Questions for New York Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott on the Middle Schools Initiative

Last September, Dennis Walcott, Chancellor of the New York City Department of Education, announced his New York City middle school initiative at NYU.  On Tuesday, April 3rd, Walcott returns to the university to offer the keynote address at the NYU Steinhardt’s Research Alliance for New York City Schools event,  Informing New York City’s Middle School Initiative.

Why are the middle school years crucial year in students’ academic development?

The middle school years are “make or break” for our students. We know that if students can stay on track during middle school and be prepared for success in high school, the chances of graduation and college enrollment are much greater. We have begun to integrate new learning standards – the Common Core – into our classrooms, putting an even greater focus on literacy and nonfiction texts. These new standards are particularly important in middle school, where students first gain exposure to academic language they will need to understand in high school and college.

Why is this the moment to reform New York City’s middle schools?

Over the past decade in New York City, we’ve seen great improvements in student performance—on NY State exams in grades 3-5, in high school graduation rates, college enrollment, college readiness rates, and participation on Advanced Placement courses and exams. However, in the middle school grades – 7th and 8th grade in particular – student progress has been stagnant at best. This is especially true for 8th grade reading, the one area where New York City has struggled to move the bar on national tests.

And yet, we know that middle schools are ripe for opportunity. Already, teachers, school leaders, elected officials, professors, parents, and educators across the country have recognized middle school as a critical point for reform. Middle school students need our support, but for too long, middle schools haven’t received the attention and resources they need to match reform efforts long underway in elementary and high schools. Finally, that is about to change.

What are your goals for New York City’s middle schools?

As I laid out in my speech at NYU last September, we have a number of goals for middle schools over the next year and a half. First, I have committed to opening at least 50 new middle schools across the city; and I’m pleased to say we are making great strides toward that goal. Second, we’ve made significant progress in improving our recruitment efforts to draw new teachers and principals to middle schools, focusing on a new class of Teaching Fellows and our principal leadership academies. And third, we have committed to a package of supports, with assistance from the City Council, to improve literacy instruction in 18 schools and provide $15 million worth of nonfiction texts to middle schools across the city. These are just three of the goals for our middle schools—which, in the end, we hope will move the bar for student performance in the middle school grades, most of all in literacy.
How can the Alliance’s Middle School Initiatives forum on April 3rd help in middle school reform efforts?

Although a school – and, most importantly, a teacher – can make all the difference in a student’s life, our task is far easier when everyone in the community is involved. This event will bring together key stakeholders who may disagree but share a common concern for our students: from principals, teachers, and school officials, to schools of education and policy experts. I am excited and deeply grateful for all the effort and time that will be spent to move the conversation around middle schools forward—and I know that conversation will continue on April 4th and beyond.

Read Chancellor Walcott’s September 2011 Middle School Initiatives Policy Address