School & District Management Opinion

A Crack in the Middle

By Joellen Killion — March 18, 1998 8 min read

By many measures, the edifice we call public schooling has a crack down the middle. Reforms adopted over the last 15 years have focused either on students at the start of their academic life or near the end of their K-12 experience--from smaller class sizes through 4th grade and the push for universal literacy by the end of 3rd grade, to higher standards for high school graduation and required exit exams.

Left largely unattended are students in the middle grades, just as they are reaching a vulnerable and confusing crossroads in their lives. Nearly a decade ago, the Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development called the years from ages 10 to 15 “the last, best chance” to ensure that young people reach a fruitful adulthood.

But statistics show us that the nation has yet to heed fully the council’s warning. Middle-grade students tend to do less well on national exams than they did in elementary school. And the inequities between high-achieving and low-achieving students deepen during the middle grades.

The mortar that can fill this crack in the middle is competent and caring teachers--teachers who understand the needs of young adolescents, who establish a safe, nurturing learning environment, and who elicit a high level of performance through their own strong instructional practices and deep content knowledge. More than perhaps any other area of education, the challenge of educating early adolescents requires caring, well-versed teachers who will balance standards of excellence with the provision of supportive surroundings.

Yet for reasons ranging from collegiate preparation to personal preferences, these middle school specialists are still in short supply. The most effective and efficient way to increase their numbers is through high-quality, comprehensive staff development geared specifically to middle-grades instruction. The time is ripe for this improvement--theory and practice are just coming together to produce solid information to reform education in the middle grades.

Recent national and international student test results for those grades reveal the depth of the academic problems and the decline between 4th grade and 8th grade:

  • Only 29 percent of the 8th graders participating in the 1994 National Assessment of Educational Progress scored at the “proficient” level in reading.
  • The 1996 writing NAEP shows no significant difference in performance between the average scores for 8th graders taking that test and their counterparts in 1984.
  • The 1996 NAEP demonstrates that white students in 8th grade outperform black and Hispanic 8th graders in all areas. The magnitude of the gap in science, reading, and mathematics between Hispanic students and white students is increasing.
  • The 1996 science NAEP shows no significant difference in the average scores from those attained by 13-year-olds in 1970.
  • Eighth graders scored below the international average of the 41 countries participating in the 1995 Third International Mathematics and Science Study, despite the fact that they spend more time in mathematics and science classes than their international counterparts.
  • In sharp contrast, 4th grade students are outperforming their international peers in every one of the 41 TIMSS countries except South Korea. Nine-year-olds taking the National Assessment of Educational Progress are increasing their performance in science and mathematics.

The TIMSS research determined that the content taught in U.S. 8th grade mathematics classes is comparable to the content taught in 7th grade classes in other countries, and is not as challenging as that of other countries.

Unfortunately, the statistics about middle-grades teachers can be as troubling as the results their students are achieving. The Carnegie council reported, in fact, that many teachers of middle school students say they dislike their work.

This dissatisfaction may not be surprising, considering that few teachers have the specialized preparation to teach in the middle grades. Since the middle school movement is relatively new, and three-quarters of all of U.S. teachers have been on the job for at least 10 years, most middle-grade teachers were prepared in college for either elementary or high schools. A 1994 study found that nearly half the nation’s middle school teachers had no special training for teaching young adolescents; 60 percent of those surveyed said they had not even had a student-teaching assignment in a middle school. Few states, moreover, recognize middle schools in teacher licensure.

But research over the last 20 years has confirmed what we have known for much longer about the impact of teaching, rendering these statistics even more disturbing: The better the teacher, the more successful the student. For decades, while the U.S. educational system has tried to improve student achievement through tinkering with what Linda Darling-Hammond calls “the great machinery of education"--new management schemes, curriculum packages, testing policies, decentralized initiatives, and waivers of regulations--what matters most has been neglected. And that is the knowledge, skills, and attitudes of those who work most closely with students.

Content knowledge, understanding of the learning process and of child development, and pedagogical expertise are essential to a teacher’s effectiveness. It is not surprising that a 1985 study found that students performed better in math, for example, in classes taught by teachers who had solid preparation in mathematics methods, curriculum, and teaching than those who were taught by teachers teaching out of their license or certification area or who were uncertified or unlicensed.

Despite the clear link between content knowledge and teacher effectiveness, however, most 8th grade math teachers in this country do not receive as much practical training and daily support as their counterparts in Japan, Germany, and other countries taking part in TIMSS. Most of our 8th grade mathematics teachers report familiarity with U.S. reform recommendations, yet only a few say they apply those recommendations in their classrooms.

Middle-grades students also are going through a range of physical, intellectual, emotional, and social changes that are unmatched in other grades. To meet those developmental demands, teachers must have access to staff development that increases their knowledge and skills in these areas, challenges their beliefs and assumptions about education, provides them with support and coaching on new practices, and enables them to be active shapers of their schools’ culture. Lifelong learners who collaborate with peers, conducting research, sharing ideas, planning together, and analyzing student work, are best able to solve the problems faced in educating young adolescents.

Our organization, the National Staff Development Council, has undertaken a middle-grades initiative based on the premise that professional learning experiences directed toward teachers’ content knowledge are crucial for improving the effectiveness of education in these grades. Because so many middle-grades teachers are teaching out of their areas of content expertise and have little specialized preparation for working with early adolescents, their staff development must be tied directly to the content standards and the instructional strategies needed to support high levels of learning for all of their students. Not only do today’s middle school teachers need more practical knowledge and skills, they also need more and more-frequent support if they are to increase their students’ level of achievement.

With recent research in mind, the middle-grades initiative’s national advisory panel has established criteria for identifying exemplary staff-development programs. These include that such programs have the following: results measured in terms of student performance; a well-defined process; content-specific staff development designed to improve teachers’ content knowledge and pedagogical skills; and the involvement of multiple schools, within or across districts, a state, or a regional area.

We cannot be sure how many staff-development programs meet these or any other stringent standards. Part of the problem has to do with how much of current staff development is not intended to affect student learning. As Hayes Mizell, the director of programs for student achievement at the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, put the question at the NSDC’s annual conference: “If the intent is to improve the performance of teachers and educators ... [why] would so much staff development be so ill-conceived, so hit-or-miss, so ineffective?”

Another part of the problem is that insufficient resources are directed to staff development. The Consortium for Policy Research in Education has found that roughly 1 percent of education spending goes toward staff development. It recommended tripling that figure, which would still come in short of the private sector average for training, which is about 7 percent of total budgets. The National Staff Development Council advocates spending 10 percent of school dollars on staff development.

The adoption of higher academic standards, curriculum reform, improvements in school organization, and increased resources will do little to influence student achievement if the teachers working with students are inadequately prepared. The early-adolescent years shape lifelong habits. Improving the achievement of students in the middle grades remains both an urgent need and an enormous challenge.

Targeting the improvement of teachers’ learning through content-specific staff development holds promise as an effective intervention. By extending teachers’ content knowledge and content-specific pedagogical strategies, we will give them the tools to begin the task of filling the middle-grades crack now swallowing so many students.

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A version of this article appeared in the March 11, 1998 edition of Education Week as A Crack in the Middle


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