Middle Grades Teacher Education for Equity and Social Justice

by Kristie W. Smith, Ph.D and Kristina N. Falbe, Ph.D.

Effective teacher preparation for middle grades educators has complexity and shape-shifting characteristics. With a backdrop of the 21st century, there are a variety of qualities that characterize the setting and realities of teacher practices (Darling-Hammond, 2006), and thus the needs and values of teacher education. Among these realities are “technolog[ies]…the increasing complexity of learning and teaching in diverse classrooms, the growing societal expectations of raising students’ achievements, and the need for tailoring and implementing innovative teaching practices” (Kowalczuk-Walędziak et al., 2019, p. 15).

Despite the inherent complexities, the work and values of teacher education, in general, “remain necessary and worthwhile” (Hansen, 2008, Chapter 2, p. 12), and middle grades teacher educators, specifically, continue to carry a responsibility toward the implementation of pedagogies and practices that meet the unique needs of young adolescents (Lounsbury, 1991), to include socially just pedagogical practices and equity-centered curricula to prepare middle grades teachers (Brinegar et al., 2019).

Connections to The Successful Middle School: This We Believe
In the realm of middle grades teacher education, there is a range of values, dispositions, practices, and mindsets that are important to develop through teacher preparation and to sustain through teacher education toward the advancement of successful middle school cultures and communities (Bishop & Harrison, 2021). In The Successful Middle School: This We Believe (2021), Bishop and Harrison outlined the qualities and characteristics that are foundational to middle school functioning and environments. In doing so, Bishop and Harrison (2021) highlighted implications about the qualities and characteristics that define middle grades teacher education. Among the ideas that Bishop and Harrison (2021) presented about successful middle schools and middle school educator practices are the following:

  • “Successful middle schools are responsive…and are designed specifically to support the developmental needs and social identities of students” (p.3).
  • “[Educators and administrators] are critically conscious of the fact that students’ multiple and intersecting identities influence their experience, opportunities, and perspectives. Therefore, their practices and policies are just and equitable” (p. 3).
  • “The school environment is welcoming, inclusive, and affirming for all” (p. 9).
  • “Middle Grades educators who value young adolescents acknowledge these multiple and intersecting identities and seek to cultivate relationships, design curriculum, and establish learning environments that support, affirm, and honor youth holistically” (p. 11).
  • Effective middle school educators not only “realize their own behaviors send influential messages to young adolescents to emulate,” (p. 12), but they also “model inclusive, democratic, anti-oppressive…approaches to teaching and learning” (p. 12).
  • “An inclusive school climate is established through implementing intentional and thoughtful practices. For example, educators work to foster interethnic friendships as such relationships help to reduce racial prejudices and improve social, emotional, and cultural competencies” (p. 14).
  • “To build affirming and inclusive middle schools requires educators to examine their own biases. Even the most well-intentioned educators have implicit biases that influence their own teaching practices” (p. 14)

Given these descriptors, it is important that middle grades teacher education curricula provide learning opportunities that match and embody these qualities toward the goal of developing teachers who are able to fulfill these principles for success.

In a discussion of the needs within 21st century teacher education, Darling-Hammond (2006) noted, “schools of education must design programs that help prospective teachers to understand deeply a wide array of things about learning, social and cultural contexts, and teaching and be able to enact these understandings in complex classrooms serving increasingly diverse students…” (p. 3). About middle grades teacher education, in particular, Williams (2019) noted, “we know that teacher candidates will not be able to support young adolescents from diverse backgrounds if they do not first engage in experiences that mirror the kind of teaching we hope they will offer teachers” (p. 290). Thus, teacher education work for the middle grades carries responsibilities to provide diverse curricula, equity-centered learning, and socially just pedagogical frameworks (Brinegar, et al., 2019).

Operational Definitions of Essential Concepts and Terminology Teacher Education
For the purposes of this research summary, teacher education is defined as the formal preparation of teachers for the vocation. Programs of teacher education are usually university-based, and provide foundational and content knowledge integrated with clinical experiences to prepare teachers for practice. Teacher education programs also serve to shape and define teacher identities, pedagogies, and practitioner beliefs, although program curricula and defined purposes vary (Labaree, 2008; Hansen, 2008).

Educational Equity
Within this summary, references to equity are education-centered. In the context of education, equity eliminates “… predictability of success or failure that correlates with any social or cultural factor—A child’s educational experiences or outcomes are not predictable because of their race, ethnicity, linguistic background, economic class, religion, gender, or any other socio-political identity marker” (Aguilar, 2020, p.6). Fairness and impartiality characterize the equitable educational setting, eliminating layers of bias (Gorski, 2017), and there are direct correlations to social justice.

Social Justice
The term social justice has a range of definitions and contextual meanings (Cochran-Smith, 2003). For the purposes of this summary, the use of the term social justice references “theories of equality, participation, and recognition” (Grant & Agosto, 2008) and the work of countering injustices. The references to social justice in this summary have an educational setting and are connected to teacher education curricula and pedagogies. Within this realm, social justice often references societal norms of inclusion and impartiality, and it has a place within the development of teacher mindsets and dispositions (Ladson-Billings, 1995; Grant & Agosto, 2008).

Pedagogies for social justice are sometimes integrated components or competencies within programs of teacher education. As Hansen (2008) noted, “among the prominent values influencing the scope and structure of teacher education programs today are preparation for work and life, academic learning, human development, and social justice, with the latter cast in some cases as respect for cultural diversity or multicultural education, and others as civic or democratic education” (p. 12). Thus, there are a variety of forms that social justice in the context of teacher education might take.

A Historical Summary of Middle Grades Teacher Education
The history of middle level teacher education is entwined in the progressive (grass)roots of the middle school movement (Andrews et al. 2018; Demink-Carthew, 2018). Since its inception, the middle school movement has at its core, idealized a democratic education that could serve as a catalyst for societal change (Andrews et al., 2018; Beane, 1997; Beane, 1998; Demink-Carthew, 2018). While calls for specialized education for young adolescents can be traced back to the 1890’s (National Education Association, 1899), the middle school concept as we know it today started burgeoning in the United States in the 1960’s. Responding to political tensions, mass academic failure in junior high schools, and calls for progressive practices, the middle school was born (Ellerbrock et al., 2018; Lounsbury, 2013). Schaefer et al. (2016), unfolded the middle level timeline through a content analysis of middle level publications between the years of 1962-2015. In this analysis the authors identified the themes that showed up in the literature, and used them to tell the chronological evolution of the movement (See Shaefer et al., 2016 Table 1 for the complete timeline).

In this historical analysis, Shaefer et al. (2016) pointed to the mid to late 1970’s as the years when teacher education became more a part of the professional discourse. As the movement grew and middle schools became a more prominent schooling structure across the nation, a greater focus on teacher preparation that mimicked the middle school model (Applegate, 1977; George, 1973), as well a focus on developmental responsiveness can be found in the research and literature (Shaefer et al., 2016). It stands to reason that if we are going to have education for young adolescents that is responsive, challenging, empowering, equitable, and engaging (Bishop & Harrison, 2021), we need to have teachers who are specially prepared to create this model (Cook et al., 2016). This call for specialized teacher education is supported by virtually every seminal piece in middle level canon (Bishop & Harrison, 2021; Eichhorn, 1966; Jackson & Davis, 2000; National Forum to Accelerate Middle Grades Reform, 2014; National Middle School Association, 2010).

Even with the continued calls and support, there did not seem to emerge one signature pedagogy (Previts et al., 2013) in middle level teacher education that covers the curriculum, practices, and clinical experiences of middle level teacher candidates. Howell et al. (2013), proposed a framework for effective middle level practices. The framework included eight components that, according to the authors, when used comprehensively could encompass the needs of middle level teacher candidates across the country (despite different credential requirements in each state) (Faulkner et al., 2013). These eight components include the following:

  • developmental spectrum
  • dispositions and professional behaviors
  • organizational structures
  • relationships
  • content knowledge
  • classroom management
  • assessment
  • curriculum and instruction (Howell et al, 2013; Faulkner et al, 2013).

Middle level scholars have sought to examine the state of teacher education across the country (Alexander & McEwin, 1982; Anfara & Schmid, 2007; Cook et al., 2016; Faulkner et al., 2013; Howell et al., 2013; Howell et al., 2016; Jackson & Davis, 2000; McEwin & Dickenson, 1996; McEwin et al., 2004) as well as across the globe (deJong & Chadbourne, 2005; deJong & Chadborne, 2007; Hudson et al., 2010; Shanks & Dowden, 2015). A 2015 content analysis (Brinegar, 2015) of major middle level publications recognized that researchers are examining teacher education; work on this topic makes up 11% of those articles published in major middle level outlets between the years of 2000-2013. Since that time though, there continue to be calls for more widespread empirical research on teacher education. In 2016 scholars from around the globe worked together to develop the MLER SIG research agenda which echoed early cries for more widespread, systematic research in the middle level (Mertens et al., 2016). In addition, a global study of middle grades teacher education is underway (Ellerbrock et al. 2020); this project proposes a multi-phase, international comparative study of teacher education in the middle level around the globe.

A Summary of Other Relevant Research
Middle Grades Teacher Education and Equity
In a review of the research and literature around middle grades teacher education and equity, there is a clear acknowledgement of the necessity of the work (Andrews et al, 2018; Bishop & Harrison, 2020; Brinegar et al, 2019; Harrison et al., 2021). There is also literature to analyze the extant research, uncovering topics that have been explored and those which have been left unexplored (Brinegar, 2015; Mills & Ballantyne, 2016). And, there is research that considers teacher educator practices toward dispositions and curriculum/assessment linked to equity-oriented mindsets (Andrews et al, 2018; Thornton, 2013).

Additionally, on this topic, there is a body of literature on in-service middle grades teacher education with an equity lens. In many cases, this work is set within single middle schools and/or across a sampling of middle schools and/or teachers. For example, Williams (2018) conducted a study of in-service middle level African-American teachers with a focus on “culturally relevant caring.” The findings of this study “illuminated how culturally responsive caring can and should be foundational to successful teaching” (p. 2). This study uncovered opportunities for culturally appropriate approaches to teaching and to teacher: student relationships in the middle grades. Shmurak and Ratliff (1994; 2006) studied Gender Equity and Gender Bias in the Middle School Classroom. In this study, researchers examined incidences of gender bias in the middle school classroom, looking for trends and predictive factors (Shmurak & Ratliff, 2006).

Further, in the literature, there are considerations of middle school attributes that support equitable mindsets and practices. For example, Parke et al. (2017) examined the characteristics of Pennsylvania’s Schools to Watch, focusing on social equity and developmental responsiveness. In this work, Parke et al. (2017) considered how schools fulfilled those characteristics as set forth by Schools to Watch.

It is important to note that while there exists research that examines teacher education and equity, in terms of representation within the larger body of middle grades studies, this area of research remains a greatly underexplored.

Middle Grades Teacher Education and Pedagogies and Practices for Social Justice
In a review and summary of the literature around teacher education and pedagogies and practices for social justice, there are voices that call out, not only the value and necessity in teacher education competencies that are socially just through cultural responsiveness to student needs (Gay, 2000; Ladson-Billings, 2005), but also the need for these practices and mindsets to be foundational in middle level programs of teacher education (Andrews, et al., 2018; Bishop & Harrison, 2021; Brinegar et al., 2018).

Andrews et al. (2018) examined their work “reconceptualizing a middle grades teacher education program at a comprehensive, research-intensive public university in the southeast” (p. 4) with a specialized focus “on critical orientations to equity, diversity, and social justice” (p. 4) with teacher candidates. In this study, Andrews et al.(2018) discussed the deficiencies in the body of empirical research in this area. Similarly, Brinegar (2015) conducted a content analysis of peer-reviewed publications and found only a 10% representation around topics of diversity to include “equity, discrimination, international comparisons [and] social justice” (p. 4).

Brinegar et al. (2018) highlighted the need for middle grades educators to examine their pedagogies and practices toward equitable and socially just outcomes for student learners. In this discussion, Brinegar et al. (2018) noted that for teachers, “becoming a culturally sustaining or equity literate educator is an ongoing, transformative process…” (p. 2).

Similarly, in the recent literature around middle grades teacher education with frameworks for social justice, DeMink-Carthew (2018) discussed “preparing social justice educators in [the] classroom.” In doing so, she noted the use of the “Six Elements of Social Justice Curriculum Design: (a) self-love and knowledge, (b) respect for others, (c) issues of social injustice, (d) social movements and social change, (e) awareness raising, and (f) social action” (Picower, 2012, p. 25), connecting this social justice teacher education frame to best practices in middle grades curriculum and instruction, to include developmental responsiveness to the positions and needs of middle level students.

Despite the literature that currently exists in the realm of middle grades teacher education for equity and social justice, there is yet greatly unexplored content. Mills and Ballantyne (2016) found that while there is a body of qualitative, “non-generalizable” work in teacher education and social justice, “a great deal of published work in the area of teacher education and social justice presents reflections on and/or suggestions for practice, rather than empirical research” (p. 263). This finding supports the need for continued researcher focus on the topic.

Also, while the following pedagogies are not explicitly crafted for the middle grades, they have a broad application and provide foundational principles for socially just classroom cultures.

  • Reality Pedagogy. According to Emdin (2019), reality pedagogy “is an approach to teaching that responds to the realities of students’ and teachers’ experiences, and constructs a framework that responds to it”. Emdin noted the tools for reality pedagogy are: “co-generative dialogues, co-teaching, cosmopolitanism, context, content, competition, and curation” (p. 88).
  • Abolitionist Teaching. Love (2019) noted “pedagogy, regardless of its name, is useless without teachers dedicated to challenging systemic oppression with intersectional social justice” (p. 19). These words also act as a way to describe the work and spirit of abolitionist teaching, which functions to free students and teachers of a range of oppressive learning conditions, mindsets, and instructional stereotypes. According to Love (2019), “Abolitionist teaching is not a teaching approach: It is a way of life, a way of seeing the world, and a way of taking action against injustice. It seeks to resist, agitate, and tear down the educational survival complex…” (p.89).

In some cases, one or both of these pedagogical lenses have been discussed as appropriate and developmentally adaptable for programs of middle level teacher education (Brinegar et al., 2018).

Promising Practices for Middle Grades Education and Teacher Education
Despite areas that remain unexplored, examples and frameworks for promising practices have emerged in the realm of middle grades education and middle grades teacher education for equity and social justice. Amplifying a need in this area, Brinegar et al. (2019) discussed the urgent demand to intentionally care for students whose identities are traditionally silenced in the middle school setting. About this they noted, “we have a responsibility as middle grades educators to acknowledge and own the debt by honoring young adolescents with marginalized identities who persist despite it and critically examining our role in creating and maintaining it” (p. 336). This argument extends to pedagogies, as Brinegar et al. (2019) further highlighted asset-based practices and the celebration of counternarratives as possible pedagogical approaches and frames to facilitate more equitable outcomes. Similarly, Yoon and Uliassi (2019) discussed asset-based practices paired with a support for the development of critical consciousness to engage English Language Learners. Also, pedagogical approaches connected to Critical Race Theory and those that incorporate culturally responsive instructional practices have the potential to help teachers craft more equitable learning experiences for the middle grades classroom as well as to prepare middle grades teachers with socially just mindsets (Grey, 2019; Thomas & Howell, 2019; Murphy & Kennedy, 2019).

Other middle grades researchers have explored promising practices in middle grades teacher education and social justice pedagogies. For example, Andrews et al. (2018) described systematic change to their initial teacher prep program with aims to “integrate social justice curriculum into the warp and weave of the experiential and clinical professional learning tapestry” (p. 12). This meant making tough decisions about adding and revising courses, the type of reflective practices we feel all middle level teacher programs should employ. DeMink-Carthew (2018) offered another look at the work teacher educators are doing to move toward the preparation of social justice educators. About this, she presented five learning outcomes (with related activities) to be used in a middle level teacher preparation course. Outcomes included preservice teachers’ attention to the following: “the role of education in our American democracy” (p.34); working to “critically analyze…classroom resources (for) ‘mirrors and windows’ ” (p.34); using “core social justice education resources” (p.34); using “ key terms and concepts associated with social justice education” (p.34); illustrating “the relationship between social justice education and This We Believe” (p. 34 ). Similarly, Ranschaert (2021) explored how teacher educators might engage candidates in discourse around social justice issues, acknowledging social justice instruction cannot be limited to one assignment or to a single reflection. Rather, the work is continuous and embedded throughout a program. Additionally, Ranschaert (2021) noted the importance of “acknowledg[ing] the broader discourses in which preservice teachers are always already situated” (p. 9). Given these examples of promising practices, there is evidence that equity work is happening in middle grades teacher education, although gaps remain.

Gaps in the Research and Other Recommendation
In a summary and review of research around middle grades teacher education for equity and social justice, notable gaps are apparent. As Andrews et al. (2018) discussed, “in middle grades teacher education, specifically, the literature regarding issues of diversity, equity, and social justice practices is exceptionally sparse” (p.4). Both explicitly and implicitly, across both the literature and the research, there is a trend of deficient breadth, volume, and variety of the research related to teacher education with equity-oriented, socially just curricula and practices (Andrews et al., 2018; Bishop & Harrison, 2021; Brinegar et al., 2019; Brinegar, 2015; Harrison et al., 2021) despite the call for such competencies and practices in the contemporary classroom (Darling-Hammond, 2006; Hansen, 2008).

Given the deficiencies in the current research, there exists an important call to action for middle grades researchers. As Brinegar et al. (2019) discussed, “…the middle grades movement can no longer afford to be complicit in an education system that oppresses and marginalizes those whose identities are not part of the mainstream culture” (p. 335). Mills and Ballantyne (2016) made a similar explicit call for a social justice emphasis in teacher education programming, noting—“preservice teacher education needs to work toward the development of teachers who are socially just in their beliefs and practices” (p. 263). Thus, while there is research to report on the topic of teacher education for equity and social justice, this review and summary uncovered an important and urgent opportunity for expanded literature and greater work toward empirical research in this area.

Annotated Resources
Andrews, G., Moulton, M.J., Hughes, H.E. (2018) Integrating social justice into middle grades teacher education, Middle School Journal, 49(5), 4-15. DOI: 10.1080/00940771.2018.1509562

In describing their own pursuits towards the intentional integration of social justice in their middle level education program, Andrews et al. (2018) provide an example of how teacher education programs could be examining and reimagining their own structures and practices. While recognizing that the middle level philosophy has deep roots in progressivism, the authors identify a large gap in the way that social justice is examined in the more recent literature specifically in areas of teacher education. By offering a description and critical reflection on the practices and structures present in their own program, this piece offers teacher educators a useful model.

Brinegar, K., Harrison, L., & Hurd, E. (Eds.). (2019). Equity and cultural responsiveness in the middle grades. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.

This handbook volume is a collection of middle level research that specifically explores issues of equity and culturally responsive practices within the middle school context. Research in this volume speaks to both in service and pre-service teacher education and has implications for middle level administrators, teachers, teacher educators, and other advocates.

Kennedy, B. L., Brinegar, K., Hurd, E., & Harrison, L. (2016, December). Synthesizing middle grades research on cultural responsiveness: The importance of a shared conceptual framework. Middle Grades Review, 2(3), 1-20. http://scholarworks.uvm.edu/mgreview/vol2/iss3/2/

In this review of middle level literature, the authors consider “How does current middle grades research define culture and the roles of culture, power, and difference in teaching and learning? What similarities and differences exist in the definitions of terms and references used?” (p. 1). Teachers and teacher educators will glean shared language and definitions while identifying gaps across the field.

Mills, C., & Ballantyne, J. (2016). Social justice and teacher education: A systematic review of empirical work in the field. Journal of Teacher Education, 67(4), 263–276. doi:10.1177/0022487116660152

In this article the authors conduct a systematic review of empirical research that focused on social justice and teacher education between the years of 1996 and 2006. While not specific to the middle level, this piece adds context to the teacher education landscape at large. The analysis identified four themes at the intersection of social justice and teacher education: (1) understandings of social justice and attitudes to diversity, (2) changes in beliefs, (3) field experience and (4) service learning, and innovations and challenges in teacher education. The authors end with a call for teacher educators to unite in a shared research agenda towards quality empirical studies on social justice.

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