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Teaching Profession

An Incomplete Education

By Ann Bradley — October 04, 2000 12 min read
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Maureen Phillips always asks people who want to teach at her rural Michigan school to describe a typical middle-level student.

“Kids this age have so many more needs than the traditional classroom offers,” the principal explains. “Any teacher I can have come in who has some background in that—there’s a tremendous difference.”

But finding teachers who have insight into what Phillips jokingly calls “the beast” is a hit-or-miss proposition. Mostly, she hires men and women with preparation in teaching elementary or high school and hopes they’ll grow to love the challenges of teaching at Brethren Middle School in Brethren, Mich.

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Read related story, Adrift at the Top

More than 40 states either have middle-grades teacher licensure or “endorsements” to teach that age group, according to “Turning Points 2000: Educating Adolescents in the 21st Century,” a forthcoming report sponsored by the Carnegie Corporation of New York. But in many states, the credential is either voluntary or available to candidates with little or no specialized preparation—such as just one year teaching at the middle level with either an elementary or secondary certificate, say the authors, Anthony W. Jackson and Gayle A. Davis.

In addition, they write, overlapping licenses covering such grade configurations as K-6, 6-9, and 7-12 “send the clear message to all that the middle-grades option is relatively unimportant.” Many teachers, in fact, choose to get broader licenses that allow them more flexibility in accepting jobs—a practice also encouraged by districts and teachers’ unions, they say.

Middle school teachers often lack the academic preparation and knowledge about young adolescents they need to be able to reach their students.

State testing requirements for middle-grades teachers also aren’t very stringent. Five states have special middle-grades tests; only eight require teachers to take the same subject-matter exams as people who are seeking high school licenses, according to Quality Counts 2000, a special report published by Education Week last January.

The original “Turning Points” report, released in 1989 by a Carnegie task force, recommended that states provide voluntary middle-grades endorsements.

But the new report concludes that such endorsements have turned out to amount to a couple of courses, aren’t required, and don’t usually involve fieldwork with actual students.

When it comes to both licenses and endorsements, the report says, “expedient” solutions, such as lax requirements that give both teachers and their districts more flexibility, have outweighed concerns for student learning.

“Endorsements were sort of a middle ground that was safer politically than pushing for full-fledged licensure that doesn’t overlap with elementary and secondary,” Davis says. “We have to do what’s best for kids, but that may not be what’s best for hiring practices.”

The new report argues for well-crafted preparation programs for middle-grades educators that involve strong academic preparation, instruction in working in interdisciplinary teams, and coursework in adolescent development, among other measures. Middle-grades teachers also should have extensive fieldwork with students and mentors once on the job, it says.

Specialized Classes

To Ken McEwin, a professor of curriculum and instruction at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C., the current state of affairs represents a big step forward from the early days of the middle school movement, when educators had to make the case for specialized preparation to teach young adolescents. But eight in 10 middle-level teachers still have not had any formal preparation in teaching at that level, he says, although research has shown that they find special coursework valuable.

Many states have middle-grades teacher licensure, but the requirements are often flimsy at best.

In North Carolina, which has some of the nation’s most stringent requirements for teaching in the middle grades, teachers must select a license covering grades K- 6, 6-9, or 9-12. Middle-grades candidates must have academic concentrations of between 21 and 27 semester hours in two subjects.

At Appalachian State, they take separate classes called The Middle-Level School and Teaching Young Adolescents, then undertake internships in middle-level schools for a semester before completing student teaching.

“Our graduates are in great demand,” McEwin says. “Would you like to hire a teacher who wanted to teach in the middle grades and had a full degree and a depth of subject areas in two fields, or a generalist from the elementary level or someone who prepared to teach at the high school?”

Peggy Gaskill, a longtime Michigan teacher-educator, notes that her state has K-8 and 7-12 licenses but no specific requirements for learning to teach middle-level children. Teachers there can earn middle-level endorsements.

Some schools, such as Central Michigan University, where Gaskill was a professor until this past summer, have created their own middle- level preparation programs at the undergraduate level.

In Central Michigan’s case, that means a middle-level minor that includes coursework in the nature and needs of young adolescents; the philosophy and organization of middle schools and how it fits with students’ developmental needs; curriculum, pedagogy, and assessment; and preparation in two broad, multidisciplinary teaching fields.

Gaskill argues that states need to require specialized preparation in order for most institutions of higher education to design programs. “Middle school is the catchall place where they put the people in,” she says. “When the job market is tight, people say, ‘Gee, I really want a high school job, but I’ve got my foot in the door.’ ”

Out of Field

States are far from unanimous in their approaches to middle school teaching. In Virginia, for example, the state is phasing out licenses for teaching grades 4-8 in favor of a system that will grant licenses for teaching prekindergarten through 6th grade and grades 6-12.

Middle school is the catchall place where they put the people in.

“There is an increased emphasis on content expertise” in Virginia, says Martin Ford, the acting dean of the graduate school of education at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. “Being able to spend time focusing on students as being in developmentally different phases has taken somewhat of a back seat to other concerns.”

In Kentucky, a legislative package designed in part to strengthen the subject knowledge of middle school teachers was defeated last spring after the state affiliate of the National Education Association pulled out all the stops to block it. The state legislature did allocate $24 million for professional-development programs concentrating on middle school teachers.

A task force in South Carolina has recommended eliminating the “significant overlap” between elementary and middle- level certification. And it also called for reviewing elementary-certification requirements to address what it calls “a lack of rigor,” particularly in mathematics and science, that affects middle school students’ opportunity to learn those subjects.

In the meantime, the task force called for the creation of “add-on certification” in the middle grades for practicing teachers, including some type of incentive for seeking the additional training. It also endorsed giving South Carolina licenses to certified middle-grades teachers from outside the state without forcing them to meet requirements for elementary or high school teaching, as is currently the case.

Concerns over whether middle-grades teachers know enough about their subjects to teach to higher standards are widespread. Nationally, only 72 percent of math teachers in grades 7 and 8 are certified to teach that subject, according to a 1999 report from the Council of Chief State School Officers.

“Data suggest that there is not nearly enough subject-matter knowledge at the disposal of most middle school teachers,” says Barnett Berry, the executive director of the Southeast Center for Teaching Quality in Chapel Hill, N.C.

More middle school teachers are teaching courses for which they have no formal training.

Because many middle-grades teachers hold elementary licenses, they may not have the depth of preparation necessary to teach the increasingly complex academic content required in many states’ standards. And because middle-grades teachers tend to teach more than one subject, larger numbers are teaching courses for which they have no formal academic preparation than teachers at any other level of schooling.

California’s new math standards, for example, require that students learn algebra at the middle level. “Many middle school teachers don’t know how to teach it,” says Glenn Nagel, the dean of the college of natural sciences and mathematics at California State University-Long Beach.

A survey of middle and high school science teachers released last May by the National Science Teachers Association found that 31 percent of middle-level teachers had been assigned outside their fields. That means they didn’t have at least a college minor in the subject taught. At the high school level, 24 percent of the 1,370 respondents reported similar out-of-field assignments.

But Berry argues that “just shoveling content knowledge” into teachers isn’t sufficient. He argues for entirely rethinking middle-level preparation at both the collegiate and in-service levels.

Practicing teachers who routinely teach outside their fields—most of whom are found in schools serving low-income students—could be treated to special state-financed fellowships that would provide them with content-rich professional development linked to academic standards for students, Berry suggests. Such teachers could also receive incentive bonuses for the training and state assistance to offset their tuition costs.

“This is not just about making sure they all have majors” in a subject, Berry says. “That could be foolhardy.”

Disconnected Training

Teachers in Long Beach, Calif., which has been working to improve its middle schools with a grant from the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, are polishing their subject knowledge by working closely with the National Faculty, an Atlanta-based organization that connects university professors with K-12 teachers to help deepen their expertise.

Since 1995, teachers have been working on acquiring deeper knowledge of math, social studies, and writing, and have begun focusing on science.

Middle school is such a dead zone in terms of the curriculum in so many districts, and now we've got standard-based expectations and teachers not able to meet them.

“We still have a lot of generalists teaching in a standards-based environment where fairly specific content knowledge is required to teach to the standards,” says Rob Baird, the president of the National Faculty. “Middle school is such a dead zone in terms of the curriculum in so many districts, and now we’ve got standards-based expectations and teachers not able to meet them.”

In Long Beach, the work has been done through a partnership that links the district, community colleges, and the local branch of California State University. “They had more talent in their own backyard than they knew,” Baird says.

Teachers participate in workshops and summer institutes, in tandem with scholars, to devise curriculum units geared to Long Beach’s standards for students.

For Dawn Lakowski, a teacher at Charles Evans Hughes Middle School in Long Beach, the chance to exchange ideas with other middle-level social studies teachers has been invaluable.

Lakowski, who holds an elementary license, studied the broad topic of slavery throughout history, gathering ideas to use as she creates a unit on feudalism for her medieval world history class.

“What I really liked was getting information and updated research from respected names in the field and additional resources,” she says. “Now, I can call up the professors.”

Finding high-quality professional-development opportunities that can both deepen teachers’ knowledge and lead to improvements in students’ learning is a tall order, however.

The National Staff Development Council, a membership organization based in Oxford, Ohio, conducted a study last year of 500 middle-grades professional-development initiatives. Only 26 could produce evidence of results for students, says Stephanie Hirsh, the council’s associate executive director.

The resulting report, “What Works in the Middle: Results- Based Staff Development,” describes the programs and has sparked dialogues between people in the field over how to document links between staff development and student learning, she says.

“Lots of times, teachers don’t have the knowledge and skills to know what to do to help their students perform better,” Hirsh says. “Quality professional development can fill that gap.”

Help With Teamwork

But even in districts committed to helping middle-grades teachers improve, progress is uneven. In Corpus Christi, Texas, which has been working to upgrade middle-level education, evaluators found in a study last year that professional-development efforts were disconnected from one another.

Many middle school reform proponents would like to see more universities offer specialized training for prospective middle-level teachers.

Teachers had been getting together to look at student work and discuss it in relation to the district’s standards, but those efforts weren’t connected to training that also would allow teachers to learn how to teach their content and assess students’ progress, the evaluators found.

Barbara Neufeld, the president of Education Matters, the research and evaluation firm in Cambridge, Mass., that conducted the evaluation, says the problem is typical. “It’s fragmented,” she says of staff development. “It might be of high quality, but it doesn’t tie the pieces together for teachers.”

Many teachers also need to learn how to work together in teams—a common organizational structure in middle schools that doesn’t necessarily come easily for them, Berry of the Southeast Center for Teaching Quality observes.

“We really need to work on both preservice and in-service education for middle school teachers in a way we’ve never done in the past,” he argues.

Special Preparation

Maureen Phillips, the principal at Brethren Middle School in Michigan, agrees. Thanks to a “middle-level minor” offered by Central Michigan University, she was able to hire two teachers last year with special preparation to teach young adolescents. In addition, several staff members are pursuing master’s degrees in middle-level education, she says.

The school is working with the Michigan Middle Start network, which encourages member schools to conduct detailed self-studies to identify areas for improvement. At Brethren, student test scores have gone up as teachers have moved toward more cooperative learning and efforts to engage students in a variety of interesting activities, rather than what Phillips calls “paper, book, and pencil, and sitting in the same chair for 40 minutes.”

But it takes a special person to elicit learning from young adolescents, she says, adding that she would like to see more universities offer such training for prospective teachers.

“It takes a lot of compassion and understanding,” Phillips says. “You have to be very flexible in your day-to-day operations. Knowing the characteristics of young adolescents and why they act and do the things they do saves a lot of headaches in the long run.”


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