Schools to Watch® is a national initiative launched in 1999 by the National Forum to Accelerate Middle-Grades Reform. The National Forum is an alliance of more than 60 educators, researchers, and officers of national associations and foundations dedicated to improving schools for young adolescents across the country. (Connect with them on Facebook and Twitter.)
Through the Schools to Watch® initiative, the National Forum identifies schools across the United States that are well on their way to meeting the Forum’s criteria for high performance. There are three things true of high-performing middle-grades schools:
- They are academically excellent—these schools challenge all students to use their minds well.
- They are developmentally responsive—these schools are sensitive to the unique developmental challenges of early adolescence.
- They are socially equitable—these schools are democratic and fair, providing every student with high-quality teachers, resources, and supports.
To achieve this level of performance, high-performing schools establish norms, structures, and organizational arrangements to support and sustain their trajectory toward excellence. They have a sense of purpose that drives every facet of practice and decision-making.
As part of its continuing effort to identify and learn from high-performing middle schools, the National Forum, in collaboration with
- Association for Middle Level Education (AMLE), formerly NMSA,
- National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP),
- National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP), and
- Learning Forward (formerly National Staff Development Council)
launched its Schools to Watch® State Program in 2004. Through this program, the Forum has trained teams of education leaders to implement Schools to Watch® programs in their states.
The Schools to Watch® program is a state-level model of the nationally recognized Schools to Watch® program created by the National Forum to Accelerate Middle-Grades Reform.
Current STW states include: Arkansas, California, Colorado, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Texas, Utah, and Virginia.
In the mid-1990s, the National Forum to Accelerate Middle-Grades Reform translated its beliefs about the characteristics of a high-performing middle-grades school into a set of evaluation criteria.
The purpose of the criteria was to provide guidance to classroom teachers, administrators, parents, and community members as they evaluate school programs to determine the need for further school improvement.
Each section is complementary to, and interdependent with, the others. Though each section of the criteria is presented separately, a high-performing middle-grades school would find it difficult to succeed without significant success in each of the four areas.
- Academic Excellence
- Developmental Responsiveness
- Social Equity
- Organizational Structures and Processes
High-performing schools with middle grades are academically excellent. They challenge all students to use their minds well.
- All students are expected to meet high academic standards.
- Curriculum, instruction, assessment, and appropriate academic interventions are aligned with high standards.
- The curriculum emphasizes deep understanding of important concepts and the development of essential skills.
Instructional strategies include a variety of challenging and engaging activities that are clearly related to the grade-level standards, concepts, and skills being taught.
Teachers use a variety of methods to assess and monitor the progress of student learning (e.g., tests, quizzes, assignments, exhibitions, projects, performance tasks, portfolios).
The faculty and master schedule provide students time to meet rigorous academic standards. Teachers know what each student has learned and still needs to learn.
The adults in the school are provided time and frequent opportunities to enhance student achievement by working with colleagues to deepen their knowledge and to improve their standards-based practice.
High-performing schools with middle grades are sensitive to the unique developmental challenges of early adolescence.
The staff creates a personalized environment that supports each student’s intellectual, ethical, social, and physical development.
The school provides access to comprehensive services to foster healthy physical, social, emotional, and intellectual development.
Teachers foster curiosity, creativity and the development of social skills in a structured and supportive environment.
The curriculum is both socially significant and relevant to the personal and career interests of young adolescents.
Teachers use an interdisciplinary approach to reinforce important concepts, skills, and address real-world problems.
Students are provided multiple opportunities to explore a rich variety of topics and interests in order to develop their identity, learn about their strengths, discover and demonstrate their own competence, and plan for their future.
All students have opportunities for voice—posing questions, reflecting on experiences, and participating in decisions and leadership activities.
The school staff members develop alliances with families to enhance and support the well-being of the children.
Staff members provide all students with opportunities to develop citizenship skills, to use the community as a classroom, and to engage the community in providing resources and support.
The school provides age-appropriate, co-curricular activities to foster social skills and character, and to develop interests beyond the classroom environment.
High-performing schools with middle grades are socially equitable, democratic, and fair. They provide every student with high-quality teachers, resources, learning opportunities, and supports. They keep positive options open for all students.
To the fullest extent possible, all students, including English learners, students with disabilities, gifted and honors students, participate in heterogeneous classes with high academic and behavioral expectations.
Students are provided the opportunity to use many and varied approaches to achieve and demonstrate competence and mastery of standards.
Teachers continually adapt curriculum, instruction, assessment, and scheduling to meet their students’ diverse and changing needs.
All students have equal access to valued knowledge in all school classes and activities.
Students have ongoing opportunities to learn about and appreciate their own and others’ cultures.
The school community knows every student well.
The faculty welcomes and encourages the active participation of all its families and makes sure that all its families are an integral part of the school.
The school’s reward system is designed to value diversity, civility, service, and democratic citizenship.
Staff members understand and support the family backgrounds and values of its students. The school rules are clear, fair, and consistently applied.
Organizational Structures and Processes
High-performing schools with middle grades are learning organizations that establish norms, structures, and organizational arrangements to support and sustain their trajectory toward excellence.
A shared vision of what a high-performing school is and does drives every facet of school change.
The principal has the responsibility and authority to hold the school-improvement enterprise together, including day-to-day know-how, coordination, strategic planning, and communication.
The school is a community of practice in which learning, experimentation, and time and opportunity for reflection are the norm.
The school and district devote resources to content-rich professional development, which is connected to reaching and sustaining the school vision and increasing student achievement.
The school is not an island unto itself; it is a part of a larger educational system, i.e., districts, networks and community partnerships.
The school staff holds itself accountable for the students’ success.
District and school staff possess and cultivate the collective will to persevere, believing it is their business to produce increased achievement and enhanced development of all students.
The school and district staffs work with colleges and universities to recruit, prepare, and mentor novice and experienced teachers.
The school includes families and community members in setting and supporting the school’s trajectory toward high performance.
Using the Criteria
The Schools to Watch® criteria and the material on this site can be used for school assessment and staff development. We encourage you and your colleagues to use the STW Rubric. As a result of data collected through the Investing in Innovation Grant the STW Ruberic has been shown to be a useful tool for school improvement.
Download the complete “Schools to Watch Criteria with Evidence” document.
Schools need to have been in existence as a middle grades school for at least 3 years.
Testing data for the school should reflect an upward trajectory of growth over the last 3 years.
Only public and/or publicly funded charter schools may apply to become a STW.
STW schools serve young adolescents 10-15 years old in schools that meet the STW criteria. Each state makes the determination as to which schools in the state will be eligible.
Schools that actively recruit students and/or limit student eligibility to attend are not eligible to apply as a STW.
States cannot charge schools a fee to apply to become a STW.
Obligations and Responsibilities
Part of the benefit of the unique Schools To Watch designation is the opportunity to connect with other first-rate middle schools principals and leaders in Michigan — and nationwide. A variety of statewide and countrywide meetings and conferences are planned each year. Leaders should plan on:
- Michigan Schools to Watch Celebration at The Institute for Excellence in Education’s Training Center in Mt. Pleasant, MI in the Spring
- Submitting all materials to the National Forum to Accelerate Middle Grades by the deadline dates (CLARIFY)
- Participating in the Middle-grades STW movement at the National and State levels
- MAMSE conference each Spring
- Submitting a proposal to present at the MAMSE conference the year after you are designated
- AMLE state affiliate conference in the Fall
- Attending the National Schools To Watch Conference in Washington D.C. in June of the year you are designated and/or re-designated
- Submitting a proposal to the annual Schools To Watch Conference in Washington D.C. (celebrating newly-designated schools as well as those re-designated)
- An in-state principal meeting
- Participating in a site visit to an applying school during the 3 years you are a STW or re-designated STW
- Hosting visitors at your school
- Plan a celebration to receive your STW banner (State STW representatives will be invited)
Designated schools are encouraged to mentor and share their success with neighboring schools and to help identify and cultivate new applicants for the Schools To Watch program.
Schools are encouraged to promote Michigan Schools To Watch — and the National Forum — in their local media outlets, communities, social media and on school websites. An extensive media kit will be available to every school (including web graphics, avatars, high resolution logos, press-ready photos, ideas for promotion, PDFs of flyers and brochures and more) which will make it easier for schools to promote Schools To Watch.
Schools To Watch schools should be institutional members of the AMLE state affiliate.