Reform Agendas in Middle Level Education: Reframing Grading and Educational Pathways for Post-Secondary Education

This article is part of AMLE’s showcase of work by aspiring middle grades educators. We welcome college and university student perspectives, and encourage those in teacher preparation programs to submit articles to Learn more about AMLE’s Collegiate Middle Level Association and other opportunities for students.

As we emerge from the pandemic, education reform is a topic of conversation across the country. What does this mean for new and future educators? What reforms can we be an active part in implementing as early career teachers?

How we reframe education pathways for post-secondary education, and the perceptions of those pathways, is a key item on the reform agenda in middle-level education in the United States. In particular, pathway reforms increasingly include discussion of how to introduce career exploration into the middle grades. As one example, the Lessons in Adolescence podcast recently featured Julie Lammers and Dr. Rahul Choudaha as guests to explain why incorporating career exploration into middle level education is so essential. The middle grades are a time when students are finding their identities, so it’s developmentally appropriate for them to start exploring their options.  This would then allow students to have a better idea of their interests and what they might want to do later in life.

In the podcast, part of the discussion centered around changing perspectives on options other than college.  Right now, anything other than a four-year degree is seen as an alternative.  Alternative makes the other options seem “less than.”  The reform is in trying to change society’s perspective and reduce the pressure and expectations put on students to only consider attending a four-year college or university.  There are a variety of ways for students to fulfill their educational pathway and have meaningful careers, but those other than a four-year degree are still perceived as riskier by society.  This reform is working on reframing our mindsets about the many different post-secondary educational pathways, which starts with changing the narrative and incorporating career exploration into the middle grades.

As a future educator, this was revelatory for me as I think more about how to offer low-pressure opportunities for my students to explore future options while not pushing them towards a four-year degree or talk about it being the best option.  As an educator, I should encourage students to explore different options and support them in doing that. I also realized that I should add ways for students to explore different career pathways in my classroom.

Another current reform agenda in middle-level education is changing how teachers grade their students. In the article Defining Grades: A Middle School’s Approach to Grading Reform, Chris Bennet talked about how he got a team together to reimagine their school’s grading system.  The group realized that they were not only grading for mastery, but also for behaviors, such as participation, signed materials from parents, etc.  This reform wants to grade mastery, while still sending home a “soft skills” report card so parents know how their students are doing with things like collaboration, work habits, homework, etc.  This reform effort feels particularly important for me as a teacher as I think and reflect on my own grading philosophy.  Am I grading my students based on mastery, or instead does my grading reflect behavioral skills?  This information will allow me to create a classroom that is equitable for all students.  Grading behaviors is not equitable.  For example, grading whether the student brought in a signed form is not equitable because some students may not have parents at home to sign it.

While there are current reforms happening at the middle level right now, there were also historical reforms that are important to be aware of as early career educators.  One historical reform was the creation of the middle school model.  As mentioned in the AMLE Research Summary, Middle Grades Teacher Education for Equity and Social Justice, by Kristie W. Smith, Ph.D., and Kristina N. Falbe, Ph.D., middle schools were created in the 1960s.  This reform was in response to failures in the junior high school model and political tension.  It wasn’t until the 1970s that a second historical reform occurred.  This reform was about providing teachers with training specific to implementation of the middle school model.  Society wanted middle school students to receive a specialized education, so they were going to need teachers who could deliver it.  As mentioned in the article, they knew that “if we are going to have education for young adolescents that is responsive, challenging, equitable, and engaging, we need teachers who are specially prepared to create this model.”

Knowing these historical reforms is important because it shows me what middle school is supposed to be.  It gives me ideas to strive towards so that I can create educational environments for my students that are challenging, equitable, responsive, and engaging.

Tia Bechard is a student at the University of Wisconsin – La Crosse and the co-president of its CMLA chapter.