Help the "Forgotten Middle" Students Falling Under the Radar

Part three of the "Don't Call Them Dropouts" series targets the group of students, known as the "Forgotten Middle," who mindlessly and idly fill classroom seats, and the virtual panel expresses concern over these overlooked, at-risk students. Jonathan Zaff, the executive director for Center for Promise, introduces the Forgotten Middle as a group of young people who haven't left the school system and who aren't chronically absent. These students are in the school building every day, yet they're not progressing. They don't cause trouble, but they're not succeeding. As Zaff puts it, they're the "fade-outs," and they need support.

Supporting the Forgotten Middle

Zaff opens the panel discussion topic by asking Dr. Beth Reynolds, the executive director of the Dropout Prevention Center and Network, what educators can do to support those young people.1 Dr. Reynolds says we need to apply existing research, set clear expectations, provide feedback and give second chances to inspire change in the Forgotten Middle. She advocates the following:

"Pay attention to what we know," assets Dr. Reynolds. It's a disservice for school professionals to have and know information but not use it in a sensible way. Take what we know is true about learning and learners and apply it to the middle to bridge the gap of educational inequality.

- Young people need to understand clearly and what the expectations are. Students also need clear models and samples of what these expectations are like, visually and audibly.

- Engaging students isn't just about evaluation. Students need constant feedback that's relevant and makes sense.

- Second chances make a difference. Give students the time, tools, support and resources to do better. For example, a career college can offer nontraditional learners a second chance to earn their high school diploma with a tailored high school completion program.

Dr. Reynolds also suggests we make the learning experience and curriculum career-applicable. Encourage the student to ask, "How does this relate to who I want to be when I grow up?" Then encourage the educator to ask, "How can I make a project or assignment a 'doing' task for students from their viewpoint? From the perspective of students and in the eyes of young people, what are they interested in becoming and doing? How can I, the educator, turn a set of standards into learning tasks that allow them to do, experience, provide each other feedback and engage with one another? Applied research and connectivity are what helps students extend their learning, build relationships and discover that, 'Ah, I see. I can do that.'"

The Eighth Grade Defining Point

In 2008, ACT, Inc., a partner of the America's Promise Alliance, released the report "The Forgotten Middle: Ensuring that All Students Are on Target for College and Career Readiness before High School."2,3 The report focused on the Forgotten Middle in upper elementary grades and middle school. It addressed how middle school is a pivotal point in the educational process, where student skill levels and behavior actually define a student's college and career readiness in high school and thereafter.

"The findings suggest the level of academic achievement that students attain by eighth grade has a bigger impact on whether they are ready for college and career by the time they graduate than any single factor examined," summarizes Identifying the eighth grade level of academic achievement carries more impact on college and career-readiness than courses taken and grades earned in high school. It also has more impact than such characteristics as gender, race, family background and household income.

According to ACT data, fewer than two in 10 eighth graders are prepared for college-level work after graduating high school. In other words, more than eight out of 10 eighth graders lack the knowledge and skills to enter high school and succeed. Middle school students who aren't ready for high school subsequently won't be ready for college. If unprepared eighth graders move on to high school, they may already be set up for failure as part of the high school Forgotten Middle, never making it to college.

The report implores educational leaders to intervene with at-risk students before (as well as during) high school to support a maximized high school experience. Improving skills for college and career readiness for students by the eighth grade has a greater impact on post-high school readiness than high school-level enhancements (which are still beneficial). Along with eighth grade academic achievement, middle schoolers who exhibit academic discipline, orderly conduct and have positive relationships with school personnel are also on track to excel in high school and beyond.

Improving College Readiness Early

If young students can attain the proper academic skills and knowledge before high school, high school-level enhancement strategies (e.g. enroll students in challenging advanced and honors classes to encourage earning higher grades, improve the rigor of high school curricula) will be much more effective.

Prior to high school, improve academic achievement by:

- Ensuring students have mastered foundational skills in English, math, reading and science

- Monitoring student progress and intervening with struggling students who have deficiencies and are at risk for falling off track

- Improving students' psychosocial behaviors and breaking bad habits

- Supporting an influx of federal and state intervention programs promoting enhanced college and career readiness for students

Not Forgotten

Unless educators can help young people who make up the Forgotten Middle either before or during high school, these average students-dubbed the "silent majority" by Mary Catherine Swanson of the Advancement Via Individual Determination system-sneak by in high school, consequently forgoing higher education or working at dead-end jobs.4 The first step is to ensure students are well-prepared before ninth grade. Then give all high school students a clear sense of what they need to do to succeed, suggests Swanson.

If a student in the Forgotten Middle does end up leaving school, career colleges can leverage a high school completion program to attract and re-engage a former student. This type of program serves as an option for high school noncompleters who are also nontraditional learners in need of a strong motivator and tailored approach.

Fostering the Forgotten Middle can ultimately tighten the income gap of our economy, lower unemployment, strengthen our communities and provide opportunities for once academically apathetic young people. Tailor educational structures to meet the unique needs of individual students. Raise the bar with defined expectations and specific requirements. Provide necessary, ongoing support, and Forgotten Middle students can move out of this neglected group by realizing their potential.

Check out Part One herePart Two here, and Part Four here.

Resources: Photo (1) Don't Call Them Dropouts Virtual Panel (2) New Act Report: The Forgotten Middle (3) The Forgotten Middle: Ensuring that All Students Are on Target for College and Career Readiness before High School (4) It's Time to Focus on the Forgotten Middle