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Middle School Gains Over 25 Years Chronicled

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Schools for middle-level students have improved markedly over the past 25 years, but they still have far to go, a national report released last week says.

The report by the National Middle School Association is based on a 1993 survey of administrators in 1,798 schools that serve various configurations of students in grades 5-9 across the United States. It was designed to take the pulse of the progress of middle-grades reform, which began nearly three decades ago. It follows similar national studies conducted in 1968 and 1988.

"I was somewhat apprehensive when I did the study because we could've found that little progress had been made and, in some cases, schools might've digressed, but the results were encouraging," said C. Kenneth McEwin, the lead author of the study. "At the same time, we can think, 'Why haven't schools implemented these changes more quickly?'"

Among the changes the study documents is a trend away from the traditional junior high school that serves grades 7-9 and toward middle school configurations. In 1968, McEwin said, there were 7,200 junior high schools nationwide. This year, only 1,027 schools still call themselves junior highs.

More important, however, many schools that serve adolescents, regardless of their labels, are adopting a variety of the practices that experts say constitute good middle-level education. Such schools are switching to team-taught, interdisciplinary classes, setting aside advisory periods in which teachers can play more of a mentor role to students, abolishing tracking, and lengthening the amount of time students spend on core academic subjects, among other changes.

"I really think it shows that understanding and implementation of the middle-level concept is taking hold in this country," said Sue Swaim, the executive director of the Columbus, Ohio-based middle schools' group.

But the survey also suggests that some traditional practices remain entrenched. Lecturing to students, for example, was the primary mode of teaching in 90 percent of the grade 6-8 schools studied.

"That's not to say it's never appropriate, but when direct instruction is the dominant mode, it doesn't always match the needs of adolescents," Ms. Swaim said.

According to the study, grade 6-8 schools are most likely to have two planning periods each day. Twenty-two percent of grade 6-8 middle schools have double planning periods for all teachers compared with 10 percent for grade 7-9 junior high schools.

With increases in the use of interdisciplinary teaching teams in middle schools, it's important for teachers to have two planning periods--one for individual planning and one for team planning, write Mr. McEwin and his co-authors, Thomas S. Dickinson and Doris M. Jenkins.

Bigger Not Better

The study also found that middle-level schools have become larger. The proportion of such schools enrolling more than 800 students, for example, more than doubled from 13 percent 25 years ago to 30 percent in the current study. The researchers, in contrast, say the ideal size for middle schools is 400 to 800 students.

At the same time, the increase in the use of interdisciplinary teaching was sizable. In 1968, for example, only 8 percent of schools taught 6th-grade language arts through interdisciplinary teams. By 1993, that proportion had grown to 59 percent. The percentage of schools that maintained traditional language arts departments, in comparison, declined over the same period from 35 percent to 29 percent.

The researchers also found that about half the schools surveyed used teacher-based guidance programs. Most often taking the form of a homeroom advisory period, such programs are aimed at giving teachers an opportunity to get to know students and to advise them. Yet, despite the growing use of those programs, principals said they were among the hardest components of middle school reform to put in place.

"It's not been a traditional part of professional teacher preparation programs, and sometimes people in communities have heard that, if students are taught in teacher-based guidance programs, they'll be taught values or something along those lines," said Mr. McEwin, a professor of curriculum and instruction at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C.

The researchers also found that:

  • The presence of both intramural and interscholastic sports programs has decreased slightly in middle-level schools over the past 25 years--a trend the researchers view as negative.
  • The practice of grouping students randomly for core subjects, rather than placing them according to their academic ability, is becoming more popular.
  • A majority of administrators said fewer than 25 percent of their teachers had specialized middle school training.
  • The dominant form of scheduling in the schools surveyed was daily periods of uniform duration rather than more flexible scheduling arrangements that middle school advocates endorse.

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