Search form

Home >School Issues Channel >Archives >Urban Education > School Issues ArticleSCHOOL ISSUES ARTICLE

A Pickle in the Middle Grades: Report Documents Importance of Teacher Training for Grades Five Through Eight

A Pickle in the Middle Grades: Report Documents Importance of Teacher Training for Grades Five Through Eight

Share If their academic preparation in middle school is weak, students are unlikely to succeed in high school. And if their education isn't tailored to meet their developmental needs, the students may become alienated and disengaged and mark time until they are old enough to drop out of high school. The problems are especially acute in urban schools. Those are the conclusions offered in a report from the Philadelphia Fund. Included: Basic requirements for middle school educators!

A Middle School Teacher Should ...

According to the report, well-trained middle school teachers should

* have completed course work equivalent to college minors in two subjects since middle school teachers often are asked to teach more than one subject;

* know about middle school organization and instruction, including team teaching, block scheduling, interdisciplinary education, cooperative learning, and use of technology;

* have studied issues of early adolescent development, including cultural and gender diversity, self-esteem, identity development, high-risk behavior, and peer relations;

* have student-taught at the middle school level.

According to a report, middle school students need teachers who can help them learn the material required by district, state, and national standards in a developmentally appropriate way. In order for that to happen, middle school teachers need specialized training, says the 1999 report The Preparation of Middle Grades Teachers in an Era of High Stakes and High Standards: Philadelphia's Predicament.

The report recommends that states require middle school teachers to have middle school certification or endorsements on elementary or secondary certifications demonstrating that they have both the content knowledge and the background in early adolescent development that is needed to help the students master the material. The report also identifies the characteristics of exemplary middle grade teacher-preparation programs.

"Children have a right to receive classroom instruction from qualified teachers in an era where they face harsh penalties in school and later in the labor market for faltering academic performance," the report says.

The middle grades are critical, the report says, because they lay the foundation for the students' success in high school and beyond. If their academic preparation in middle school is weak, students are unlikely to succeed in high school. And if their education isn't tailored to meet their developmental needs, the students may become alienated and disengaged, marking time until they're old enough to drop out of high school.


Betsy Useem, one of the study's authors, told Education World that middle school students need a blend of academic rigor and a nurturing environment. A teacher who is certified to work with elementary students may not know the more sophisticated material middle grade students are expected to master, and those with secondary certification aren't familiar with the age group and may expect the greater independence they see in high school students, Useem explained.

"If you look at the new standards, the content required is pretty demanding," Useem said. "By the time you get to science and math in the seventh and eighth grades, the courses are quite sophisticated. Many eighth graders are taking algebra," a course that used to be taught in high school.

With many districts tightening their promotion policies to require students to pass standardized tests in order to advance to the next grade or to graduate, the stakes are high for both students and districts. According to Useem, the lack of appropriately trained middle grade teachers contributes to the dip often observed in scores on national and international tests; eighth graders typically do worse than they did in fourth grade. According to the Third International Mathematics and Science Study, for example, U.S. students perform near the top of the rankings in math and science in fourth grade but slip to the middle of the pack or lower in eighth grade.

Although 42 states now offer specialized credentials for teachers at the middle grade level, only 14 states require teachers in those grades to have them. Others, like Pennsylvania, which was the focus of the Philadelphia Education Fund study, allow teachers with elementary or secondary certification to teach in the middle grades with no additional training in content, early adolescent development, or age-appropriate teaching methods.


The problem is particularly acute in large urban districts, the report says. In Philadelphia, the lack of a mandate requiring middle grade training and union rules about filling vacancies combine to put the least experienced teachers in those schools, which many leave as soon as they can transfer out.

"Young adolescents in the urban underclass will not find a way out of poverty if their classrooms are staffed by a succession of faculty yearning to be with six-year-olds, substitute teachers, emergency-credentialed instructors, and elementary-certified teachers lacking subject-area specializations," the report says.

Over the last decade, education reform has taken hold in the middle grades with the recognition of the unique needs of early adolescents. More sophisticated than elementary school students but not as independent as those in high school, early adolescents need teachers who have a command of specific content areas, yet are able to present the material in ways that preteens can absorb.

Yet in Philadelphia, 93 percent of teachers in neighborhood middle schools are certified to teach elementary school, which means they received no initial training to teach beyond sixth grade.

Useem currently is working on another study of Philadelphia's middle grade teachers. She has interviewed 60 new teachers in seven middle schools. The vast majority, she said, did their student teaching in the lower grades and are not familiar with the preteens and young teenagers they are teaching.


The report recommends that states take the lead and require middle grade teachers to have the training they need to be effective, which would encourage more colleges to provide teacher training for that age level.

"States and their partners in higher education should be held accountable for high standards in the preparation of the nation's teachers," the report states. The requirement could be a middle-grade certification or an endorsement on elementary or secondary certification that would require additional training.

In addition, the report recommends

  • requiring newly licensed teachers to have the equivalent of a college minor in order to teach a core subject in seventh or eighth grade;
  • pressuring low-performing teacher-preparation programs to raise standards;
  • developing incentives to attract teachers to high-poverty middle schools;
  • providing more equitable funding policies that enable low-wealth districts to offer competitive salaries;
  • creating incentives for teachers to pursue certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.

Colleges and universities must devise programs that will attract students to middle grade teaching, the report says. The best teacher-preparation programs for the middle grades include four elements: content area preparation, middle school organization and instruction, issues of early adolescent development, and fieldwork in middle schools, the report says.

In the content area, the report notes, middle school teachers often teach two or more subjects, so the best preparatory programs require them to specialize in two content areas. Some require students to take between four and ten courses in the appropriate departments to fill the content requirement.

Middle school organization and structure is an important area because the schools typically are not run like elementary or high schools. Middle schools use practices such as teaming, in which a small group of teachers works with the same students in their various classes to create a smaller learning community, which allows students and teachers to build closer relationships. Prospective middle school teachers also need to learn about effective practices of middle school instruction, such as inquiry-based learning, multicultural education, cooperative learning, and the use of technology. Some teacher education programs model the teaching techniques, using team teaching themselves, to help prepare students.

Exemplary teacher-preparation programs also include course work that focuses on the social, emotional, cognitive, and physical development of early adolescents, the report says. This includes issues of cultural and gender diversity, self-esteem, identity development, high-risk behavior, and peer relationships.

The best preparatory programs also include fieldwork in middle schools so that prospective teachers have the opportunity to learn firsthand about working with early adolescents.

Nancy Thompson
Education World®
Copyright © 2000 Education World

Related Articles from Education World

Please check out our featured theme this week: