The Politics and Sustainability of Middle Grades Reforms

Article excerpt

Jennifer's first years as a middle school principal occurred during a time of transformation initiated by the federal No Child Left Behind Act and further intensified by demographic changes within her Midwest suburban district of 25,000 students. In the context of national educational reform during this time period, Tom Erb asked, "Who will advocate for the best interests of young adolescents?" (2002, p. 4). This question held particular significance in the Sunflower School District (a pseudonym), as the superintendent and board of education decided to dismantle certain middle grades structures and practices that had been sustained for 20 years. Schools returned to a departmentalized schedule with stratified academic classes and, during this same academic year, advisory programs were discontinued in favor of a study hall period.

In this article, we describe how the Sunflower School District fell prey to the "pendulum model" of educational reform efforts (Slavin, 1989), dismantling the interdisciplinary teaming structure despite findings from relevant research studies that suggest teaming is necessary to meet the needs of young adolescents and to achieve academic excellence, developmental responsiveness, and social equity (Erb, 2006; Flowers, Mertens, & Mulhall, 1999; Flowers, Mertens, & Mulhall, 2000; Jackson & Davis, 2000).

From junior high to middle school

The Sunflower School District recognized that middle grades education should be distinctive due to the unique needs of young adolescents (Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development, 1989), and in the mid-1980s a committee of teachers, counselors, and administrators investigated the possibility of changing from a junior high model to the middle school concept. The committee visited effective middle level schools in the region and in nearby states and consulted with middle level education experts. After much deliberation involving district level administrators, building administrators, teachers, parents, and community members, the district reorganized its middle level schools according to a teaming model grounded in the middle school concept. The changes included the implementation of an advisory program and an intramural program, a revision of the exploratory curriculum, and renaming the junior high schools to indicate that changes were taking place both inside and outside the building.

A mixed reception

The teachers in the new middle schools knew that one goal of the reorganization was to develop ways to show students connections among separate subjects through interdisciplinary units. This meant they would have one planning time for the team and one individual planning time. However, moving from a departmental organizational structure to an interdisciplinary structure affected more than the way the curriculum was to be delivered. Some administrators were reassigned to different buildings or levels, and the district offered staff development to assist teachers in making the transition to a middle school philosophy and program. Cadres of teacher-experts were formed to provide inservice professional development on effective instruction and cooperative learning. Although these instructional strategies should have been familiar to teachers of young adolescents, regardless of the organization of the school, leaders felt that moving to the middle school model provided an opportunity to stress the importance of active, engaged learning.

Teachers responded to the changes with differing attitudes. One teacher described how she felt about the impending changes when she heard about them during her first year teaching in the district, which was the final year for the junior high model.

I remember there was a boy named John failing my English class. I wrote notes to six teachers. It took me seven days to get responses back, and by that time, I had already figured out a different way to reach John. When I first heard that interdisciplinary teams would be meeting every day, having that communication system sounded great. …