US Department of Education Says “Middle Grades Matter!”

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Despite all of the research,  it often still feels that state departments of education, university departments of education, school districts, and professional groups ignore the unique needs of young adolescents. Middle grades educators continually must make the case that …

  • staff members need to be experts not only in their discipline but also in the effective strategies for teaching young adolescents
  • high academic achievement only comes when the needs of the whole child are addressed
  • students need choices
  • an effective advisory program provides all sorts of social, emotional, and academic support for students during their developmental process of maturing
  • effective teaming practices must be supported with time and resources

If you are engaged in one of these endless battles, you can actually turn to the U.S. Department of Education for support.  Here are two specific resources:

1. A blog post on Ed.gov.Blog written by U.S. Department of Education Teaching Ambassador Fellows entitled Middle Grades Matter. The authors make the following points:

  • Middle grades’students need a variety of choices in their classes, their programming, and their activities
  • The middle grades experience needs to be one that focuses on the whole child.
  • Middle grades schools need time in the day and access to caring adults for teachers and students to build relationships, for teacher collaboration, and for planning interdisciplinary curriculum.
  • Middle level education must recruit and retain highly effective middle level educators.

2. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan made it very clear in his address to the NMSA/AMLE Annual Conference in Louisville that the middle grades are extremely important.  His entire speech can be read at http://www.ed.gov/news/speeches/new-consensus-middle-grades-reform.

His speech certainly has political overtones, and he does not back away from standardized testing.  However, it is obvious that he recognizes the connections between the social-emotional life of young adolescents and their potential for academic achievement. Here are several quotes that capture the essence of this part of his message.

  • it is troubling to me that AMLE’s new survey of middle schools finds that almost half of middle schools in the nation do not have advisory programs. Early adolescents desperately need adult advocates and mentors in their schools—or too many children are going to fall through the cracks.
  • I don’t believe that middle grade school leaders and reformers have devoted enough of their attention to minimizing crime and bullying—and maximizing students’ sense of safety.
  • Great teachers strive to help every student unlock his or her potential and develop the habits of mind that will serve them for a lifetime. They believe that every student has a gift—even when those students sometimes doubt themselves.

It will be very interesting to watch the messages that come from our own State Department of Education here in Maine. Commissioner Stephen Bowen is a former middle school social studies teacher. In his remarks at MAMLE’s Annual Conference it was clear that he felt exemplary middle level practices were a good model for all schools. One of the key attributes of middle level education is its flexibility and responsiveness to student needs.  Commissioner Bowen will push our thinking on teaching and learning in middle schools during this second decade of the 21st century (grading, grade levels, the use of technology, what does it mean “to learn”, etc.),  but he will not push us toward mimicking the high school model of the 1900’s or ignoring the unique needs of our students.

Middle grades education will continue to evolve, as it should. It’s just nice to see that “folks in high places” are stating that there is a social-emotional connection to learning, that relationships are critical, that students need choices and to be active in their learning, and people who understand young adolescent development should staff our middle grades schools.

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