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Posted 06.29.05

Administrative Experience, Attitude Hallmarks of Successful Middle Schools

COLUMBIA, MO -- In 1999, the National Association of Secondary School Principals contracted with the University of Missouri-Columbia's Middle Level Leadership Center to conduct a multi-year, national study of leadership in middle level schools, typically grades six through eight. MU education professor Jerry Valentine said the purpose of the study was to "identify trends in leadership and programs distinctive enough to address contemporary issues facing today's middle level leaders and schools.

The research team, led by Valentine, recently released the second volume of the study, which involved data from 98 "highly successful" middle schools and an in-depth study of six of those schools. A rigorous examination of the schools revealed that the principals and administrators played important roles in the schools' success.

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In particular, longevity in an administrative position and specialized education were a common thread among the flourishing schools. These leaders were chosen for administrative positions earlier in their careers and had served more years as middle school principals, more years as principals and more years as principals of their current schools than the other surveyed schools. The principals also completed more coursework specific to middle school administration.

"Despite the strenuous workweeks, the lack of time and opportunity for personal growth and professional development, increasing governmental mandates and decreasing funding, the principals in the national sample and the highly successful schools described satisfaction with their jobs and a continued commitment to education," Valentine said. "Most would choose the principalship again--many without any doubts."

A principal's attitude also is essential in creating a positive education environment, Valentine said. The most successful administrators created environments that fostered cooperation among the staff and between teachers and students, as well as an environment that was organized in implementing programs and activities.

"Principals can positively influence the schools' curricular, instructional and assessment programs," Valentine said. "Principals can significantly influence the relationships among staff members within the school and the norms and values that form the basic culture. In essence, the principal is probably the most essential element in a highly successful school. Without high-quality leadership, high-quality schools cannot exist."

Besides the experience and attitude of the schools' administrators, the research team's other findings are significant:

Community-Focused and Caring School Environments

Creating civic-minded and caring individuals were important objectives in the highly successful middle schools.

"The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, reminded Americans of the importance of teaching students the basics of democracy and about their roles as citizens," Valentine said.

Successful schools emphasized service learning, character education and interpersonal relationships between students and teachers to foster a more personalized learning environment that creates more "ethical and caring citizens," Valentine said.

Interdisciplinary Teaming

Valentine found that 95 percent of the highly successful schools used an interdisciplinary approach to teaching core subjects. This method incorporates a common set of students, heterogeneously grouped, who have a common set of teachers, adjacent classrooms and common planning times. This approach allows teachers to give students more specialized attention based on students' needs, and allows teachers to include more co-curricular activities in their lesson plans.

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