middle school provisions in ESSA so states and districts understand the opportunities and requirements related to the middle grades under the law. Specifically, I request the Department issue guidance through a “Dear Colleague Letter” and any additional resources as appropriate (e.g. FAQs), regarding how states and districts can provide adequate focus on the middle grades and ensure students make these transitions successfully.
My interest in middle schools stems from my time as Rhode Island’s Attorney General. There I saw a significant number of juvenile cases which shared the common thread of extreme absenteeism in middle school. Again and again I saw students falling off track in the middle grades. It was such a compelling situation that my office actually adopted a middle school—Oliver Hazard Perry Middle School in Providence. I saw first-hand how the middle grades are a tipping point. The observation that the middle grades are a critical time in a child’s development—academically, socially, and emotionally—is an intuitive one that parents, teachers, and school administrators understand. And indeed this assessment is backed by the evidence as well.
Evidence shows that up to 60% of high-poverty sixth graders who demonstrated at least one negative indicator relating to either attendance, behavior, or failing a course did not graduate high school on time. The outcomes for students with more than one incident are even worse: 89% of sixth graders who failed English and also had poor behavior failed to graduate high school. Chronic absenteeism further diminishes student performance in the middle grades where up to 12% of students nationally miss at least 10% of school days each year. Students who miss this much school or show these warning signs do not “grow out” of these issues by the time they reach high school. Instead, they are at greater risk of completely falling off track, and dropping out of high school. By better tracking these behaviors and warning signs, which are not terribly complex, but are significant, teachers and school administrators can identify at-risk students as early as the middle grades, and support them with the assistance they need to get and stay on track to graduate.
Yet despite the evidence the middle grades are largely ignored by our current educational system. The provisions in ESSA I authored on middle schools require states to outline how they will support transitions for students from middle school to high school, and identify and support middle school students who are at-risk of falling off track.
Section 1111(g)(1)(D), requires states to describe:
[H]ow the State will support local educational agencies receiving assistance under this part in meeting the needs of students at all levels of schooling (particularly students in the middle grades and high school), including how the State will work with such local educational agencies to provide effective transitions of students to middle grades and high school to decrease the risk of students dropping out;
Section 1112(b)(10), requires local educational agency plans to describe:
[H]ow the local educational agency will implement strategies to facilitate effective transitions for students from middle grades to high school and from high school to postsecondary education including, if applicable—
(A) through coordination with institutions of higher education, employers, and other local partners; and
(B) through increased student access to early college high school or dual or concurrent enrollment opportunities, or career counseling to identify student interests and skills;
Finally, the conference committee report states:
It is the Conferees’ intent that States describe how the unique needs of students are met, particularly those students in the middle grades and high schools. The Conferees intend that States will work with local educational agencies receiving assistance under this part to assist in identifying students who are at-risk of dropping out using indicators such as attendance and student engagement data, ensure effective student transitions from middle to high school to postsecondary education through strategies such as partnerships between local education agencies and institutions of higher education. Such strategies to improve transitions may include integration of rigorous academics, career and technical, education and work-based learning. In order to accomplish these priorities, the Conferees intend that States will provide professional development to teachers, principals, other schools leaders, and other school personnel to ensure that the academic and developmental needs of middle and high school students are met.
I know you are familiar with these provisions, and you and I have discussed the importance the middle grades previously. I was pleased that, in response to a question for the record on middle schools, you agreed that the transition from middle to high school is one that can be critical to the future success of a student and is an important piece for states and districts to consider.
Therefore, I ask that ED provide clear guidance outlining best practices for how states and districts can meet the requirements under ESSA to support middle school students. The Department should disseminate guidance providing states and districts with ready-to-use information on the options and opportunities (including real-world examples of evidence-based practices or best-practices) to support middle grade students and improve transitions. The Department should address the following actions or initiatives, indicating whether they meet the requirements under ESSA, and how states and districts can best implement them:
- Using early-warning indicator systems that identify struggling students and provide appropriate, evidence-based interventions.
- Providing high-quality college and career exploration opportunities, like college campus visits and information on in-demand industry sectors or occupations, beginning as early as the middle grades.
- Conducting outreach beginning as early as the middle grades to students and families on high school graduation requirements, and the post-secondary education process, including application, admissions, and financial aid requirements and resources.
- Supplying academic support, paired with integrated wrap-around services and case-management for students requiring intensive support, which could include external partners.
- Aligning curricula between elementary and middle schools, and middle and high schools, and between high school coursework and entry into and success in postsecondary education.
- Integrating information on transitions from elementary to middle school, middle to high school, and from high school to postsecondary education into existing data systems for continuous improvement.
- Providing career or guidance counseling or mentorships to establish caring, consistent relationships between students and adults that communicate high expectations for student learning and behavior.
- Developing credit recovery opportunities for struggling students, including those significantly over-aged and under-credited and those returning to school after extended absences or dropping out.
As you prepare this guidance I urge you to remember your audience—the community of practitioners and school leaders, busy in our classrooms and school buildings day in and day out. As such, I encourage you to ensure that the guidance you provide is useful, accessible, easily searchable, and easy to understand. Unclear or overly technical guidance serves only to prevent important information from being widely distributed, fully used or acted upon.
Thank you for your time and attention the important subject of success in the middle grades. I look forward to working with you and your staff on these issues. Please do not hesitate to be in touch with me or my staff should you have any questions regarding these matters.
United States Senator
 Balfanz, Robert. “Putting Middle Grades Students on the Graduation Path: A Policy and Practice Brief.” Everyone Graduates Center and Talent Development Middle Grades Program at Johns Hopkins University, National Middle School Association, Philadelphia Education Fund. June 2009.
 Balfanz, Robert and Herzog, Liza, and Mac Iver, Douglas J. “Preventing Student Disengagement and Keeping Students on the Graduation Path in Urban Middle-Grades Schools: Early Identification and Effective Interventions.” Educational Psychologist. 2007.
 Loeb, Susanna and Liu, Jing. “Going to school is optional: Schools need to engage students to increase their lifetime opportunities.” Brookings Institution. October 2016.
 Department of Education. “Chronic Absenteeism in the Nation’s Schools: An Unprecedented Look at a Hidden Educational Crisis.” Washington, DC: Department of Education, June 2016.
 U.S. Congress. Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015, Conference Report to Accompany S. 1177. Page 450.
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