Widespread consensus exists among researchers, educators, policymakers, and other stakeholders that the quality of teachers is one of the most salient school-related factors influencing student achievement (McCabe, 2004; Rice, 2003). There is also consensus among middle level educators that teachers of young adolescents need specialized professional preparation to be highly successful. Beginning in 1920 there have been calls for specialized professional preparation for middle level teachers in the literature (Alexander & McEwin, 1988; Briggs, 1920; Curtis, 1972; Eichhorn, 1966; Floyd, 1932; Koos, 1920; McEwin, Dickinson, Erb, & Scales, 1995; McEwin, Dickinson, & Smith, 2003, 2004; National Forum to Accelerate Middle Grades Reform, 2002; National Middle School Association, 2010; Swaim & Stefanich, 1996; Van Til, Vars, & Lounsbury, 1961).
Significant progress has been made in some states toward establishing specialized middle level teacher licensure regulations. The result has been the establishment of undergraduate and graduate degree programs that focus directly and exclusively on the professional preparation of teachers of 10- to 14-year-old students. Unfortunately however, significant numbers of teacher preparation institutions, state departments of education, licensure agencies, and others have chosen to ignore the need for these teachers and have promoted the widespread idea that when qualifications for teaching young adolescents are considered, the response is often "no specialized preparation needed." As a result of this inaction, many young adolescents continue to be taught by well-meaning teachers whose initial professional preparation and interests rest with teaching other developmental age groups, or who were interested in a middle level teaching career, but found that middle level teacher preparation programs were not available. Therefore, many teachers, at least initially, enter middle level classrooms without being sufficiently prepared to be successful in the challenging and rewarding responsibility of understanding and teaching young adolescents.
Essential Program Elements
Consensus exists not only about the importance of specialized professional preparation for middle level teachers, but also regarding the essential elements that should be included in such programs (Cooney, 2000; Jackson & Davis, 2000; McEwin, Dickinson & Smith 2003, 2004; National Forum to Accelerate Middle Grades Reform, 2002). These elements, as presented below, are representative of those most frequently identified as needed and essential for the successful professional preparation of prospective and practicing middle level teachers. These elements are based on current trends in the field, best practice of middle level teacher preparation, and the field's growing knowledge/research base as reflected in the Association for Middle Level Education Teacher Preparation Standards (AMLE/CAEP, 2012).
The program elements below are unique to middle level teacher preparation and do not address other important elements that are essential to all quality teacher preparation programs (e.g., diversity, technology). While the elements include a variety of traditional focuses (e.g., curriculum, instruction), they are set within a context of current and future concerns as well as the developmental realities of young adolescents, their schools, and their teachers.
Program Element 1: Young Adolescent Development
Successful middle level teachers, at their most fundamental level, must be experts in the development and needs of young adolescents. Prospective middle level teachers attain this expertise through formal study of young adolescent development and opportunities to work directly with young adolescent students while applying this knowledge in middle level field experiences. Practicing middle level teachers seeking advanced middle level education degrees develop a more comprehensive understanding of the age group as they analyze the major concepts, principles, theories, and research related to young adolescent development. The resulting comprehensive understanding of the developmental stage of early adolescence provides a substantial basis on which middle level teachers can create curriculum, utilize effective teaching strategies, and use assessment wisely and effectively. When individual teachers do not have a solid grounding in young adolescent development, middle level programs as a whole are severely limited.
Teacher candidates should study and observe all aspects of young adolescent development and integrate the knowledge gained into a usable whole by working in authentic situations with young adolescents. Middle level teachers should know how developmental realities play themselves out against a context of race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, family, and community.
Program Element 2: Middle Level Philosophy and Organization
Just as young adolescents are different from young children and older adolescents, middle level schools and programs are different from their counterparts at the elementary and high school levels. These differences frame the philosophical foundations of middle level education and the organizational structure that grows from and supports this philosophy. A comprehensive study of middle level philosophy and organization must be a primary element of prospective and practicing middle level teachers' preparation programs. A superficial exploration is insufficient. Middle level teacher preparation programs should be anchored within a context that supports and extends young adolescent development. A study of middle level philosophy and organization provides just such a mooring.
Study of middle level philosophy and organization typically includes, but is not limited to (a) the origins and development of the junior high and middle schools, (b) effective middle level school organizational features and practices, (c) middle level philosophy, (d) middle level trends and issues, and (e) other information that helps all teachers of young adolescents better understand the rationale for and context of middle level schooling (Jackson & Davis, 2000; McEwin, Dickinson & Smith, 2003, 2004).
Professional preparation programs for prospective and practicing middle level teachers should include opportunities for formal study of these essential elements as well as provide prospective teachers with opportunities to work in middle level schools that implement middle level philosophy and support it with distinct developmentally responsive middle level organizational structures. A template for such schools might be the Association for Middle Level Education (formerly National Middle School Association [NMSA]) position paper, This We Believe: Keys to Educating Young Adolescents (2010).
Working in these kinds of schools affords prospective middle level teachers valuable opportunities to experience school organizations that utilize: (a) teams, (b) advisories, (c) exploratories, (d) interest/mini courses, (e) intramurals, (f) flexible block schedules, (g) flexible grouping, and, (h) interdisciplinary and integrative curriculum. The emphasis of formal study of middle level philosophy and organization and site-based opportunities to work within these structures should be placed within a school organization for young adolescents where the creation of a personalized environment that supports and extends their learning and healthy development is the goal.
Element 3: Middle Level Curriculum
Ensuring that prospective and practicing middle level teachers possess a comprehensive understanding of middle level curriculum is a high priority in successful middle level teacher preparation programs. Study in this area typically includes an emphasis on middle level curriculum that is discipline specific, integrative, and interdisciplinary (NMSA, 2010).
Middle level degree candidates should learn about middle level curriculum through both formal study of curriculum and opportunities to work directly with the curriculum in middle level field settings. Emphasis areas in this study of middle level curriculum include, but are not limited to: (a) studying of past and present theorists of middle level curriculum; (b) learning about different curriculum designs, formats, and propositions; and, (c) examining a wide variety of curriculum documents at various levels–national, state, district, school, team, and classroom. Study of middle level curriculum should include field experiences that provide on-site opportunities for developing curriculum both as individuals and as members of interdisciplinary teams.
Middle level teacher preparation should focus on how different parts of the total school curriculum support and extend young adolescent learning. To accomplish this, opportunities should be included that place an emphasis on the common core curriculum, which provides a general education for students. Other aspects of middle level curriculum should also be addressed, for example, the advisory and exploratory areas.
Element 4: Subject Matter Knowledge
It is crucial that middle level teachers have a thorough knowledge of the subject areas they teach. At the undergraduate level, middle level teacher preparation programs should require preparation in two academic areas, for example mathematics and science. Having content knowledge in two subject areas provides a solid academic foundation for effective middle level teaching and promotes an understanding of the connections and interrelationships among subject areas taught at the middle level. The rationale for study in two teaching fields includes: (a) teachers that teach on teams are knowledgeable in two disciplines, making the desired integration of subject areas more likely and effective; and, (b) teachers are licensed to teach in two content areas which provides flexibility in employment whether or not the teachers teach on teams (McEwin, Dickinson, & Smith, 2003, 2004).
Subject matter knowledge preparation for middle level teachers should be broad and integrative. Prospective and practicing middle level teachers should have a thorough academic underpinning of content, content pedagogy, and the connections and interrelationships among the subject matter fields (disciplines) and other areas of knowledge. Content knowledge in broad teaching fields more accurately reflects the nature of middle level curriculum (e.g., science rather than just biology or physics). Even when prospective and practicing middle level teachers are working or studying in a single subject discipline, the knowledge, skills, and dispositions they learn should prepare them to make interdisciplinary connections in their teaching.
Teacher candidates should operationalize their learning by working in interdisciplinary teams as they teach young adolescents. It is essential that prospective middle level teachers demonstrate their abilities to teach in their own disciplines as individual subjects as well as create and teach interdisciplinary and integrative lessons and units that incorporate their knowledge of broad fields.
Element 5: Middle Level Planning, Teaching, and Assessment
Effective middle level teacher preparation programs place a strong focus on ensuring that prospective and practicing middle level teachers learn to plan, teach, and assess student work effectively based on content knowledge and a comprehensive understanding of young adolescent development. Major emphasis should be placed on learning a wide variety of teaching strategies and demonstration of the ability to apply these strategies effectively in middle level classroom settings.
There should also be a strong emphasis on short and long-term planning techniques that middle level teachers employ in daily lessons, interdisciplinary units, and in other teaching contexts. Emphasis should be placed on constructing and employing assessment techniques ranging from traditional testing to authentic assessments, portfolios, exhibitions, and open-ended problems. Teacher candidates should be able to analyze student assessment data to inform subsequent planning, teaching, and assessment. The role and effective use of technology as a form of planning, instruction, and assessment should also be emphasized.
Element 6: Middle Level Field Experiences
Effective middle level teacher preparation programs place a high priority on providing and requiring early and continuing middle level field experiences for prospective middle level teachers. The priority given these middle level clinical experiences reflects the views of practicing teachers about the essential components of professional preparation programs (Wilson, Floden, & Ferrini-Mundy, 2001).
Middle level field experiences provide a context for learning about young adolescents, their schools, and the most effective ways to teach them. These field experiences provide prospective middle level teachers contact with diverse learners, expands and enriches their developmental knowledge, helps them better understand the purposes and organization of middle level schools and programs, and provides them with many opportunities to learn to be more effective teachers through the experiences they encounter.
Early and continuing middle level field experiences provide a developmental sequence for teacher candidates. This sequence should follow a pattern of increasing complexity and involvement, culminating in an extended field experience where prospective middle level teachers are functioning as site-based teachers responsible for groups of young adolescents. An additional valuable aspect of middle level field work experiences is that it allows multiple mentors, coaches, and teachers to work with prospective middle level teachers while reflecting and evaluating on their professional development.
The Importance of Collaboration
Successful middle level teacher preparation programs place a high premium on teaching prospective and practicing middle level teachers about the importance of collaboration with colleagues and other stakeholders. One of the unique characteristics of middle level schools for teachers is the heavy emphasis on collaboration. This emphasis is on the day-to-day aspects of teaching with colleagues as well as external constituencies of families and community members. This focus on collaboration should flow from the philosophy and organization of the school where all of the school's resources are mobilized to support young adolescents and their development. By collaborating with internal and external audiences, teachers are not operating in isolation. This permits insights and understandings about young adolescent students to be shared with others and therefore maximized.
Middle level teachers must be competent in successfully collaborating with multiple audiences to further the education of young adolescents – colleagues, families, and communities. Therefore, a major focus of middle level teacher preparation programs should be providing opportunities for teacher candidates to experience collaboration so they will come to realize that they will not work as isolated individuals but will work in conjunction with colleagues, families, and communities. They should come to understand and appreciate the fact that they exist within a complex web of relationships with responsibilities and obligations, and yet with support and resources from others.
The movement toward collaboration in teacher preparation with school-based faculty is a relatively new phenomenon and is a movement against the historical tide of separation of teacher preparation program from school sites. Middle schools generally preceded the establishment of specialized middle level teacher preparation programs and without the involvement of teacher educators. To further complicate matters, when middle level teacher preparation programs have developed, they have often done so without developmentally responsive middle level school sites available as clinician settings. For these and related reasons, to a large extent, middle schools and middle level teacher preparation have developed on similar parallel tracks, each fighting for recognition and legitimacy, but relatively uninvolved with each other.
To reverse this pattern, collaborative partnerships which move in two simultaneous directions are essential. First, the collaboration with middle school faculty (school site based teacher educators) and university-based middle level teacher educators should integrate both faculties in planning, implementation, direct teaching, assessment, and continuing oversight of the program. Frequently, collaborative efforts among university educators and middle level practitioners occur through the establishment of professional development schools. This type of arrangement helps guarantee that prospective middle level teachers learn about the ongoing work and responsibilities of middle level teachers. Multiple opportunities in these professional development schools are also provided for authentic teaching performances with appropriate audiences.
Middle Level Teacher Licensure/Certification
A close relationship exists between the type of licensure (certification) available and required and the number of teacher preparation institutions that offer special middle level teacher preparation programs. Mandatory middle level teacher licensure leads to the development, implementation, and continuation of specialized middle level teacher preparation programs.
A major reason specialized middle level teacher preparation programs are not universally available in the nation lies in the failure of many states to design and implement licensure regulations which promote the specialized knowledge, dispositions, and performances needed to successfully teach young adolescents. As well, many states with specialized middle level licensure have plans with widely overlapping grade levels (e.g., grades K-8, 5-8, 7-12). The result of such plans is that most prospective teachers select options with the widest range of job possibilities (e.g., K-8, 6-12) instead of choosing to focus on specialized preparation for a single developmental age group (e.g., young adolescents in grades 5-8).
As a result of this situation, in some states, virtually anyone with any kind of degree or licensure is permitted to teach young adolescents. This malpractice reflects directly on the responsibilities of teacher licensure/certification agencies and professional practice boards that fail to fulfill their primary function of protecting the public – in this case young adolescents. Middle level teacher licensure regulations should require that middle level teachers receive the specialized knowledge, skills, and dispositions necessary to be highly effective even in their first years of teaching. The failure in some states to create mandatory middle level teacher licensure has resulted in the majority of middle level teachers being inadequately prepared to teach young adolescents when they begin their careers (McEwin, Dickinson, & Smith, 2003; McEwin, Dickinson & Anfara, 2005).
A positive development is that increasing numbers of states have taken steps to ensure that middle level teachers graduate from programs that focus directly and exclusively on the specialized knowledge, skills, and dispositions needed to teach young adolescents effectively. These states have established middle level teacher licensure regulations that require middle level teachers to hold middle level licensure. Additionally, more than a dozen states have now voluntarily adopted or adapted the AMLE/CAEP-Approved Middle Level Teacher Preparation Standards (2012) as state standards tied directly to licensure regulations. As a result, some states, like Arkansas, Ohio and North Carolina, have successful middle level teacher licensure systems which have resulted in virtually all private and public higher education institutions that prepare teachers offering specialized middle level teacher preparation programs.
The Association for Middle Level Education strongly supports the specialized professional preparation of middle level teachers both at the preservice and graduate levels. This support is based on the understanding that one of the most effective ways of improving the learning of young adolescents is improving the professional preparation of those who teach them.
Mandatory middle level teacher licensure (e.g., grades 5-8) that does not overlap with the elementary or senior high school grades is also strongly supported. Quality middle level teacher preparation programs are unlikely to be established or maintained in states where no middle level license is required, or even available, for those who successfully complete professional preparation programs. Only when middle level licensure becomes universally required will young adolescents be assured of having teachers who have received the specialized preparation needed to be highly effective.
A Call to Action
The Association for Middle Level Education urges middle level educators and others who are responsible for the education and welfare of young adolescents to take the actions needed to help assure that all young adolescents will be taught by teachers who have acquired the specialized knowledge, skills, and dispositions to teach them effectively. The following list provides some selected recommendations about actions that can be taken:
- Support the specialized, mandatory, non-overlapping licensure of middle level teachers.
- Provide leadership in state and national professional organizations in efforts to promote special middle level teacher preparation programs and distinct middle level teacher licensure.
- Support existing specialized middle level teacher preparation programs and help create them where they have not been established.
- Seek out collaborative relationships with representatives from teacher preparation faculties to become authentic partners in the preparation of future generations of middle level teachers (e.g., serve on advisory boards, become a professional development middle school, teach school-based classes and seminars).
- Encourage state licensure agencies and professional practice boards to adopt the AMLE/CAEP-Approved Middle Level Teacher Preparation Standards as state standards and teacher licensure regulations.
- Encourage middle level teacher preparation programs to use the AMLE/CAEP-Approved Middle Level Teacher Preparation Standards as program standards.
- Encourage teacher preparation units to become accredited by the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education and to participate in the national program review process.
- Initiate widespread efforts to help educators, policy board members, politicians, and other stakeholders understand the nature of specialized middle level teacher preparation and how it benefits young adolescents enrolled in the middle grades.
- Encourage school districts to give priority to employing middle level teachers that have successfully completed specialized middle level teacher preparation programs.
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Article updated in February 2015. Original article published online in 2006.