Middle school education is the most unique and controversial school model presently used by public schools in America. It provides a distinctive organizational model that was created in order to meet the physical, social, and psychological characteristics of the middle school learner. The model is meant to overcome low academic achievement and the learning plateaus that often appear among middle school-aged students. Teachers are clustered into interdisciplinary learning teams in order to collaboratively address student needs; administrators must work to articulate a school mission and help teachers uphold this mission in their classrooms in order to promote student achievement.
Keywords Core Academic Courses; Criterion-Referenced Tests; Exploratory Courses; Middle School; Mission; Norm-Referenced Tests; Public Schools; Standards-Based Education; Vision
Public School Education: Public School Education: Middle Grades
The middle grade school is the newest model of school organization presently used in public school systems across America. For many years, middle school aged students were either placed in elementary schools, forced in to high schools, or put in a school building that was a former high school and called a Junior High School. The elementary school was not an acceptable setting for students in grades 6-8 due to their requirements for higher level programs and the demands for larger facilities. The size of the middle grades student was simply overwhelming to most elementary schools. Students between the ages of 11-14 were sometimes placed in a high school setting, but they are too immature to be educated in the same school building as older students. The Junior High model was not a perfect academic match for the cognitive needs of the middle grade student. Middle school advocates claimed that Junior High Schools simply offered a "watered down" high school program which did not adequately challenge the cognitive needs of these students (Wallis, Miranda, & Rubiner, 2005). Regardless of the location of the placement for students in 6-8th grades, their academic, social and psychological needs were not being met.
During the 1970's, students as early as 6th grade were dropping out of school, were not showing academic progress on evaluation measures, and were simply not being adequately educated. This forced public school systems to seek alternative education plans for these students. By the 1980's, many public school systems were beginning to employ aspects of the newly evolving middle school organizational model and were witnessing some key academic gains with students. One of the most profound research documents that impacted the development of middle schools was in 1989, when the Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development produced a report, "Turning Points: Preparing American Youth for the 21st Century." This proposed the idea of "transforming middle schools into equitable places that care for teens while preparing them academically" (Tonso, Jung, & Colombo, 2006). This report suggested that middle schools should:
• Create small communities for learning
• Teach a core academic program
• Ensure student success by tailoring the academic programs to the needs of the students,
• Staff the schools with teachers trained to work with this particular student
• Engage the families in the learning processes of the students.
Additionally, middle schools would foster academic success through encouraging physical fitness and good health, and would connect the schools to the community.
The Middle School
Middle schools are typically comprised of grades 6-8 and have many similar characteristics. According to the National Center for Education Statistics' Digest for Education STatistics, 2011, since the early 1970s there has been a shift away from junior high schools (schools with grades 7 through 9 or grades 7 and 8) and toward middle schools. In 1999-2000, there were 11,500 middle schools in the United States, a 458% from the 2,100 middle schools in 1970-1971.By 2009-2010, there were 13,200 middle schools in the U.S. The number of junior high schools declined over the same period, from 7,800 in 1970-1971 to 3,600 in 1999-2000, and 3,000 in 2009-2010.
Middle schools are divided into academic learning communities, called interdisciplinary teams. Their core academic subjects are complimented by exploratory courses which are mini-vocational, fine arts, or physical education courses. The teachers of middle grade students have shared certification and training requirements.
The Interdisciplinary Team
The academic basis of the middle school concept is the interdisciplinary team. Interdisciplinary teams are usually comprised of 2-5 teachers who are responsible for the instruction of one or two content areas. This specialization allows teachers to serve as content experts in the areas they teach. Additionally, the interdisciplinary team concept gives middle grade students a place to belong, even giving them the feeling of being in a "legal gang" (NEA, 1999). Having a place to fit in is vital to the social and psychological needs of this aged student at this age level. Teaming students offers a critical social and emotional connection for students at such a fragile academic age (Tonso, Jung, & Colombo, 2006).
Interdisciplinary teams are usually an easy way for middle schools to group students, within the team, according to their academic needs. In fact, true middle schools use teaming for continual movement through academic subgroups in response to formative evaluations for each subject.
Interdisciplinary teaming allows the teachers on a team to share common planning time. This time is to be used for discussions about student progress, create remediation or acceleration plans, and plan instructional activities that cross all disciplines (Rottier, 2000). Additionally, shared planning time allows teachers to determine their staff development needs, serves as a launching pad for school leaders, and helps the team develop skills in the areas of learning community development, managing conflict, developing shared rules and goals, and making decisions for the team.
Consistency and uniformity among interdisciplinary teams has a direct impact on the performance of the team (Rottier, 2000). These two components of the team ensure that teams are working toward the goals they have established, the workload among team teachers is equally distributed, and instructional time is appropriately devoted to learning activities.
When teams of teachers are working collaboratively, they engage in a variety of issues that sometimes results in conflict among the teachers. Effective teaching teams have established working relations that allows them to disagree about issues while maintaining the dignity of their relationships. This means that they engage in problem solving activities and discussions, or entertain new and exciting ideas that can lead to the progress of the students on their team (Rottier, 2000).
The Middle School Teacher
Another important aspect of the middle school concept is the unique qualities of the middle grade teacher. The middle school teacher is expected to promote lifetime learning in students through engaging activities and positive interactions with their social and physical environments (Virtue, 2007). Effective middle school teachers set high expectations for their students and carefully plan activities that help them attain these goals. An effective middle grade teacher must be skilled in establishing and maintaining relationships with their students that prompts academic achievement and social comfort. Effective middle school teachers must be willing to constantly engage in staff development that improves their abilities to expertly offer instruction.
Middle grade teachers must be committed to the concept of teaching for mastery. This means that they address as many learning styles as necessary, remediate and enrich, and plan instructional activities that ensure that students will accomplish the learning objectives. This often requires an immense amount of creativity, which is inviting to this level of student. Additionally, teachers repeatedly re-teach learning objectives in order to ensure student mastery (Christie, 2001).
Middle School Administration
Middle school leaders play a crucial role in the overall success of the school. They must carefully place teachers and students on teams so that a positive learning environment is cultivated through effective interdisciplinary team placement. They must teach the team leaders how to implement strategies that uphold the mission of the school, support their team goals, and promote student achievement. And, they must serve as the primary curriculum leaders of the schools (Nelson, Fairchild, Grossenbacher, & Landers, 2007). According to the study conducted by Nelson, Fairchild, Grossenbacher, & Landers (2007), middle school administrators must be trained to understand the academic and social needs of this level of student, the skills expected of effective teachers, and how to successfully implement this unique school organizational model. Principals must seriously study the standardized test scores of the students in order to develop improvement plans with interdisciplinary team teachers, creating and upholding a clear mission for the school, and ensuring that high expectations are established for all students. The transition from elementary to middle school and middle school to high school is often problematic for middle grade students. According to Griefner (2006), a key to the success of this transition is collaborative planning between the principals of these schools. It is the duty of the middle school principal to "focus on transforming a school into a community and establishing strong development programs" (para. 5) that ensure student success during the change between school levels....
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