These “Things” I Believe

In honor of AMLE’s 50th anniversary, the Association is republishing “These Things I Believe,” Dr. John Lounsbury’s seminal William Alexander Memorial Lecture from the 2006 AMLE Annual Conference. His speech not only frames the history of middle level education but also sets the foundation for the next 50 years. John was an early leader of the middle school movement, a man who embodied the essence of what middle school is and means. His writings were profound and timeless, and through them he reminded us of who we should be as educators and as human beings.

Who was John, and why has he had such a lasting impact on middle level education? Once touched by him your life was never the same. He was, above all, a humble man, a man much more interested in others than in himself, and that was the essence of his greatness. We were inspired not only by what he said, but also by the passion that was an inherent part of his commitment and involvement with the middle school movement, a movement he called his “magnificent obsession.”

John was the conscience of the middle school, the measure against which we always held ourselves. His knowledge of middle level education was unparalleled, and his ability to adapt to changing times while maintaining the essential elements of the middle school philosophy enabled the movement to stand the test of time. As he put it, “my beliefs over 50 years have been reaffirmed and reinforced, but not changed.”

John was a lifelong learner, a voracious reader, an avid listener, and always ahead of his time. He once stated, “we teach more by who we are than by what we teach,” and through his words and through his life, he set an example that compelled all of us to do and be better educators and better individuals. – Linda Hopping, AMLE Distinguished Service Awardee and friend of Dr. Lounsbury

Note to readers: the National Middle School Association changed its name to Association for Middle Level Education in 2011.

I first knew William Alexander through my involvement with ASCD in the late fifties. He was a highly regarded national leader and author in the field of curriculum. Then I had the pleasure of working directly with him in the early days of National Middle School Association. He was a member of that first committee appointed to develop a position paper, and for six years we worked together on the publications committee, reading and evaluating all submissions for the Middle School Journal. He and Ken McEwin authored several pioneering publications for NMSA during those early years. Bill Alexander was a first class gentleman, a scholar of note, and a consummate professional. His distinctive contribution to middle level education is most appropriately recognized with this lecture series, and I am honored to present it this year.

As you know, I’ve been around a long, long time, and some may wonder why I didn’t retire 20 years ago like most people—eagerly, as soon as they are eligible. Maybe I should, too. Underlying my continuing to work is what John Dewey, no less, pointed out one time when he said, “The secret of happiness is to find out what one is fitted to do and in being privileged to work hard for long hours in doing whatever you think is worth doing.” I am surely, then, a happy case in point. My upbeat demeanor, I think, has helped me to fool Mother Nature, but lately I’ve also had to accept that fact that I can’t fool Father Time—getting in and out of a car or up the stairs shouldn’t be such an effort.

In my office hangs a small framed quotation given to me by Tom Dickinson soon after he took over as editor of the Middle School Journal in 1990. It reads, “Rich is not how much you have, or where you are going, or even what you are…Rich is who you have beside you.” By that valid and meaningful standard, I have to be the richest man in middle level education; for over more than three decades I have had the good fortune to “be beside” for a time every executive director of NMSA, every one of its presidents, and virtually all of its early leaders, including extended associations with William Alexander and Don Eichhorn, now deceased, and Gordon Vars and Conrad Toepfer, all four of the so-called founders who were or are good, personal friends as well as professional associates. In addition, I’ve benefitted from the company of NMSA board members, headquarters staff, and dozens and dozens of committee members and affiliate leaders in most every state and beyond. And particularly in my publications work I’ve been blessed to have beside me, almost every working day for over 20 years, the most capable Mary Mitchell, who does most of what I get credit for, and Ed Brazee, beside me rather constantly, via phone and email when not in person, collaborating with me and teaching me. And, of course, though not an educator, I’ve had close beside me for over 60 years, my beloved wife, Libby. So both rich and happy am I. Life and the Lord have been good to me, very good. And I am especially thankful for the opportunities NMSA has provided me to serve my magnificent obsession.

Somehow, my remarks just had to play on the “this I believe” theme. Having been intimately involved with our position paper throughout its entire existence, that concept somewhat defines me. In 1981, after piecing together the materials the committee had handed over, and on the spur of the moment at the 11th hour, I affixed a title, This We Believe. Little did I know how central to NMSA and to my life those three words would become. So I chose the title, “These Things I Believe,” as an organizing focus that would give me latitude to express some of my convictions. Nearly everything I will say I have said before—and some may recognize a few of my favorite phrases. My beliefs have been reaffirmed and reinforced over 50 plus years, but not changed. So think with me, if you will, recognizing that I am admittedly a philosopher and a bit of an optimist, as I try to put a little perspective on this middle school “thing” and initiate some thinking and reflecting.

First, I believe in public education and view it as the major factor responsible for the remarkable success of our nation. And although I will be critical of schools as they now are, I would be amiss not to pay a deserved tribute to America’s public schools. They, in toto, are a marvelous creation, still the best in the world. As the farm system for democracy, public schools nurtured our society as no other institution could. Over the years, schools have responded courageously to waves of immigrants, economic depression, global wars, desegregation, and are still responding remarkably well to recent societal problems. Teachers have been and still are our nation’s greatest resource for good.

At the same time it has to be said that public schools are in jeopardy—just when they are needed more than ever. In an increasingly fragmented and diverse society, public schools are our last and most important source of commonality. America needs a vibrant system of public education, but there are forces working to weaken or eliminate it. The middle school movement, however, is, I believe, the only significant, revitalizing reform now actively at work seeking to bring about the kind of sound, long-term changes that will ensure public education continues strong. Our society, although it doesn’t realize it yet, owes much to you courageous middle school pioneers who have been risk-takers and who have followed your hearts and beliefs, instituting practices that were more effective than the accepted ones. Keep it up!

I believe, obviously, in the middle school concept, its fundamental validity, and its critical importance as the vision that is pointing the way education must go. We should all recognize and draw strength from the fact that every specific middle level advocacy that is a part of that concept is a direct reflection of a characteristic of young adolescents or an accepted principle of learning. Our beliefs are on solid ground, so we should be courageous.

I believe further that the middle school concept is so much more than an organizational approach or even a collection of best practices, as many still think. It is a philosophy, a set of beliefs about kids, education, and the human experience; and it has a spiritual and moral dimension to it that must not be denied. (And in a bit of a historical aside, let me share with you this last sentence in Thomas Briggs’ book on the junior high school published in 1920. It is as good a description of the middle school that you’ll find anywhere. Briggs wrote: “In its essence, the junior high school is a device of democracy whereby nurture may cooperate with nature to secure the best results possible for each individual adolescent, as well as for society at large.”) It is the spiritual dimension of the middle school concept, I think, that is largely responsible for the passion that its advocates so uniformly display and causes our confidence to be characterized as “almost a religious experience.” We are missionaries—with ideals that are timeless.

I believe further that the middle school movement is the rebirth of progressive education. Unapologetically child-center, it seeks to apply in practice what is known about learning, the nature of humans, and the nature and needs of our society, which is what progressive education was all about. The sound theories of Dewey and Kilpatrick—ones never refuted by research—are the foundations of the vision we set forth in This We Believe. And it has to be said here, though I may say it again, that, when implemented fully, the middle school concept does result in students’ increased academic achievement—yes, even their standardized test scores—as well as in their positive overall development as persons and citizens. Let there be no mistake about that reality.

I believe in young adolescents—in their inherent, God-given desire to learn and grow, and in their potential, a potential that is just waiting for the right invitation to blossom. I believe that this long-overlooked period of human development is not only a time of life, a pivotal time, a reality implied in the phrases “turning points” and “the last best chance.” One’s adult behavior runs in channels that were cut deep during early adolescence. Alfred North Whitehead claimed: “These are the years in which the lines of character are graven.” And so it is.

And I believe further that the still present lack of understanding about and appreciation for young adolescents on the part of the public continues as a major handicap to the implementation of the middle school concept. If folks, especially parents, generally recognized just how critical were the educational experiences youth undergo during these formative years when life itself is an exaggeration and when their personalities, attitudes, and values were being set, almost “hard-wired,” they would be actively supporting schools in implementing the middle school concept—and also they would take more seriously their own role as parent-educators.

To bring about the long-term improvements needed in education, I believe parents, politicians, policymakers, as well as educators have to back up and accept the fact that the accepted, basic organizational and instructional practices that are, without a thought, perpetuated, cannot be supported by research as “right” ways to operate middle level education. There is simply no set of research studies to confirm the validity of organizing young adolescents for learning by chronological age.

There is no body of research that says 25-30 is the most desirable size for a group of learners, or that 47 minutes is the optimum time frame for conducting learning activities. Can anyone claim, based on research, that the most effective way to help young adolescents understand the world in its many dimensions and their place in it is by teaching them a series of separate subject classes? I think not. I love the statement made by Josh Billings, a character in literature who said: “It weren’t my ignorance that done me in, it was the things I know’d that weren’t so”! A powerful statement, it brings to the front in an interesting, even if ungrammatical way, a condition that almost no one ever faces. “Just because we’ve always done it this way” is no justification for continuing practices that are not educationally effective, nor is administrative convenience a justification. 

I believe we have to stop trying to make schools as they are, better, and instead work to make them different Current reform efforts believe improvements needed can come about by imposing another regulation, or requirement, or by squeezing in additional content and aligning it on the existing modus operandi. But such efforts further strengthen the institutionalization of passive learning, which is that plague that infected education as it grew, and has been a major reason for the low levels of achievement about which there has been so much anguish in recent years. 

Schools, when you stop to think about it, are more organized for teaching than they are for learning. The way they are set up perpetuates the view that education is something you give to students or something you do to students. By rows of desks facing front, textbooks, a prescribed curriculum, and other conditions, it seems clear to students that they come to school to be taught rather than to learn, and teachers conduct themselves in ways that support that perception. Madelyn Hunter used to ask a most pointed question, “Should schools be places where children come to watch adults at work?” Think about it. 

To achieve, as it has done, its noble goal of educating all American youth, education, perhaps almost of necessity, was mass-produced or standardized, and the job of the teacher came to be conceived as a matter of filling little mugs from teacher’s jug, a job that had to resort to extrinsic and negative motivations to get it done. We were not conscious of how this mass production would ultimately counter some of the very ideals of what an education in a democracy requires. Public education in the 50 states comprises a big operation; and inevitably it became bureaucratic, hard to change, and self-perpetuating. There always have been a lot of good ideas, sound theories about how schools could be more in line with what we know about learning and the needs of students. A major problem has been that these exciting but seemingly radical ideas are beyond most everyone’s personal experience and, therefore, difficult to comprehend and grasp sufficiently to put into practice. It is amazing to recognize the hold that the terms subjects, classes, periods, and tests have on our ability to conceptualize formal education. Having never experienced schooling apart from those forms makes it hard to picture how it could be conducted without them. And then, too, the conditions needed to support experimenting with new ways are almost never present. The kids are there; school has to go on; no moratorium can be called so alternate approaches can be tried out. 

The middle school movement, however, has been running up a new target to shoot at; it has given many educators a chance for a fresh start, and the encouragement to try doing some things differently. And make no mistake, it has already made lasting inroads into the accepted ideas about how to educate I0- to 15-year-olds, the concept of teaming is an obvious case in point. Teaming has even been picked up reluctantly by the high school. 

I believe the general public, and indeed even many educators have come to define an education far too narrowly, to see it almost exclusively as a matter of knowledge acquisition, and have accepted the crazy idea that scores on paper and pencil tests are fair measures of a school’s or an individual’s success in acquiring an education. Fed in the public press with nothing but a menu of stories about the failure of schools as indicated by reported test scores, Jane Q. Public has, I believe, lost sight of what becoming educated really includes. At the middle level especially, getting an education has to involve a broad array of objectives and goals, including, of course, but by no means limited to cognitive achievement. And these other goals address real needs of young adolescents and are ones that will be met by students, one way or the other, with or without the help of schools and professional teachers. And I, for one, am not willing to let television, Hollywood, and the music industry be the only models and examples that students consider as they decide what is good, right, just, and how one should behave as a citizen in a democratic society. Middle school students need to engage in unhurried, thoughtful dialogue about contemporary issues. They need opportunities to think out loud; for they are not sure what they think until they hear what they say, and then hear what others say in response–and then think about it some more. Cultivating the mind is bard work, and it can’t be done in a hurry or by frontal teaching. 

The public needs to recognize further that success in high school and college, as well as in life, is not closely correlated with the acquisition of information as measured by paper and pencil tests. Rather, success as a student, and as a productive adult really hinges much more on learning skills, dispositions, and habits of mind, ones that are not assessed by tests or acquired in pressured efforts to prepare for them. Indeed, the overemphasis on teaching for test scores works against developing those very attributes that are needed for success in today’s world–initiative, creativity, teamwork, and problem solving. 

The shadow of NCLB has been hanging over education for several years now, and its darkness has put on hold if not turned back much of the substantial advancements the middle school movement has made. Teachers’ initiative and creativity have been stymied. Frankly, I find it difficult to understand how any professional middle level educator with even a modicum of understanding of human growth and development and the accepted principles of learning can really believe that this federal act, more a creation of politicians than educators, is a sound reform initiative. While its goal is admirable, its methods simply conflict directly with the nature of young people and how they learn best. No federal mandate can wash away the real differences that kids present to the world, whether those differences are the result of nature or nurture or some combination thereof. The act’s failings have become obvious; surely its days are numbered. I like to believe NCLB is that “darkest” period noted in that old sailor’s maxim–“It is always darkest before the dawn.” 

It is disheartening, indeed even sickening to realize the millions upon millions being spent on tests, test preparation, and tutoring outside of school, side effects of NCLB. And as has been cynically noted, “No vendor has been left behind.” Tests are in the saddle, and they ride education in the wrong direction. 

Balance in the curriculum has been lost, and the full education of students has been cut back drastically. Mark Twain said, “I never let my schooling interfere with my education.” And I believe that is what is happening. The narrow aspects of schooling have squeezed out education. It appears that middle level education is now the hope, perhaps the only hope, for restoring some balance, countering the obsession with testing, and openly directing activities toward meeting the broad goals of education and changing behavior. In recent years, it has been common to make sometimes pious statements identifying what students “should know and be able to do”–all well and good–but what about how they behave? Behind all of society’s problems, from obesity, to greed, from teen pregnancy to drug use, from domestic violence to crime in the streets and in big business, are the consciously chosen behaviors of individuals. Should not then schools, as society’s chosen means of educating youth, work to influence behavior? Traditionally in America, such a belief was unquestionably in place with school and home committed to the same academic and behavioral goals. 

I believe teaching is a moral enterprise. There is no getting around it; and a full education has to involve heart as well as head, attitude as well as information, spirit as well as scholarship, and conscience as well as competence. Middle schools must be more concerned about what students are becoming than just what scores they are making. John Ruskin long ago put it thusly: “Education does not mean teaching people to know what they do not know, it means teaching them to behave as they do not behave.” And Teddy Roosevelt strongly warned, “To educate a person in mind and not in morals is to educate a menace to society!’ 

The middle school is not just a physical place in which teachers conduct classes covering content, it is an environment in which youth grow. It is not a teaching factory, but a laboratory of living. The school is not an entity set apart from the rest of society where one learns things needed in the future; it is life. For young adolescents, the middle school is the prime stage on which they act out their social development as almost independent young adults, wearing many masks until they find the face that fits. Their search for personal meaning and identity is ongoing. And it is here in the middle school that 10- to 15-year-olds acquire the people skills/people knowledge, which more than any other one thing spells success in every field and profession. 

And I believe Mother Nature provides at this key transition time, a golden opportunity, one we have generally not taken advantage of to both influence the behavior of individuals and to take academic learning to a higher level. The maturing minds of emerging young adolescents make it possible, indeed necessary, to move learning beyond the memorization of second or third-hand information. Adolescents seek independence and responsibility, so we do a disservice to their intellectual development by continuing to prescribe curriculum. The acquisition of higher order thinking runs counter to the notion of laying out in advance what is to be learned. We underestimate their intelligence, their ability to perceive, discern, and to think deeply–something they can do–with our help. And isn’t it interesting how we free them to learn and excel in band, for instance, yet treat them as unable to do much in the regular classroom? 

To take full advantage of this new level of mental maturation, this ability to think about thinking, to hypothesize, a strong student-teacher relationship is needed. I believe it is impossible to over estimate the importance of this relationship and the personality–in the broad sense–of the teacher. The good student-teacher relationship has a spiritual quality about it, intangible, nebulous; but the effects of it are clearly apparent. 

I believe teaching at the middle level is a matter of relating as well as instructing. Few important lessons are learned except over the bridge of a personal relationship. We shape lives less by direct instruction than by what I call Wayside Teaching–those small, personal acts, probing questions, subtle reminders, earned commendations, and individual challenges. Our influence when we are on dress parade presenting information to a class is likely to pale in significance compared to the impact we may have in a 50 second , up-close and personal conversation. 

The learning that makes a difference in living is more often the learning that is caught, not taught. Character, someone has noted, resembles measles, it can only be caught by close contact with someone who has it. Learning is almost as much a matter of contagion as instruction, reminding me of St. Francis of Assisi’ s charge–“Preach the Gospel at all times; if necessary, use words.” 

In a very real sense, the lasting curriculum, the take-home curriculum, is a three-letter word–you. That, incidentally, was the title of my 1975 NMSA address.  

None of us can escape the enduring importance of ourselves, of the transcendent power of our example, for what we are is constantly being taught. L. Thomas Hopkins said it simply 70 years ago, “What a teacher really teaches is himself.” –or herself. 

The same point was also nicely stated in my favorite poem written by Arthur Guiterman in these key lines: 

No printed word nor spoken plea 

Can teach young hearts what they should be 

Not all the books on all the shelves 

But what the teachers are themselves. 

And let me say here, when it comes to providing good models, middle school teachers are doing a great job. Whether the school is labeled “needs improvement” or not, I see teachers who are genuinely committed and caring, who know students as individuals and relate to them in meaningful ways. In terms of climate, we have made tremendous progress in being developmentally responsive–and the kids appreciate it. In response to my question when I talk to students and ask them what is the best thing about this school, the number one answer is “the teachers.” 

Young adolescents come to know themselves best when in the company of such people who know them well, who care about them and provide useful information and ideas in innumerable interactions, both formal and informal. Albert Schweitzer noted; “I regard myself as I am regarded by those whom I regard.” Even in a technologically rich class, the teacher is still the number one audiovisual aid. 

Middle school teaching calls for teachers to help students believe in themselves, become self-actualized, and develop their social consciences! I believe the good middle school teacher is one who instructs in reality, but suggests dreams. In this day of accountability and burry-up, we have shortchanged our young adolescents by cutting exploratory experiences. This is a time of heightened curiosity, a time to wonder, to consider, to discover. The middle school is the finding place, where students should identify new vistas and, as Tomlinson and Doubet in their great new NMSA book have put it, “Go shopping for possibilities without pressure to buy.” Cutting physical education and social studies cannot be justified if we are to be developmentally responsive. A good deal more needs to be said about this should time permit. 

Antoine St. Exupery in “The Little Prince,” wisely wrote: 

“Nobody grasped you by the shoulder while there is still time. Now the clay of which you were shaped has dried and hardened, and nothing in you will ever awaken the sleeping musician, the poet, the astronomer that possibly inhabited you in the beginning.” 

A former governor of Georgia, Lester Maddox, was something of a character; and his antics and comments often were laughed at. Such was the case when he said that the way to improve the troubled prisons in Georgia was “to have a better class of prisoners.” But there is a valid point in there, especially when applied to schools; for I believe that the best way to improve schools is to improve the students themselves. If we would involve them genuinely in the teaching-learning process, challenge them, help them develop positive attitudes and dispositions, develop a special interest, we would be rewarded by increased academic achievement as well as other good things. Said simply in just five words–to improve learning, improve learners! This I believe. 

There is no conflict between academic effectiveness and developmental responsiveness. In fact, they are closely correlated. And I have always viewed the underachievement of so-called at risk students to be more a reflection of their hearts than their heads, more the result of their perception of themselves than any lack of intelligence. Kenneth Clark’s research pointed out that such students were not disadvantaged by poverty and race so much as by attitude. They were “attitudinally disadvantaged” victims of “learned helplessness.” (But let me move on.) 

Could a middle school be organized and operate in ways that would meet the broad goals I have identified? I think so. Come with me to Caring Middle School, located in Every State, in the year 2025. As you approach the front entrance you note a sign over the large double doors. It reads: “Those employed here weave their consciences into their work, for lives are at stake.” Quite a statement, and you reflect on its meaning as you watch the always energetic and delightful young adolescents burst from the buses with much chatter. You immediately notice that they are traveling light, no heavy book bags hang from their shoulders, just a thin case carrying, you presume a computer, though some only sport a flash drive around their necks. In Caring Middle School you then discover that those attending are not called students; rather they are explorers-and that there are no teachers here, only guides, coaches, and resource persons. And there are no classrooms in Caring, only laboratories and workrooms of various sorts. Traditional sized and furnished classrooms are not needed, as classes, in the usual sense of the word, are simply not taught. In the partner teams, most instruction is done one-on-one or in small groups. All of the two- or three-person teams either loop or are multiage, ensuring the important continuity of caring that comes with long-term relationships and leads to increased academic achievement. There are no report cards or grades in Caring Middle School. They are not needed. The school has divested itself of that inappropriate responsibility to sort and select. Portfolios, self-assessments, coaches’ comments, and explorer-led conferences take care of providing accountability most adequately. 

You soon notice too, that on the door or just inside on the wall of every one of these large rooms are framed copies of the degrees and certificates earned by these guides, evidences of their professional status–and usually pictures of them when they were 12 or 13! You also see posted a statement, sort of a mission statement, one adapted from one created by the Freedom Middle School in Franklin, Tennessee, back in the 1990s. “The faculty of Caring Middle School are instigators of learning, committed to causing or allowing explorers to get into situations from which they cannot escape except by learning.” Then you spot a little card, a supplement to the above statement, that contains this old quote from the German philosopher Goethe–“If you treat an individual as he is, he will stay as he is, but if you treat him as if he were what he ought to be and could be, he will become what he ought to be and could be.” At Caring, becoming smart is the goal of all explorers, not something they are or are not. 

There are no computer labs; they were phased out years ago. All rooms are wireless, allowing each explorer to move around and work wherever he or she needs to, whether in a group, locating materials, participating in a seminar, or working alone. 

No mass changing of classes occurs; and, of course, no bells are heard. Varied times, such as for lunch, are communicated to explorers by a vibration on their hand-held receivers, which have the ability to carry out a number of technology related functions, from recording attendance to sending e-mail. There is no stand-alone adviser-advisee program in Caring Middle School, as the integrative curriculum approach readily encompasses and meets the affective and personal-social needs of these 10- 15-year-olds. While the atmosphere is relaxed, it is also very business-like. Small groups of explorers are talking intently with no signs of boredom noted. Here you witness that desirable condition that George Bernard Shaw called for back in the last century–to have “the child in pursuit of knowledge and not knowledge in pursuit of the child.” There is no In- School Suspension Room at Caring; one is not needed. With a high degree of engagement in learning activities, ones the explorers themselves had selected and developed, behavior problems are all but nonexistent. Single-subject textbooks are long gone, though copies of texts are available among the varied references available in every room–ones purchased with the big bucks saved by not purchasing those dinosaur textbooks. 

Would you like to teach in Caring Middle School? Elements of Caring Middle School already exist widely, indeed in many of your schools right now; so it may not be farfetched to see such a model becoming common in the near future. You may not have to go to extremes to continue teaching, but I think you may have to undergo some changes in your perception of just what your job involves. To have a position in tomorrow’s middle school, you will have to rise up out of your certification comfort zone and see yourself as more than an instructor in a single subject. That albatross around our necks–departmentalization–will have to be buried. And you will have to be able and willing to be an advisor and lead students into learning things you don’t know. You will have to give up being a fountain of knowledge who controls and decides most everything that goes on, to being instead what Phillip Schlechty neatly characterized as “an inventor of engaging work.” And you will also fill the pastoral role, and not just on the sly–as you have to do now. And your sense of professional efficacy and personal satisfaction, it should be noted, will also go up as these changes take place. The work may be harder, but considerably more rewarding, as those of you who have already instituted thematic units have discovered. 

I earlier indicated the problem that existed because almost no one has experienced an education outside of the traditional structure. But we now have excellent examples and full descriptions of what middle level education can be like when it is freed from the many restrictions imposed by subjects, classes, and periods. And I want to challenge every one of you to take advantage of them. If you are really serious about providing an education that is more significant, more developmentally responsive, you simply must read four books. I get carried away as I think about what would happen if every middle level educator read these books, reflected on them, talked about them in study groups, and was thereby led to take some steps, however small, to move in the direction of establishing more democratic student-centered classrooms. You owe it to yourself as a professional educator who cares about young adolescents to spend some time with these rich resources, internalizing their messages. 

I am assuming, of course, that you already know, almost by heart, This We Believe–middle level education’s new testament, revised edition. 

First, a little book, just reissued, entitled Student-Oriented Curriculum: A Remarkable Journey of Discovery, the story of two teachers who boldly decided to institute curriculum integration–and succeeded! Second, Watershed: A Successful Journey into Integrative Learning, Mark Springer’s powerful story of the program he instituted 20 years ago with seventh graders that has become a much-heralded example. Third, Jim Beane’s new book, A Reason to Teach: Creating Classrooms of Dignity and Hope, filled with wisdom, inspiration, and examples. And finally, hot off the press, quite literally, Soundings: A Democratic, Student-Centered Education. These books depict the education of young adolescents in ways that are sound. They provide real, ongoing examples of truly developmentally responsive programs, enough to help you “see” bow such programs work and the encouragement to emulate. The rationale for instituting them is well presented throughout. While I hesitate to make a pitch to buy books as a part of this address, I believe most sincerely that the messages they contain are vital to the advancement of the kind of education needed to restore meaning and significance not only to the education of young adolescents but, indeed, to all of education; and those messages must be received, considered by all, and ultimately become common practice. 

Mark Springer’s Soundings: A Democratic, Student-Centered Education is a particularly beautiful book, not only because of the color and photographs used throughout, but more importantly, because what Mark and his co-teacher’s do is a thing of beauty. Guiding eighth graders in determining their curriculum and mastering the skills and processes needed to be lifelong learners and self-actualized citizens call for educational artistry; and Mark exhibits that. In the pages of Soundings you will have full descriptions of what they do–and why they do it; and you will find ample evidence of how successful these students have been in meeting contemporary academic standards while also achieving those other behavior-related goals currently being neglected in the rush to raise test scores. Here you will see much of Caring Middle School already solidly in place. Its publication is, I believe, a landmark event. 

So here we are nearly 100 years after the junior high school movement began and a little more than 40 years since the middle school idea burst on the scene. Although we are continuing to struggle to maintain our commitment to kids in this day of narrow accountability, I do believe the middle school concept is still growing and gaining strength in the hearts and minds of many other educators who, like us, grasp the good sense and research-supported validity of the vision set forth in This We Believe. 

You here are all active in the stream of middle level education, a stream that is flowing with and around us; and inevitably, you will change in some way, however small, the flow and course of that stream that will be our history. May none of us shirk from the awesome responsibility that nature thrusts upon those who would dare to raise and teach young adolescents. Emboldened by what Shakespeare counseled: “Our doubts are traitors” he wrote, “that make us lose what we oft might win by fearing to attempt,” we must not flag in our commitment to young adolescents. And still further may we follow the advice of Mia Hamm, of soccer fame, who said: “Celebrate what you have accomplished, but raise the bar a little higher each time you succeed.” 

We are, I believe, in the early stages of an educational revolution. A tide in that stream of middle level education is rising slowly but surely. Before long it will be a wave strong enough to wash over those outdated educational elementsthose things in our ignorance we know‘d that weren‘t so. Middle level students themselves are doing much to advance the cause as they have grown up with digital technology and have become a new breed of more independent learners. 

Finally, I believe that unless middle schools are able to garner more widespread support from policymakers and citizens to fulfill the middle school’s inescapable responsibilities for developing fully educated young adults, America could find itself in the position of winning the battle to improve test scores but losing the war to build student-centered, democratic middle schools, and thereby revitalizing public education.