Changing organizational structure is the key ingredient
In the winter of 2013, I was growing increasingly frustrated by the organizational barriers that made moving the needle on achievement in a relatively high-poverty middle school excruciatingly slow, and in some cases, seemingly impossible. After another round of data monitoring that reinforced the small return our staff was earning on their hard work and dedication to students, I called our staff development teacher one evening and declared that something had to change. I had finally come to the conclusion that if we were going to fail in our turnaround efforts, it would not be because we failed to challenge the status quo of middle school thinking. In that fateful late-evening conversation, the idea for Project SUCCESS was born.
Lost in Transition
The progressive student disengagement and loss of achievement I observed after I transitioned from being principal at an elementary school to Argyle Middle School was particularly shocking to me because I had served as the elementary principal for many of the students in the school. Further, the challenges facing Argyle were daunting. High poverty, a significant achievement gap for African-American and Hispanic students, and tepid interest from parents in a school choice process that annually saw Argyle finish dead last were just a few of the barriers to school improvement. Student discipline was perceived as an issue by the faculty, and parents whom I had known for years confided in me about their concerns for the school.
Despite these barriers, I spent four years trying to lead improvement at Argyle the only way I knew how. We focused on professional development, strategic data monitoring, providing consistent feedback to teachers, and reimagining our brand to improve Argyle’s standing in the annual choice process. Over time, these strategies moved the school in the right direction. However, they collectively failed to address the institutional structure that largely exists as the single biggest difference between elementary and secondary organizational environments: departmentalization.
Changing organizational structures is certainly one of the hardest reforms to undertake as a school leader. As John Meyer and Brian Rowan theorized in the late 1970s, formal organizational structures reflect powerful societal expectations. Rules become institutionalized. The similarities that still exist between middle and junior high schools illustrate the power of collective norms and interests that legitimize structures like departmentalization and seven-period schedules. Despite ample evidence that these structures are associated with progressive student disengagement, achievement declines, and lower teacher self-efficacy, they persist as institutional holdovers from the genesis of the junior high school nearly a century ago.
Design of Project SUCCESS
When I hung up the phone that evening with Kelli Phillips, an expert teacher leader, we agreed that we needed to free both students and teachers from the constraints that departmentalization and a rigid bell schedule placed on teaching and learning. I gave Phillips the green light to develop a prototype that would become a significant departure from what students typically experience when they transition from largely self-contained elementary classrooms to bureaucratically oriented and often impersonal middle schools.
Project SUCCESS (which stands for a student unified curriculum combining English, science, and social studies) represents a semi-self-contained structure that folds nearly half of the school day into one extended block where three core subjects, including reading, are taught by one teacher. In Argyle Middle School’s regular alternating-day eight-block schedule, students in Project SUCCESS have one 180-minute flexible block and two other regular 90-minute periods daily. Students receive instruction in math, physical education, and two elective courses from different teachers. Ultimately, students in Project SUCCESS have three fewer teachers, two fewer daily class transitions, and one group of classmates for half of each school day.
Project SUCCESS teachers have one daily common planning block where they collaborate to make curricular connections based on a set of enduring understandings and essential questions that Phillips guided the teachers in developing during the first year of implementation. Furthermore, the teachers use allotted planning days to do long-range preparations for curriculum integration and develop innovative instructional strategies, including inquiry-based learning tasks and academic choice and reflection. The extended flexible block provides teachers the autonomy to make daily instructional decisions and integrate and pace the unified curriculum in ways that match the heterogeneous needs of each class.
It’s All About Teachers and Students
As Project SUCCESS grew, the teachers increasingly took the lead in developing dimensions of the program that were not explicitly defined at the outset. For example, the teachers quickly realized they had a unique opportunity to build a community of learners. Project SUCCESS teachers empower students by regularly administering classroom climate surveys and holding class meetings focused on team building and individual and collective reflection on mastery learning. As a result, teachers establish mutually supportive classroom environments imbued with academic press. Casey Siddons, the leader of the social studies department at Argyle Middle School and an original Project SUCCESS teacher, says, “I realize now how important relationship building is to having a successful classroom environment in middle school. When a teacher has 150 students, the ability to create those close bonds is untenable.”
When reflecting on the early days of Project SUCCESS, Phillips says, “We reasoned that if teachers could dedicate themselves to 28 students instead of 150 or more, they would better serve them and take more responsibility for their success. We wanted teachers to shift their mindset from teaching subjects to teaching students. So the design of the project was totally student-centered.”
The extended flexible block seemed to immediately free teachers from the regular bell schedule. In the first year of implementation, it was not uncommon to see Project SUCCESS teachers like Siddons providing small-group differentiated instruction using interdisciplinary content as context for scaffolding critical literacy skills. While the rationale for the program was clearly student centered, the change in organizational structure impacted the teachers in ways we could not have anticipated. Phillips suggests, “Seeing students learning in different content areas enabled teachers to unearth more talents and interests in their students. Project SUCCESS teachers were able to capitalize on this new awareness of their students to better motivate them and meet their instructional needs.”
Increased student engagement and achievement followed. Since the first year of Project SUCCESS, students in the program have demonstrated greater growth on multiple reading measures. Eighty-eight percent of Project SUCCESS students met benchmark in reading in the second year of implementation versus 73 percent of the rest of the sixth-grade student population. Furthermore, students in Project SUCCESS regularly report how fewer class transitions and increased contact time with one teacher improve their perceptions of the middle school environment.
Ginger Berry, who started her career as a middle school math teacher before she switched to teach Project SUCCESS, had a student say: “I really liked having one teacher because we got to know each other, and we got to have more time to do our work instead of just having to stop when the bell rings.” As for the social benefits of Project SUCCESS, students consistently report that the semi-self-contained setting fosters relationships and increases emotional and behavioral engagement. According to one student in Siddons’ class, “If something goes wrong, it’s easier to talk to your teacher because you know him and you see him every day for a lot of the day.”
Project SUCCESS unites critical facets of middle school reform into one program. It incorporates long-standing recommendations from Carnegie Corporation’s Turning Points: Preparing American Youth for the 21st Century, including flexible scheduling, interdisciplinary teaming, and advisory time. To observers of Project SUCCESS, it appears to be a highly effective elementary-to-middle-school transition program. But to the stakeholders in Project SUCCESS, it has been about changing the organizational structures of middle school to enhance the social dimensions of teaching and learning.
When we finally decided to change the structures that orient the school day for so many teachers and students, the core values of Project SUCCESS developed naturally: curriculum, instruction, and community. In the words of Phillips, “Project SUCCESS works. It works for students, their families, and their teachers.”
Robert W. Dodd is a consulting principal for the Montgomery County Public Schools in Rockville, MD, and a former elementary and middle school principal.