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The middle grades have seen a number of organizational and philosophical changes since the late 19th century, when most schools were organized into eight years of elementary education and four years of secondary. In the last decade of the 1800s, it was proposed that early adolescents could begin mastering high school level material, and that elementary school end at grade 6, creating a six-year high school. In the first decades of the 20th Century, the secondary school was split again, usually into grades 7-9 and 10-12, though some two-year middle-level schools existed as well. Research on the physical, cognitive and emotional development of early adolescents, as well as the greater numbers of students leaving school in the middle grades to work, encouraged educators in the late 1950s and early 1960s to reconsider the rigid structure and environment imposed on students in grades 7-9 by junior high schools' need to offer 9th-grade courses in Carnegie units.

Thus was born the middle school philosophy, which proposes that instruction for early adolescents:

  • Present topics that are not confined within disciplinary lines, but that help students explore a broad spectrum of issues and interests across subject boundaries, and through a team-teaching approach when possible

  • Promote active, project-based learning

  • Encourage teacher-advisor plans

  • Offer flexible scheduling and ungraded programs

  • Be provided in a smaller, more personalized environment than that in high schools

  • Offer opportunities for interaction among students.
Some critics argue that the curriculum in many middle schools is superficial and unstimulating for students. They propose that middle schools must present "relevant" material while raising the bar for students, providing them with more challenging material in keeping with the high standards recently adopted in many states.

Both national organizations and states are addressing the identified weaknesses in middle grades education. The Southern Regional Education Board (SREB) has established a middle grades education initiative, Making Middle Grades Work, which consists of "a network of schools, districts and states committed to implementing 10 essential elements in a comprehensive improvement framework." The Middle Start Program, which began in Michigan in 1994, has spread to other states, and aims to provide schools with guidance in implementing instructional and curricular improvements and professional and leadership development, among other offerings. Maryland's Middle Learning Years Task Force and South Carolina's Middle Grades Task Force begun in 1998 and 1999, respectively, have been mandated to advise state decisionmakers on various elements of middle grades education, including instruction, leadership, teacher education and development and school climate.

Some states have approved high-stakes assessments for middle schoolers, which determine whether students may be promoted to the next grade. States also are considering the academic and professional development of middle grades teachers. At present, 33 states provide certification for middle grades teachers, with varying hours of language arts, math, science and other college coursework required. In the remaining states, teachers certified for either elementary or secondary levels may instruct in middle schools, and in practice, many middle grades educators in those states have elementary grade certification. In an effort to address perceived needs in middle grades teacher education and development, the Kentucky legislature approved a plan in 2000 for The Center for Middle School Academic Achievement, which provides staff development, technical support, networking opportunities and an information clearinghouse on middle grades best-practices research and achievement levels.

It is hoped that policymakers' renewed attention to the issue of middle schools will bring about strong student achievement and teacher and leadership excellence.

Sources: Kathleen Kennedy Manzo, "Middle School Educators Debate Meaning of 'Rigor,'" Education Week, November 14, 2001; "Middle Grades Education," Encyclopedia of Educational Research, Sixth Edition, MacMillan, 1992.


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