If Not You, Then Who?

By: Tom Burton


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 groups.

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 cheerleaders.

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

  • Developmentally responsive
  • Challenging
  • Empowering
  • Equitable.

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 techniques.

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 thrive.

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

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