We Have to Prepare Students for the Next Level, Don’t We?

Some universities blame the poor academic performance of their young adult students on the poor quality instruction they think students received in high schools. High schools blame the middle schools, middle schools blame elementary schools, and elementary schools blame their students’ gene pool. It is stunning how similar their commentaries are to those recorded by educators 100, even 1,000, years ago, and yet, here we are, still progressing.

There is also the philosophy that we take students from where they are when they enter our classes and move them as far as we possibly can along the learning continuum within the short time they have with us. A seventh grade student who reads at a fifth grade level and grows a level and a half during the school year is justifiably a success to all concerned. A disinterested, unfit student in a physical education class finally feels the benefits of working out and exceling at a newly discovered sport is encouraged and supported by his teachers and eventually achieves significant physical maturation over two school years. Hope and moments of success ignite diligence, securing results.

In all subjects, we have students with different readiness levels, all presenting widely varying backgrounds, and all in different states of emotional, intellectual, and physical maturation. Most of us work in schools set up as factory models, however, based on the 1892 recommendations of the Committee of Ten who established a standardized curriculum and the idea of high schools and their different hour, different class, cattle call.

Note, though, that factories require a steady supply of uniform resources in order to function efficiently. While the brain and body’s development have some universal milestones we all experience, both vary significantly person to person. We are not uniform in what we bring to learning’s table, and as such, the factory model of schooling is at odds not only with modern teaching/learning practices, but also with schooling’s ultimate outcomes.

Building on this already dysfunctional approach is the sense that the primary purpose of each grade level is to prepare students for the next grade level: We have to get these students ready for high school! We have to get these high schoolers ready for the working world or college! Drawing from the factory metaphor, it is as if each station on the curriculum conveyor belt is built to make sure the products are ready for the next station on the conveyor belt.

What About the Here and Now?

Young adolescents’ internal mind space rallies around the here and now, not the later. For them, every effort is made to survive the day and navigate the week, not assure college placement in six years. A constant focus on future benefits of current learning is often frustrating for young adolescents.

Yes, we have responsibility to identify what we think will be of the most use to students in their future lives and place those elements into their curriculum. The problem is that we have chosen a factory model where we assume “one size fits all” is the most effective way for students to find their own path while also learning the responsibilities and customs of living with others. A lock-step, never-deviating conveyor belt cannot prepare its products for their continually changing, ethically-demanding, intellectually agile, post-conveyor belt lives.

As politicians and educators have wisely noted, our nation cannot remain both ignorant and free. Schools are here to transmit knowledge and skills to the next generation while also preparing them for positive interactions and contributions to society, and to create meaningful lives. On the surface, then, establishing a common, vetted curriculum for all students to experience makes sense, as we are conscientious educators who help students find success. We see the individual pieces that add to the overall whole, and we each play our part in students’ educational journeys. We succumb, however, to false assumptions underlying the factory model of schooling.

Recreating High School, College Conditions in Middle School as Preparation?

We have decided somewhere along the way that the best way to prepare students for the next station on the conveyor belt is to re-create that next station’s experience in earlier stations: They are not going to differentiate for diverse students in high school, some of us lament, so we are not going to do it here in middle school, or, They are not going to get timely, descriptive feedback in those large university freshmen classes, colleagues say, so we are not going to provide it here in high school.

Thinking that we have to enact the policies and practices of the grade levels above us in order to prepare our students for those levels is deeply flawed. How will they do well in those upper level classes? Through maturation and really learning the current content. Our goal is achieved, then, by using highly effective practices for teaching young adolescents, not by using only those practices of high school teachers or college professors. These research-based, highly effective practices are delineated in the 16 characteristics of successful middle schools from AMLE’s This We Believe.

Some of us claim our classes need to operate like college classes in order for students to do well there. It is a similar situation in some high schools: Not all high school teachers are trained in the unique nature of the students they serve. They often have great knowledge in their subject areas but very little in how adolescent minds best learn those subjects.

Middle level teachers tend to focus a bit more on what is developmentally appropriate for their students as a group, but not as much as we would like to think. Some of them still think middle schools are junior versions of high school, and that they are justified in focusing only on subject expertise rather than student expertise. They assume that recreating a high school-like experience in middle school is the best preparation for high school.

Good Teaching?

Education social worker, Tina Justice, posted this comment in a Twitter conversation, “We don’t hand little kids car keys because someday they are going to have to drive.” It’s ineffective and unethical to demand adult-level, post-certification performance from insecure, pre-certification young adolescents.

Remaining indifferent to developmentally appropriate learning experiences and simply demanding post-certification adult level performance is a quick way to boost the dropout rate. Just as high school and adult learners require, we work with them in multiple ways and in multiple iterations until they are competent in course content and skills.

In order to help young adolescents prepare to take standardized tests, we do not implement a lone diet of standardized tests all day. If we did, we would not be teaching our content for long-term retention, nor would we create the mental dexterity required in life that is diminished by standardized test questions. As effective teachers, we prepare students for the hidden curriculum of test-taking savvy—How do you write in such a manner so as to satisfy the standardized test’s evaluative criteria and get a high score?—but we also teach them how to flex their writing for different purposes, audiences, and how to do it all with a robust voice uniquely their own.

Let’s stop the nonsense that we cannot differentiate or assess with nontraditional formats because teachers in levels above do not provide those experiences, and thus, students will be unprepared for the unfamiliar. Instead, let’s live up to what actually works: teaching students the course content and skills in whatever ways lead to their continual development, and helping them mature as individuals and learners so they can flourish in varied learning situations, even those devoid of effective teaching.

Many high school teachers and college professors are making significant efforts to be developmentally appropriate for the age groups they teach, but some are not there yet. That’s okay, though: We do not sacrifice good instruction because those in upper levels are not there yet. Instead, we employ what we know works, and we spend time mentoring those above us in what we do.

Middle level schools are vibrant, intense environments with unique needs that are very different than those of high schools, colleges, or the working world. Perpetuating the factory model of schooling by importing policies from high schools and colleges to our middle level schools because we think it prepares students for what is to come is uninformed and ineffective. Let’s be experts in 10- to 15-year-olds instead, and even better, let’s manifest that expertise in our classrooms daily.