Academic journal article Middle School Journal

Academic Teams Promote Cross-Curricular Applications That Improve Learning Outcomes

Academic journal article Middle School Journal

Academic Teams Promote Cross-Curricular Applications That Improve Learning Outcomes

Article excerpt

The middle school concept was conceived more than 40 years ago (Manning, 2000) to more appropriately focus on the developmental needs of young adolescents, both cognitive and affective. It achieved popularity in the 1970s and has experienced growth since. From 1971 to 2001, the number of grade 6-8 middle schools, the most common grade configuration for educating young adolescents, increased by more than 400% (Miles 8c Valentine, 2001). One of the identifying characteristics of exemplary middle grades programs is the organizational structure of interdisciplinary teaming (Kasak & Uskali, 2005; Manning, 2000; National Middle School Association, 1996), which is reportedly employed by the majority (somewhere between 50% and 80%) of the campuses identifying themselves as middle schools (Hackmann, Petzko, Valentine, Clark, Nori, & Lucas, 2002; Valentine & Whitaker, 1997). However, there is evidence that merely assembling teams of teachers representing the core academic areas is not sufficient to positively impact student achievement, because teachers must first learn how to function as a team and how to work collaboratively (Erb, 2000; Flowers, Mertens, & Mulhall, 2005).

Indeed, the literature on interdisciplinary teaming (Erb & Stevenson, 1999; Fauske & Schelble, 2002; Rottier, 2000; Thompson, 2000) as well as the experience of the authors indicates that teachers are often ill prepared to make substantive use of the teaming structure or interdisciplinary planning time. Principals have reported to the authors that when teachers actually meet, they mostly discuss discipline and management issues. This is consistent with research findings that as much as two-thirds of common planning time is allotted to issues other than collaborative instructional planning (Crow & Pounder, 2000; Fauske & Schelble, 2002). Even selfreports by team members indicate that only about 17% of their time is spent on planning interdisciplinary lessons (Conley, Fauske, & Pounder, 2004).

Several reasons may explain this inefficient use of team meeting time. First, interdisciplinary teaming is founded upon dual purposes: (a) to "build a sense of community," and (b) "to promote curriculum integration" (National Middle School Association, 1995, p. 29; 2003, p. 29). The extent to which teams are able to marry those purposes, rather than treat them as separate aims, is related to the second potential pitfall of teaming-the team's lack of vision (Arnold & Stevenson, 1998) or task clarity regarding what should be accomplished in their meetings (Conley, Fauske, & Pounder, 2004). To resolve these issues, ongoing, jobembedded professional development addressing the normative, interactive, and instructional processes of teaming is mandatory (Conley, Fauske, & Pounder, 2004; Erb, 2000; Rottier, 2000).


The middle school team project described here was part of a larger district initiative, started in 2001 by the Southwest Educational Development Laboratory (SEDL) to create a systemic model of school improvement for increasing student achievement in low-performing schools. Academic teams were established as the conduit for ensuring that the district planning and improvement efforts changed teacher practices. The focus of this article is the middle school team activities that occurred during the 2004-2005 school year, the final year for external facilitation and reform assessment. The authors were involved in two capacities: (a) as the external facilitators leading the cross-curricular academic teams and (b) external evaluators.

The middle school in which this study took place is located in an urban setting in a mid-sized district of roughly 20,000 students. The middle school has slightly fewer than 700 students, approximately 50% of whom are eligible for the free or reduced-price lunch program. The majority of students are white (67%), 15% are African American, 8% Hispanic, and 8% American Indian. …

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