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Study Finds Few Teachers Trained for Middle Grades

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Although most middle-grades teachers agree that special preparation is helpful for teaching early adolescents, fewer than one in five actually received specific middle-grades training, according to a leading researcher on middle schools.

In addition, there is little evidence to suggest that teacher-education programs are changing to reflect the emerging consensus about what teachers in grades 5-9 ought to know and be able to do, Peter C. Scales, the deputy director of the Center for Early Adolescence at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has concluded.

Mr. Scales presented a summary of his key findings from a study of teacher preparation for the middle grades during a Nov. 9 session at the National Middle School Association convention in Louisville, Ky.

He said he found that the vast majority--84 percent--of middle-grades teachers were prepared in elementary- or secondary-education programs.

"The findings are not overwhelmingly positive," Mr. Scales acknowledged, but he said they do offer "a reservoir of hope."

Supported by a grant from the DeWitt Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund, Mr. Scales and his colleagues surveyed a random sample of 5th through 9th-grade teachers in eight states. He said he was encouraged that the 424 respondents showed widespread agreement about how middle-school teacher preparation could be improved.

The teachers' most frequent recommendation called for earlier, lengthier, and more varied student teaching and field experiences to expose them to a greater diversity of students and settings. Only 35 percent of the teachers said they were adequately trained to deal with schools' growing cultural and linguistic diversity.

"The literature has shown that teachers are despairing of their preparation for an increasingly diverse student population," Mr. Scales noted. "This study reinforces that in a very strong way."

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Teachers also said they need more preparation in managing the unique social and emotional developmental needs of young adolescents.

Mr. Scales said that most teachers had studied issues of early-adolescent development, but that fewer than half felt they received adequate training in actual teaching and assessment techniques appropriate for that age group.

"They need to know more about how social relationships and changing sex-awareness affect curriculum and instruction," Mr. Scales said.

Middle-school experts, he pointed out, have identified numerous effective strategies, including cooperative learning, interdisciplinary curriculum, and portfolio assessment of students. Yet, he added, few teacher education programs have paid special attention to those topics.

Mr. Scales' study, which is scheduled to be completed by the end of next month, also recommends that:

  • The education community develop a more concise, consistent definition of "middle grades";
  • The number of middle-grades teaching certificates be substantially reduced from the current total of 26;
  • Pre-service education include more information to help teachers understand and participate in site-based management; and
  • Middle-grades issues become a regular part of the nation's broader education-reform agenda.

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