Middle school teachers in the Anchorage School District are adjusting to big changes this school year after its team planning time was taken away. The team planning time, also known as team time, is an extra planning time for core teachers to collaborate by discussing items such as curriculum, student concerns, field trips, fund raisers, social and emotional learning. Now that team time is gone, teachers (including myself) keep saying that we should no longer call our school a middle school. It should be called a junior high. I thought it would be a good idea to find out what the research says about the middle school model. Are we really a junior high?
The article An Historical Overview of the Middle School Movement, 1963–2015, reviews literature associated with the middle school movement that began in the 1960s and how that movement has changed in regards to grading practice, research and policy. Before this article, no other review provided a comprehensive and extensive literature of the movement itself. Being a middle school teacher myself, this seemed to be a valuable article because it takes “a close examination of the existing literature on middle school practices provides important insights into the struggles, trends, concerns, and issues that helped define and characterize the growth of the middle school movement” (Schaefer, Malu, Yoon).
The qualitative study researched the following questions and used them to frame their reading:
- What are the pulses, trends, and concerns that characterize the American Middle School Movement from its inception to present day?
- Specifically, what are the themes found in the major publications produced by the two principle American middle level education professional organizations?
The authors focused their attention on two publications: Association for Middle Level Education (AMLE) and Middle Level Education Research (MLER) Special Interest Group (SIG) of the American Educational Research Association (AERA). The authors chose AMLE because it was the first professional organization that focused on middle level topics such as parents, students, teachers, and community members. AMLE, formerly known as the MidWest Middle School, is credited with actually starting the middle school movement.
1963-1979 — The term middle school emerges and words like unique, new, and successful are used to describe it. Thousands of schools across the nation switch from junior high model to middle school model, but not all experts agreed it was the best decision (Bruce, 1974) and called for more research. The middle school model would include:
- P.E. for every student
- Flexible scheduling
- Exploratory programs (otherwise known as electives)
- Understanding the nature of adolescence at that age
1980-1989 — During this era, middle school focused on team teaching, school counseling, block scheduling, student engagement and interdisciplinary curricula.
1990-1999 — During this era, the middle school concept was born and included practices such as advisory, cooperative learning, teaming, gifted learning (classes for advanced students) engaging students. While this area of middle school was clear, curriculum lagged behind (Arnold, 1991; Toepfer, 1992).
“Beane (1990, 1992, 1993, 1996) argued throughout the decade for repositioning subject area lines so that knowledge and skills were developed at the same time learning about real and relevant issues occurred.” In other words, Beane pushed for more collaborative units such as social studies and English so that students could apply the knowledge in each subject. Teaming allowed teachers to have the time to plan cross-curricula implementation.
At the end of the 1990s, Beane wrote an article called Middle Schools Under Siege and looked carefully at the middle school model flaws. Rather than calling the middle school model a falure, which some did, Beane argued that researchers needed to look at data more carefully and differentiate between middle schools that followed the concept closely versus those that did not.
2000-2009 — During this era, No Child Left Behind reared its head and attacked the middle school model, demanding schools for more standardized tests and measurable outcomes. This era determined that middle school must fully implement responsive curriculum, advisory, block scheduling, exploratory courses, and teaming in order to be successful. “This decade illustrated research-based practices that combined to produce a “signature” middle school pedagogy that advocated for reflective practice and a socio-cognitive approach to learning” (Haselhuhn, Al-Mabuk, Gabriele, Groen, & Galloway, 2007; Vagle, 2006).
2010-2015 — A variety of research agendas and middle grades pedagogy continued to emerge. One particular research topic was common planning time. Common Core State Standards are introduced and expect to play a critical role in the future of middle level education.
In conclusion, this study was informative but also limited to the data sources of AMLE and MLER. Further research is needed to understand how the middle school model should be implemented in the future. For example, how does technology factor into the middle school pedagogy? Last year, the Anchorage School District gave middle school teachers and students access to Canvas accounts when it was previously available to just high school iSchool students. A few educators at my school are implementing this blended learning model and it seems like a great success. Research that shows how blended learning and online pedagogy fits into the middle school model could become the next hot topic for 2015-2020 and beyond.
Mary Beth Schaefer, Kathleen F. Malu & Bogum Yoon (2016) An Historical Overview of the Middle School Movement, 1963–2015, RMLE Online, 39:5, 1-27, DOI: 10.1080/19404476.2016.1165036