As I become energized for the new school year, I find
myself evaluating middle level practices in our district
and across our state. And, although I have read AMLE’s
groundbreaking publication This We Believe many times, I
review it again, as I do before every new school year. This
re-read keeps the most important concepts for middle level
students fresh in my mind.
This year, my re-reading of This We Believe and my
evaluation of what’s going on in middle level education
locally and nationally is colored by the country’s economic
climate, which puts financial strains on education in general
and middle schools specifically. I am a firm believer in the
importance of strong middle level practices, and wonder
if we, as middle level educators, are advocating strongly
enough to keep best practices in our schools.
As educators, we need to be a strong voice to protect
quality instruction in the face of pressure from outside
There are countless examples of legislators and
community leaders trying to dictate what we do. Unfunded
mandates like NCLB and IDEIA, and poorly conceived
high-stakes tests are two good examples of the dangers of
ceding control to political forces.
It is time we band together and become a strong
positive voice for middle grades education. If we fail to
do so, middle level practices that are critical to the healthy
development of young adolescents will fade into oblivion.
Ultimately, we will fall prey to the junior high mentality we
have worked so hard to overcome and lose what is truly
best for our students.
To continue to serve our students well, we must publicize
our successes not only in our district, but in state and
national publications as well. We need to become our own
Defending Middle Grades Practices
Fallout of slashed budgets includes the financially
motivated decision to move the middle grades into
elementary or high school buildings. In these cases, middle
level practices may be lost in the shuffle.
We must be strong advocates of maintaining the
philosophy and best practices of middle level education for
young adolescents even if the configuration of the building
changes. Middle school is not about grade configuration; it’s
about ensuring young people have access to programs that,
according to This We Believe, are
Practices that are critical in a successful middle
school should not disappear if our schools change. The
new organizational structure may not provide shared
planning time or interdisciplinary units, so teachers and
administrators must find a way to make them happen.
If economic realities make best practices such as shared
planning time things of the past, we still have an ethical
obligation to do what is best for our students.
Teaching the Whole Child
Equally disturbing is the tendency—especially during hard
economic times—to eliminate any programs that are not
associated with mandated testing areas. Again, it is our duty
to advocate for the best interests of our students. Young
adolescents need the opportunity to develop their talents
and experiment with subjects like art and music. They must
develop healthy habits through physical education, health,
and family and consumer science. There is much research to
support the importance of these subjects, but they are cast
aside far too easily.
Although core academic areas will always be the focus
of high-stakes testing, we must ensure a place for the arts,
even if legislators largely ignore the student outcomes
associated with them. As strong advocates, we can remind
people outside the education fraternity that it is impossible
to measure everything on standardized tests. In fact, the
increased emphasis on testing can deprive students of a
high quality, well-rounded education. It also goes against
what we know about learning styles and brain behavior.
Common assessments have become a particularly good
way to obtain data about student achievement. However,
the data mined from common assessments sometimes
paints an inaccurate portrait. We must keep the whole
child in mind at all times, differentiating instruction and
assessment as much as possible.
Similarly, we must ensure the elements of 21st century
learning have a place in our education system. Our world
is ever-changing and our students must understand and
be prepared for the uniqueness of their future. Our parents
may have been able to learn the basics in all academic areas
that prepared them for success in life, but our students need
to be prepared for so much more.
Therefore, we must advocate for the 21st century skills
outlined by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, such
as creativity and innovation, critical thinking and problem
solving, communication and collaboration, information
literacy, media literacy, information and communication
technology literacy, and life and career skills.
Step Up Now
No matter what role you have in educating our nation’s
youth, remember your ethical obligation to do what is best
for them. If you are a teacher who is hampered by pacing
guides, common assessments, or lack of emphasis on 21st
century skills, remember what makes your students tick.
Students need to be active, purposeful learners; they need a
challenging, relevant curriculum. Teachers need to address
multiple learning styles and use a variety of assessment
If you are a school administrator, remember that young
adolescents are at fragile points in their lives. Allow teachers
time to work with the whole child. Fight to protect true
middle grades schools and the practices that make them
We have worked hard to help others understand
the distinction and uniqueness of working with young
adolescents. Do not be shy about trumpeting your
successes in middle level buildings. People in your
community need to know the importance of middle grades
education, as do your own district personnel.
As educators, we face many challenges every day as we
work with students. If we continue to work hard and share
our stories of success, we can make a difference in the lives
of young adolescents. But we need to be willing to change.
The time has come to be more aggressive in our advocacy
for middle level education.
We can wait no longer. In the absence of action, others
will continue to push their own agendas. Be your own
advocate. After all, if not you, then who?
Tom Burton is director of administrative services for Cuyahoga Heights Schools in Ohio. E-mail: Tburton@cuyhts.k12.oh.us