How Can Teachers Achieve the Middle School Promise
By Shawn Kane & Felicia Rivers
The NO CHILD LEFT BEHIND ACT OF 2001, has placed the majority of emphasis on high stakes testing, and put Federal funding of schools at stake. How does that affect the Middle School Concept? Defined by Jim Krouscas, in Components Of A Responsive Middle School, the main components of The Middle School Concept are: “interdisciplinary teams, exploratory curriculum, integrative curriculum, and varied teaching and learning approaches.”1 Today Middle Schools are exploring varied alternatives to high stakes testing such as group work activities that produce a project and students building portfolios of best work samples. The authentic assessment concept appears to be at odds with the mandatory high stakes testing required of the NO CHILD LEFT BEHIND ACT OF 2001. Which leads us to the question: How can teacher’s today achieve the middle school promise and still prepare the students for the rigors of mandatory testing?
Standardize testing can work against the goals that are trying to be achieved in the education system. Richard P. Phelps in Why Testing Experts Hate Testing writes “The basic argument made by testing critics is that the use of high-stakes standardized tests is counterproductive. Instead of leading to stronger academic achievement, it is said to interfere with good teaching and learning. In this contention, the critics embrace a sort of domino theory. Pressure to produce higher scores leads teachers to focus on material that will be covered by the tests and to exclude everything else. The curriculum is thereby narrowed, which means that some subjects are ignored. Within those that are taught, lower order thinking skills are emphasized. As a result, test scores get inflated while real learning suffers.”2
In Opportunity and Accountability To Leave No Child Behind in the Middle Grades, Cynthia G. Brown states “The No Child Left Behind Act and accompanying fund increases offer numerous opportunities—to improve teaching and achievement of young adolescents.” (p. 2) Many of the elements that are suggested to improve academic achievement are elements of the Middle School Concept such as mentoring programs, team teaching, and meaningful involvement of parents. (p.12-13) 3 This suggests that testing may measure success but it is not one of the elements of improving education. Sue Swaim, Executive Director for the National Middle School Association, in her article titled Accountability and the Impact of High Stakes Testing writes that “Research makes it clear that when middle schools implement-in curriculum and instructional practices-what our knowledge of learning and human development supports, students make measurable gains in academic achievement.”4
Dr. John Lounsbury is considered one of the founders of the middle school movement. During A Listserv Conservation with John Lounsbury, he answers the criticism that middle school models fail to pay enough attention to the academic success of all students by saying, “Too many if not most middle schools adopted the organizational aspects of the middle school concept - teams, advisories, exploratory, etc., but didn't really change the way instruction was conducted or what
was taught. Therefore, the failure to improve test scores is largely due to the fact that teachers still teach in the departmentalized, fragmented way via passive learning that was the cause of the low scores in the first place... Middle school learners by nature learn best with their hands-on and their mouths open. So why do we fight reality? The premise that good middle level instruction rests on is, I believe, that there is no conflict between academic effectiveness and developmental
responsiveness. In fact, at the middle level you really can't have one without the other. To treat the academic responsibility as being in conflict with the other developmental responsibilities is to establish a fake dichotomy.
In summary, establishing long-term student-teacher relationships will create the atmosphere and context that will lead to increased achievement.”5 The Diagram below created by Mike Muir, Assistant Professor of Education at the university of Maine at Farmington clearly states the four areas of learning that influence and motivate students to learn. If you wish to read the article by Mike Muir, click on the diagram.6
As Lounsbury warns, “Unless middle schools are supported in fulfilling their inescapable responsibilities for developing well-educated adults who are also healthy, ethical, and productive citizens, we could find ourselves winning the battle to improve test scores, but losing the war to build a better America.”7
Our research was compiled from two schools: one was a rural middle-income school and the other a suburban low-income school. Our goal was to find out what teachers, thought of achieving the middle school concept and what they thought was needed to achieve it. Teachers from each school were interviewed. The interview questions were as follows:
· What is the Main challenges facing teachers today?
· What do you feel you need to fulfill the Middle School Promise?
· What do you feel is the students’ responsibility in regards to their education?
· What role should parents play in their children’s education?
Once the interviews were completed we compared the answers given by all teachers. The data was then combined, analyzed and organized into two simple groups of concentration. The two groups of concentration were the skills and attitudes teachers needed to achieve the middle school concept and the skills and attitudes student need to achieve in middle schools.
Results of Research
After comparing data, we discovered that teachers believe that to achieve the Middle School Promise teachers need to form a partnership with their students. Each partner has a unique role to play, and needs certain skills and attitudes to fulfill their role in the partnership. Despite the fact that the teachers taught in two very different schools, with different philosophies, and socio-economic levels the teachers’ answers were almost identical. The skills and attitudes teachers believe are necessary to fulfill the Middle School Promise are: flexibility, commitment, creativity, teamwork, and interdisciplinary instruction.
Teachers need to be flexible in many different areas. They need to be flexible with students, parents, or other teachers on a team. Teachers have to sometimes change plans and even modify lessons according to how the day is going. In order to keep the best interests of the students in mind teachers may have to alter lesson plans even if they have the day, week or month mapped out. A teacher can not always map out the rate at which a student learns, and teachers find that each year students learn different skills at different rates.
Teachers have to be committed not only to the job, but to the middle school students. This means a group of teachers that are well trained and, who indeed, have the passion to deal with the unique needs of middle school students. In order for teachers to be able to fulfill the middle school concept they must not just love their job, but have a burning passion for their job and the students they teach.
Learning is a lifetime commitment, not just for students, but also for teachers. They must be committed to continuing their education past their bachelor degree. Today, many challenges face teachers, and teachers must educate and prepare themselves for the task. Technology training is still a whole new area for education and teachers are just beginning to tap the possibilities in that area. If teachers can just find the time to tap the internet resources available they would find they have an endless library of teaching material to help them. The exciting thing about continuing to learn and being expose to new ideas, and new lesson plans is that it can stimulate a teachers’ own creativity. Not all training requires teachers to spend their entire summers in collage, for example: an English teacher could use her/his summer to read new adolescent literature to see what her/his students are reading, as well as find new material to teach in the classroom.
Creativity is essential for a teacher and their middle school students. In order to keep their adolescent students stimulated to learn, teachers have to think outside the box. As diagramed above by Mike Muir, middle school students have unique needs and ways of learning. Daily reading assignments, handouts and lectures will disengage students from the learning process. Teachers have to understand that middle grade students need to be involved in their learning. Teachers need to be creative in their assignments and use varied teaching techniques such as group work, incorporating interdisciplinary units, which are thematic units taught by all the basic curriculum classes at the same time. The classroom should be a place that is centered towards the student’s different learning styles. Not all students test well. Teachers should incorporate other approaches to assessment, commonly known as authentic assessment. This requires student to produce a project, or portfolio that demonstrates their understanding of the course work.
A teacher’s ability to work on a team is one of the most important skills a teacher can possess. A team is a group of teachers who have the same group of students. Their classrooms are clustered together in the same wing of the building. The team consists of three to four teachers. Together these teachers teach math, science, language arts, and social studies. These teachers have to be able to work together and communicate effectively among each other during the course of the year. Team teaching has the advantage of making students feel as though they are in a community setting. The teachers play the most important role in that they have to be one unit in order to have an effective team. One inexperienced teacher or a teacher with lack of passion for the job can throw the whole team off track. When this happens, the rest of the teachers on the team have to come together in order to keep their team from going under. Students will look for the teacher that is the “weakest link” and they will use the weakness to their advantage.
Interdisciplinary instruction is a core element of the Middle School Concept. Using interdisciplinary instruction, teachers can teach a sense of community to their students. Interdisciplinary instruction can also be one of the most challenging aspects of the middle school concept. Several teachers, all with different teaching styles, subjects and interest, are brought together to design thematic units, to be taught at the same time. This means that the teachers have to work as a team and be flexible, two of the things that are mentioned above. Teachers on the same team have the same planning period and some use that time to design their thematic unit cooperatively. If teachers in middle grades cannot work as a team then the whole idea of interdisciplinary instruction is non-existent.
The student’s role in their own education is influenced by variables such as parents, peer pressure, and their own internal motivations. The five skills and attitudes a student must bring to the classroom in order for the Middle School Concept to be achieved are: Students must be committed to learning, respectful, open to new experiences, flexible, and they must be accountable for what they learn and need to learn. . The students’ part in the learning process hinges on other influences. The parents’ influence to motivate a child and to teach a child the importance of a good education is vital. Also parents need to convey and teach discipline and the proper behavior including respect for your teachers, classmates and the students themselves. The teacher’s also have a responsibility to maintain a high level of classroom decorum and to motivate students to want to learn what the teacher is teaching.
A students commitment to learning is vital. Students must understand the importance of why they are in school. The opportunities that a student will have if they apply themselves in their education are limitless. The discipline needed to stay on task, and see a project through is the same discipline they will need to succeed in most career goals they may set.
Commitment and motivation go hand in hand. Motivation can be internal and external. The teacher does have the responsibility of engaging students in the learning process, and maintaining and setting a certain level of motivation. The internal motivation is a harder area to deal with. Students have already completed six years of education before they begin Middle School. They bring with them from elementary school the expectations, and experiences, both good and bad that have occurred in that learning environment. One of the most challenging aspects of teaching is to overcome any negative aspects of a student’s former learning experiences and to motivate them to continue.
Parents also play a vital role in the motivation of their child to be committed to learning. Communicating that an education is valuable and important is the way a parent helps their child to be committed to education. Parents need to take an active role in their child’s education. By showing interest in their child’s schoolwork, and supporting their child’s teacher they can become a partner in their child’s education.
Ultimately, it is the student’s responsibility to behave in a respectful manner to their peers, teachers and other school personnel. Students must be made accountable for their behavior. Not only do the disruptions and problems they cause hurt other people, but ultimately, they are only hurting themselves.
Parents are vital in teaching their children to be respectful. The parent who fails to recognize and acknowledge when their child is behaving inappropriately is really only hurting their own child. When a child is disrespectful to a classmate, teacher, or other school personnel parents need to partner with the school to correct the behavior. No matter how students are allowed to behave at home, a teacher from day one must set a classroom decorum of mutual respect. A teacher must clearly communicate what she feels is correct and respectful behavior from the students. The teacher must also treat each student fairly and respectfully.
Physiologically, and psychologically the middle grade years are a time of great change for students. Students are in a great transitional stage of their life, and these changes affect every aspect of their lives including their attitudes towards school. A student’s openness to new experiences in some ways is affected by the way they react to the changes going on in other parts of their lives.
Teachers have a great opportunity in this area to teach and help students experiment with new ideas and new ways of learning. The teacher’s approach and introduction of new ideas and new learning concepts will directly affect the students’ ability to be open to new experiences. This is the time period when many students want to fit in, and find their place within their peer groups. A student may be interested in a new idea, but unwilling to try anything new if his/her peer group rejects that idea. Teachers must recognize this and find interesting ways in which to engage students without gaining the resistance of a ruling peer group.
Just as teachers need to be flexible, students need to be also. Our society today is changing almost daily. Some of the skills and knowledge that were valued twenty years ago have become outdated. Students need to be able to adapt in situations where things may not go as planned. Students who respond positively when the unexpected happens and change plans to adapt to a new situation are much better prepared socially and academically.
If there is any real significance to this study we hope it was to give teachers a voice in the middle school process. Politicians, parents, school administrators, education theorist, and even student teachers all voice their opinions on just how students should be educated. Theories and opinions abound on what is being done correctly and incorrectly in schools today. Teachers are the ones in the classes day after day, meeting the challenges, and trying to make all the theories and practices suggested by everyone else work. The teachers in our interviews defined education as a partnership between themselves and students. All of the main elements of good middle school practices were present. We are all products of our own educations and we are now at ASU to become teachers ourselves. So somewhere, somehow, some of our teachers must have done something right.
The greatest limitation of the study was only having teachers from two area schools to interview. Also there was a time element, squeezing interviews in between actual teaching. If the interviews were done throughout the CSRA by different interviewers the results could be different.
If we were to make any suggestions for further research it would be to expand the interviews’area to schools throughout the CSRA, or perhaps to even do a nationwide survey over the internet to see what teachers across the United States think.
All article’s quoted in this article, as well sources that influence our conclusions were found on the web. Below are a list of Web Sites we found to be the most helpful in our research.
To Read More About Middle school Practices and Theory
1 Krouscas, Jim. “Components of a Responsive Middle School.”
2 Phelps, Richard P. “Why testing Experts Hate Testing.” Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.
3 Brown, Cynthia G. “Opportunities and Accountability To Leave No Child Behind in the Middle Grades.” The Edna McConnell Clark Foundation. March 2002.
4 Swaim, Sue. “A Message from NMSA’s Executive Director on Accountability and the Impact of High-Stakes Testing.” National Middle School Association. Feb. 19, 2002.
5 Lounsbury, John. “A Listserv Conversation with John Lounsbury.” The MiddleWeb Listserv. Nov. 16, 2000.
6 Muir, Mike. “What Underachieving Middle School Students Believe Motivates Them to Learn.” Winter 2001.
7 Swaim, Sue. “A Message from NMSA’s Executive Director on Accountability and the Impact of High-Stakes Testing.” National Middle School Association. Feb. 19, 2002.