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High-Achieving Middle Schools
November 2019


What does the research say about characteristics of high-achieving middle schools?

Ask A REL Response

Thank you for your request to our Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Reference Desk. Ask A REL is a collaborative reference desk service provided by the 10 RELs that, by design, functions much in the same way as a technical reference library. Ask A REL provides references, referrals, and brief responses in the form of citations in response to questions about available education research.

Following an established REL Northwest research protocol, we conducted a search for evidence- based research. The sources included ERIC and other federally funded databases and organizations, research institutions, academic research databases, Google Scholar, and general Internet search engines. For more details, please see the methods section at the end of this document.

The research team has not evaluated the quality of the references and resources provided in this response; we offer them only for your reference. The search included the most commonly used research databases and search engines to produce the references presented here. References are listed in alphabetical order, not necessarily in order of relevance. The research references are not necessarily comprehensive and other relevant research references may exist. In addition to evidence-based, peer-reviewed research references, we have also included other resources that you may find useful. We provide only publicly available resources, unless there is a lack of such resources or an article is considered seminal in the topic area.


Abe, Y., Weinstock, P., Chan, V., Meyers, C., Gerdeman, R. D., & Brandt, W. C. (2015). How methodology decisions affect the variability of schools identified as beating the odds (REL 2015–071.REV). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Regional Educational Laboratory Midwest.

From the Abstract:
"A number of states and school districts have identified schools that perform better than expected, given the populations they serve, in order to recognize school performance or to learn from local school practices and policies. These schools have been labeled "beating the odds," "high-performing/high-poverty," "high-flying," and other terms that reflect their demonstration of higher academic achievement than schools with similar student demographic characteristics. If administrators are to learn from these schools, it is important to correctly identify the schools that perform above expectations. However, there is no one right approach to identifying these schools. Typical identification approaches often consider many factors, including policy priorities, available data, resources and capacity (including technical analysis), and stakeholders' preferences. These choices can affect which schools are identified and labeled as exceeding performance expectations. This report considers the Michigan Department of Education's approach to identifying beating-the-odds schools by using two statistical methods. The first method, the prediction method, identifies a school as beating the odds if it outperforms its predicted level of performance given school demographics by comparing the predicted performance of each school to its actual performance. The second method, the comparison method, identifies a school as beating the odds if it outperforms other demographically similar schools by comparing the performance of each school to the performance levels of the 29 demographically most similar schools in the state. This report uses Michigan's approach as an example to demonstrate how the choice of statistical methods and technical specifications can change which schools are identified as beating the odds. Michigan's two statistical models produced different results: the comparison method identified fewer than half as many as the prediction method (28 versus 75), with a 39 percent agreement rate. When a change was made to the school performance measure, school characteristic indicator, or school sample configuration, the schools identified as beating the odds changed by varying degrees, with changes in school performance measures causing the biggest difference. Identification results also varied across time. For year-to-year variation from school year 2007/08 through 2010/11, the agreement rate between one year and the next was, on average, less than 50 percent. The findings confirm the importance of carefully considering the conceptual criteria and technical specifications and measures to be used in identifying schools exceeding performance expectations. Different policy and technical choices may lead to wide variations in resulting lists of schools labeled as beating the odds."

Bottoms, G., & Timberlake, A. (2012). Improved middle grades schools for improved high school readiness: Ten best practices in the middle grades. Southern Regional Education Board (SREB). Retrieved from

From the Abstract:
"SREB compares 10 middle grades schools that made significant progress in improving reading, mathematics and science achievement with 10 middle grades schools that failed to make progress over a two-year period, in order to discern what actions resulted in the greater improvement. The report identifies the 10 best practices from the most-improved middle grades schools."

Ellerbrock, C., Main, K., Falbe, K., & Pomykal Franz, D. (2018). An examination of middle school organizational structures in the United States and Australia. Education Sciences, 8(4), 168.

From the Abstract:
"The middle school concept, aimed at creating a more developmentally responsive learning environment for young adolescents, gained a stronghold in the later part of the 20th century. Proponents of this concept have argued continually for the holistic implementation of its six key characteristics if its benefits are to be realized. These characteristics include: (a) a challenging, integrative, and exploratory curriculum; (b) varied teaching and learning approaches; (c) assessment and evaluation that promote learning; (d) flexible organizational structures (i.e., including the physical space, scheduling, and grouping of students and teachers); (e) programs and policies that foster health, wellness and safety; and (f) comprehensive guidance and support services. Recently, Ellerbrock, Falbe, and Pomykal Franz identified key middle school organizational structures of people, place, and time as being interconnected and integral to effective middle school practices. Main also demonstrated the interconnected nature of these key characteristics and how organizational structures of people affected the successful implementation of other characteristics. Thus, how these organizational structures can and are being implemented has implications for our understanding of the effectiveness of other middle school practices. In this paper, researchers from both the United States and Australia examine and compare literature published between 2000 and 2018 addressing ways in which middle school/middle years organizational structures have been reported and categorized by structures of people, place, and time in these two countries. Pertinent literature related to organizational structures of middle schools in the United States and to middle years education in Australia was examined. Findings from studies and evaluations from each country are reported to provide an international perspective on the organizational structures of middle schools/middle years education across the two countries. Overall, since 2000, the body of knowledge about middle schools/middle years organizational structures has been surprisingly limited in comparison to their perceived importance in the field. This lack of research is concerning in the midst of educational reform in both countries, resulting in questions about the impact of school organizational structures on young adolescent development and learning."

McEwin, C. K., & Greene, M. W. (2010). Results and recommendations from the 2009 National Surveys of Randomly Selected and Highly Successful Middle Level Schools. Middle School Journal 42(1) 49–63. Retrieved from

From the Abstract:
"While a number of studies have yielded useful information regarding the status of middle level schools in the United States, four linked national surveys provide a longitudinal perspective on the degree of implementation of key middle grades programs and practices. These studies were conducted in 1968 (Alexander, 1968), 1988 (Alexander & McEwin, 1989), 1993 (McEwin, Dickinson, & Jenkins, 1996), and 2001 (McEwin, Dickinson, & Jenkins, 2003). This article reports selected results of a fifth study in this series conducted in 2009 by McEwin and Greene, with a particular focus on recommendations derived from an analysis of trends evident over time. An additional national survey of programs and practices in a sample of highly successful middle level schools was conducted by the authors in 2009 using essentially the same instrument. The results from the highly successful schools are compared to results from the random sample to determine if differences existed and, if so, what lessons might be learned from those differences."

McEwin, C. K., & Greene, M. W. (2011). The status of programs and practices in America's middle schools. Association for Middle Level Education. Retrieved from

From the Abstract:
"The initiative to reorganize American public education from a two-tier to a three-tier system is now more than 100 years old. The movement to establish separately organized middle level schools began with the first junior high schools, which were established in the early 1900s and continues today with the number of middle level schools now exceeding 15,000. Throughout the history of these two middle level school organizations, there have been numerous accomplishments to celebrate. However, lingering questions remain about the failure of many middle level schools to authentically implement programs and practices that have been advocated in the literature (Dickinson, 2001; George, 2009a, 2009b; Lounsbury, 2009; McEwin & Greene, 2010). Interest in the status of recommended programs and practices in middle level schools has resulted in a series of national linked surveys that began in 1968 (Alexander). These surveys are identified later in this report. The two national surveys that are the subject of this report continue the legacy of the earlier studies by examining the current status of the implementation of recommended middle level programs and practices in the nation's public middle schools. Results from these studies, which were conducted in 2009, are presented in this report. Comparisons are made with data from earlier surveys so that trends can be identified and explored."

Nian, Q., Qian, X., Murphy, A., Fifield, S., & Grusenmeyer, L. (2010). Delaware middle schools beating the odds. Delaware Education Research & Development Center.

From the Abstract:
"The investigation identified Delaware public and charter middle schools across the state which outperformed other Delaware middle schools with similar student demographic profiles. Teachers and administrators at six of these "Beating the Odds" schools and at six comparison middle schools were surveyed regarding their schools' characteristics and practices. In a second phase of the study, principals, teachers and students from the six "Beating the Odds" schools were interviewed to determine what they believe accounts for their school's success. The study found that significantly more educators from "Beating the Odds" schools agreed that 18 specific practices and beliefs were typical of their schools when compared to educators from comparison schools. Fourteen of these related to three domains: high expectations, data use, and collaboration. Also, the two samples of schools differed in the intensity of their responses. That is, "Beating the Odds" school respondents "strongly agreed" significantly more often than comparison school respondents to over 80% of the survey items. Twenty-six of these items fell under the domains of teacher role, leadership, district influence, and instructional support. Finally, while participants in on-site interviews described essential local differences, most of the middle schools that are "Beating the Odds" shared an organizational climate shaped by leadership that identified compelling educational approaches and brought educators, students and parents together around those approaches."

Partridge, M. A., & Koon, S. (2017). Beating the odds in Mississippi: Identifying schools exceeding achievement expectations (REL 2017–213). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Regional Educational Laboratory Southeast.

From the Abstract:
"The purpose of this report was to determine which Mississippi public schools perform better than could be predicted, considering demographic and socioeconomic characteristics. Additionally, this study identified profiles of schools within Mississippi, or groups of schools with similar socioeconomic and demographic characteristics. This study identifies Mississippi public schools as "beating the odds" when they outperform their predicted level of performance on standardized tests given school demographics using a multiple linear regression approach. The study identified distinct socioeconomic and demographic profiles of schools using latent profile analysis. Results indicate that 18 schools are beating the odds in English language arts and 19 schools are beating the odds in mathematics. Seven schools (about 3 percent) are beating the odds in both English language arts and mathematics. Four distinct demographic profiles of schools were identified, with the majority of schools having a profile consisting of high percentages of minority and low socioeconomic status students. The results of this study can inform decisions related to the improvement of low performing schools in Mississippi."

Picucci, A. C., Brownson, A., Kahlert, R., & Sobel, A. (2002). Driven to succeed: High-performing, high-poverty, turnaround middle schools. Volume I: Cross-case analysis of high-performing, high-poverty, turnaround middle schools. University of Texas at Austin.

From the Abstract:
"This study investigated how seven high-poverty middle schools demonstrated strong academic improvement so they were performing at levels consistent with, and often better than, higher-income schools in their states. Schools ranged in enrollment from 291-1,010 and represented several community types and ethnic groups. Among the characteristics common to the seven middle schools profiled in this study: at least 50 percent of students participated in free or reduced-price lunch programs; schools' average achievement scores were at or above the state averages in mathematics and reading; schools showed a strong growth rate in reading and mathematics for at least a three-year period; schools were public, non-charter, and non-magnet (open enrollment) schools. Data collection involved interviews with administrators, teachers, staff, community members, parents, and central office administrators; focus groups with teachers, students, and parents; observations; school documentation; and teacher surveys. What differentiated these schools from demographically similar schools were conscious efforts by staff to understand school contexts and work proactively to raise all students' performance. Four characteristics emerged as essential to supporting teaching and learning: high expectations for all students; dedication to collaborative environments; commitment to supporting teaching and learning through implementation of thoughtful organizational structures and building the capacity of the system; and attention to individual students and provision of extra services and supports beyond those traditionally offered by schools. Each school understood how school improvement was affected by the larger surrounding context; intentionally and thoughtfully implemented elements leading to improvement; and used different approaches to improvement."


Keywords and Search Strings: The following keywords, subject headings, and search strings were used to search reference databases and other sources: Beating the odds, Middle schools, Effective, High achieving, Characteristics

Databases and Resources: We searched ERIC for relevant resources. ERIC is a free online library of more than 1.6 million citations of education research sponsored by the Institute of Education Sciences (IES). Additionally, we searched Google Scholar and EBSCO databases (Academic Search Premier, Education Research Complete, and Professional Development Collection).

Reference Search and Selection Criteria

When we were searching and reviewing resources, we considered the following criteria:

Date of publications: This search and review included references and resources published in the last 10 years.

Search priorities of reference sources: Search priority was given to study reports, briefs, and other documents that are published and/or reviewed by IES and other federal or federally funded organizations, as well as academic databases, including ERIC, EBSCO databases, and Google Scholar.

Methodology: The following methodological priorities/considerations were given in the review and selection of the references:

  • Study types: randomized control trials, quasi experiments, surveys, descriptive data analyses, literature reviews, and policy briefs, generally in this order
  • Target population and samples: representativeness of the target population, sample size, and whether participants volunteered or were randomly selected
  • Study duration
  • Limitations and generalizability of the findings and conclusions

This memorandum is one in a series of quick-turnaround responses to specific questions posed by stakeholders in Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and Washington, which is served by the Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Northwest. It was prepared under Contract ED-IES-17-C-0009 by REL Northwest, administered by Education Northwest. The content does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IES or the U.S. Department of Education, nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.