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Middle Schools - The Emergence of Middle Schools, Growth and Maturation of the Middle School Movement

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In 1888 Harvard University president Charles Eliot launched an effort to reorganize primary and secondary schooling. At that time, as state after state enacted compulsory attendance laws, eight-year elementary schools and four-year high schools were the most common types of institutions. But Eliot and his colleagues on the National Education Association's Committee of Ten on Secondary School Studies argued that young adolescents wasted time in the last years of elementary school and should be introduced to college preparatory courses such as algebra and Latin at an earlier age. The committee recommended reducing elementary schools to six grade levels (1–6) and increasing secondary grades to six grade levels (7–12). They also recommended that the new secondary schools be designed to allow talented, college-bound students to be promoted quickly so that they could complete the six years of secondary school in as few as four years.

As grades seven and eight began to be considered junior or introductory high school grades rather than elementary grades, intermediate schools (grades 7–8), junior high schools (grades 7–9), and junior-senior high schools (grades 7–12) began to appear. These new secondary schools were seen as a way of offering young adolescents a curriculum that was more substantial and more differentiated than that offered in elementary schools, while also addressing common practical problems such as the overcrowding of K–8 elementary schools and high rates of students leaving school after grade eight. In addition to giving college-bound youths earlier access to college preparatory work, educators in these schools sought to entice greater numbers of noncollege-bound youths to stay in school at least through grade nine by offering them commercial, domestic, and vocational curricula. By 1920 the number of junior high schools in the United States had grown to 883. By the 1940s more than half of the nation's young adolescents attended a junior high school, and by 1960 four out of five did so.

The enduring contributions of junior high schools to middle-level education in America are many. These schools introduced a broader range of exploratory, tryout courses and activities in order to assist young adolescents to discover and develop their interests and abilities. Junior high schools were also the source of other educational innovations, including homeroom and teacher-adviser programs, extracurricular activities, and core curriculum approaches emphasizing the correlation of subject areas and the integration of learning across disciplinary boundaries.

The Emergence of Middle Schools

Despite the innovations and successes of junior high schools, these schools became the target of increasing criticism for tending to adopt the curricula, grading systems, large size, schedules, regimentation, and impersonal climate of senior high schools. Ironically, some of the key organizational changes that the early promoters of junior high schools believed would meet the special needs of young adolescents–departmentalization, teacher specialization, and tracking–had been taken to the extreme and were now being challenged as inappropriate for junior high school students. Similarly, many began to have second thoughts about having ninth-grade educational programs in the same school buildings as seventh- and eighth-grade programs. The ninth-grade program and curriculum were constrained by Carnegie unit requirements for high school graduation and college entrance. Because these requirements affected scheduling and staffing decisions, they often strongly influenced the educational programs offered to seventh and eighth graders in junior high schools as well.

Fifty years after the first junior high schools were established, educators began to call for middle schools–new schools that had a different grade organization and a more developmentally responsive program–in order to provide a more gradual and appropriate transition between the elementary and high school years. In the 1950s Alvin Howard became one of the first to advocate the creation of a 6–8 school that would remove the limitations imposed by Carnegie units, have a more stable school climate than a 7–8 school, and would recognize the earlier onset of puberty of young adolescents in the second half of the twentieth century. William Alexander and Emmett Williams, in 1965, recommended the creation of 5–8 middle schools featuring interdisciplinary teaming, small learning communities, a teacher advisory program, and special learning centers where students could catch up on needed skills or branch out into further exploration. For example, Alexander and Williams suggested the creation of wing units (interdisciplinary teams of teachers to jointly plan curriculum and deliver instruction to 100 students). Each wing unit would join with wing units from the other grade levels in the school to form a "school within the school." The special learning centers would be open during the school day, after school, and on Saturday, and would include a library, a reading laboratory, a home arts center, a typing and writing laboratory, a foreign language laboratory, an arts and hobby center, a music room, and a physical education/recreation center.

In 1966 Donald Eichorn, a school district superintendent, wrote the first full book promoting the creation of 6–8 middle schools. The book attempted to apply Piaget's theories regarding early adolescent development in designing a suitable educational program. For example, Eichorn proposed that middle schools offer frequent opportunities for active learning and interaction with peers. He suggested eliminating activities that might embarrass late maturers or place them at a competitive disadvantage (e.g., interscholastic athletics and prom queen contests) and replacing them with less competitive activities that welcome and affirm all students regardless of their current level of physical or cognitive development (intramural athletics and physical education programs and flexible self-selected projects that allow all students to pursue personal interests and develop further interests while making frequent use of a well-equipped resource center). He proposed flexible scheduling to allow for extended learning opportunities and flexible groupings of middle school students for instruction (e.g., by current cognitive functioning or interests) rather than just by chronological age or grade level. He called for a curriculum that featured frequent use of interdisciplinary thematic units that reflected the interrelated nature of different content areas and that balanced traditional academic subjects with cultural studies, physical education, fine arts, and practical arts.

By 1970 a small group of educators founded the Midwest Middle School Association, amid much debate and confrontation between advocates of 6–8 middle schools and 7–9 junior high schools. Three years later its name was changed to the National Middle School Association to acknowledge the national scope of the growing middle school movement. The writings of key educators in this movement displayed increasingly widespread agreement on practices that they believed were especially appropriate for young adolescents, including interdisciplinary team teaching, discovery and inquiry methods, teacher-adviser plans, flexible scheduling, exploratory courses, and ungraded programs.

Growth and Maturation of the Middle School Movement

In 1965 only 5 percent of middle-grades schools in the United States were 6–8 or 5–8 middle schools, and 67 percent were 7–9 junior high schools. By the year 2000 these percentages were reversed: only 5 percent of middle-grades schools were 7–9 junior highs and 69 percent were 6–8 or 5–8 middle schools. The number of middle schools grew rapidly–from 1,434 (23%) in 1971 to 4,094 (33%) in 1981; 6,168 (51%) in 1991; and 9,750 (69%) in 2000.

Although the number of middle schools grew quickly during the 1960s and 1970s, according to William Alexander, writing in 1978, most of these new schools displayed "limited progress toward the objectives of the middle school movement" (p. 19). In fact, John Lounsbury noted in 1991 that the first comparative studies of the new middle schools and the old junior high schools revealed that the schools "were surprisingly alike in actual practice" (p. 68). Changes were restricted largely to the names of schools and the grades they contained.

One reason for the lack of progress in implementing a set of distinct practices was that many middle schools were established for reasons of expediency. For example, the new grade arrangements helped some districts reduce overcrowding in elementary schools, poor utilization of buildings, or racial segregation. Through the 1970s little empirical research was conducted on the consequences of implementing or ignoring the lists of recommended practices. Thus, there was no scientific evidence to persuade educators to change their programs and practices.

By the 1980s the debates between educators about the best grade structures for young adolescents began to die out, as both middle school and junior high school advocates realized that the typical middle-grades school, regardless of grade organization, was still failing to meet the needs of its students. "Junior high and middle school proponents and practitioners began to coalesce into a single cause–the cause of improving early adolescent education" (Lounsbury, p. 67). This new unity of purpose and vision was also fueled by the emergence of a strong and respected literature on the characteristics of early adolescents, and by research indicating that the transition to middle-grades schools was associated with declines in academic motivation and performance.

Research also indicated that students perceived their middle-grades teachers as more remote and impersonal than their elementary teachers, and that they were less certain that their middle-grades teachers cared about them or knew them well. Furthermore, student work completed in the first year of the middle grades was often less demanding than in the last year of elementary school, academic expectations in middle-grades schools were generally low, and students had few opportunities to learn important new concepts and apply them to real-world problems. This research along with case studies and empirical analyses of the effects of recommended practices on the quality of school programs and on the learning, motivation, and development of young adolescents all gave further impetus to the calls for the reform of middle-grades schools.

As practitioners, researchers, and scholars began speaking with one voice about the continuing shortcomings of middle-grades education in the United States, middle-grades reform began receiving unprecedented national attention. That is, at the end of the 1980s, states and foundations that had been focusing their educational reform initiatives on pre-school and early elementary education or on high school improvement and dropout prevention, began to recognize that the middle grades might be central to helping more students succeed and stay in school. California was one of the first states to produce a task-force report calling for middle-grades reform. California's 1987 report, Caught in the Middle, was followed by a long line of reports from Florida, Maryland, Louisiana, and at least fifteen other states. At about the same time, foundations such as the Lilly Endowment, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, and the W. K. Kellogg Foundation began advocating and funding middle-grades reform initiatives.

These efforts helped solidify the consensus on the kinds of supportive structures and responsive practices needed by students in the middle grades (e.g., the eight principles outlined in 1989 by the Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development in Turning Points). At this time, research in the middle grades by a wide variety of researchers began to show that schools serving early adolescents, especially middle schools, were increasingly implementing educational programs that were based on these recommended practices for the middle grades. Fewer schools were middle schools only in name.

Accomplishments of the Middle School Movement

Anthony Jackson and Gayle Davis noted in 2000 that "structural changes in middle-grades education–how students and teachers are organized for learning–have been fairly widespread and have produced good results" (p. 5). Changes in practice that ensure each student in a middle-grades school has more support from (and more meaningful relationships with) caring adults at the school have reduced the negative shifts in students' motivational beliefs during the middle grades. Schools-within-schools, looping (assigning teachers to the same students for two or three years), semidepartmentalizion (assigning a teacher to teach two subjects to three class sections rather than one subject to six class sections), and interdisciplinary teaming with a common planning period for the teachers on a team are examples of structural reforms that have been made in many middle-grades schools. Such reforms have been found to increase students' well-being and perceptions that their teacher cares about them and their learning, and to strengthen teacher–student relationships. In turn, when middle-grades students perceive their teachers care about them and their learning, they are more likely to report that they try to do what their teachers ask them to do and give their best effort in class, and they are less likely to engage in risky behaviors.

In sum, many middle-grades schools have succeeded in changing their climates and structures to become what Joan Lipsitz and colleagues, in 1997, called "warmer, happier, and more peaceful places for students and adults"(p. 535). However, as David Hamburg noted in 2000, changes in climates and structures "are necessary but not sufficient for major improvement in academic achievement" (p. xii). That is, while modest achievement gains may result from changes in school organization–such as semidepartmentalization, team teaching, or creating smaller learning environments–major achievement gains are obtained only in schools that have implemented both changes in school organization and in curriculum, instruction, and professional development changes that assist teachers to "transmit a core of common, substantial knowledge to all students in ways that foster curiosity, problem solving, and critical thinking" (Hamburg, p. x). For example, in a 1997 study by Robert Felner and colleagues of a group of thirty-one Illinois middle schools, those schools that had made both structural and instructional changes that were consistent with Turning Points recommendations achieved substantially better and displayed larger achievement gains over a two-year period than did similar schools that had implemented at least some of the key structural changes outlined in Turning Points, but not changes in curriculum and instruction. Another study suggesting the critical importance of going beyond just structural changes in improving achievement was conducted by Steven Mertens, Nancy Flowers, and Peter Mulhall in 1998, and involved 155 middle-grades schools in Michigan. When these researchers analyzed outcomes in schools that had one of the key structural changes in place (interdisciplinary teams that were given high levels of common planning time), they found that achievement gains were much higher among the subset of these schools that had a received a grant from the Kellogg Foundation that made it possible for their teachers to engage more regularly in staff development activities focused on curriculum and instruction. In fact there is even evidence from this study that staff development may be more important than common planning time in facilitating achievement gains. Schools whose teams had inadequate common planning (but had a grant that made frequent professional development possible) showed more achievement gains than did schools without grants, even those whose teams had high levels of planning time.

Unfortunately, high-performing middle schools are still rare, because "relatively little has changed at the core of most students' school experience: curriculum, assessment, and instruction" (Jackson and Davis, p. 5). Although structures and practices that are in keeping with the best of the middle-grades reform documents are an essential foundation for middle-grade reform, dramatic and sustained improvements in student performance occur only if teachers also provide all students with markedly better learning opportunities every day.

Enduring Problems

One particularly vexing problem that plagued junior high schools and continues to plague middle schools is what Samuel H. Popper termed being "a school without teachers" (p. 57). Because of the lack of teacher education programs and licensure that focus on the middle school level, the majority of young adolescents are taught by teachers who prepared for a career as an elementary or high school teacher. Fewer than one in four middle-grades teachers have received specialized training to teach at the middle level before they begin their careers. As a result, teachers who wind up teaching in middle schools, even those who discover that they enjoy teaching middle school students, find themselves woefully unprepared to work with this age group. Thomas Dickinson commented in 2001 that these instructors enter middle schools "unschooled in appropriate curriculum and instruction for young adolescents, and ignorant of the place and purpose of middle school organizational practices and the complex role of the middle school teacher" (p. 7). This is clearly one reason why curriculum and instruction in the middle grades continues to show little improvement over time.

There is a growing consensus to support specialized teacher preparation at the middle-grades level. Numerous studies show that middle-grades teachers and principals favor specialized teacher preparation of middle-grades teachers. Similarly, the National Middle School Association, The National Association for Secondary School Principals, and the National Forum to Accelerate Middle Grades Reform have all called for the specialized preparation of middle-grades teachers. Perhaps the only solution to this enduring problem is for states to establish mandatory requirements for middle-level licensure that do not overlap significantly with licensure for elementary school or high school teachers. This will serve as an incentive for colleges and universities to establish specialized programs that prepare practicing and future teachers to work effectively with middle school students, curricula, and instructional practices, and also as an incentive to teachers to pursue this specialized training.

Unfortunately, there is also a lack of middle-school principal preparation. "Preparation to lead a school based on the tenets of the middle school concept is even more rare than middle school teacher preparation programs. The same can be said for the licensure of middle school principals" (Dickinson, p. 7).

The National Forum to Accelerate Middle Grades Reform declared in 2000 that high-performing middle schools are "academically excellent, developmentally responsive, and socially equitable" (p. K7). If such middle schools are going to become the norm rather than the exception, both middle school teachers and principals need more specialized preparation and continuing professional development to support and sustain their trajectory toward excellence.


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