Super Teacher's Job is Never Done!

Super Teacher's Job is Never Done!
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Teaching is the profession that teaches all the other professions. ~ Author Unknown

My goal is to reveal one teacher's humble journey of self-reflection, critical analysis, and endless questioning about my craft of teaching and learning alongside my middle school students.

"The dream begins with a teacher who believes in you, who tugs and pushes and leads you to the next plateau, sometimes poking you with a sharp stick called 'truth'." ~ Dan Rather

Sunday, December 11, 2011

How necessary IS a comprehensive middle school transition?

I don't think anyone of us in our right minds would ever want to return to middle school as students. It is often the most vulnerable, unpredictable, and awkward time in schooling for a great majority of students. 

Easing the tough transition to middle school is a necessity for students, I believe, to fully support their academic, social, emotional, and physical development. FAR too many schools now are pushing academic work 24/7 at the expense of meaningful, necessary activities, programs, and lessons that support the whole child philosophy and unique needs of our middle school students. 

I am not sure how much I agree with the validity of the following article's findings, but it does get us thinking about our philosophy for middle schools and how we can best support these young adolescents' needs through a variety of lessons, both in and out of the classroom. I was particularly struck by the teachers' and administrators' comments and insights immediately following the article.

Study Links Academic Setbacks to Middle School Transition

While policymakers and researchers alike have focused on improving students’ transition into high school, a new study of Florida schools suggests the critical transition problem may happen years before, when students enter middle school.
The studyRequires Adobe Acrobat Reader, part of the Program on Education Policy and Governance Working Papers Series at Harvard University, found that students moving from grade 5 into middle school show a “sharp drop” in math and language arts achievement in the transition year that plagues them as far out as 10th grade, even risking thwarting their ability to graduate high school and go on to college. Students who make a school transition in 6th grade are absent more often than those who remain in one school through 8th grade, and they are more likely to drop out of school by 10th grade.
“I don’t see eliminating the transition at the high school level as important or beneficial as eliminating the transition at the middle school level,” said Martin R. West, an assistant education professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a co-author of the study.
“That to me is a really robust finding,” said David L. Hough, the managing editor of theMiddle Grades Research Journal and a dean emeritus of Missouri State University’s college of education, in Springfield. “All these people are focusing on the transition to high school; it looks to me like they need to be focusing on that transition to middle school.”
Mr. Hough, who was not involved in the Harvard study, has been developing a database of nearly 2,000 schools covering middle-level grades across 25 states. He said that roughly 6,000 schools nationwide are structured in the K-8 configuration and 8,000 as 6-8. While so-called “elemiddle” K-8 schools had been spreading more rapidly than regular middle schools in recent years, Mr. Hough said district moves to swap middle for elemiddle schools have “leveled off” since 2010.
For the Florida study, Mr. West and Guido Schwerdt, a researcher with the Ifo Institute for Economic Research at the University of Munich in Germany, used the state’s longitudinal database to track more than 450,000 students in the state’s public schools who proceeded from grades 3 to 10 between 2000-01 and 2008-09.
They found students who attended elementary schools ending at grade 5 had an early edge over those attending K-8 schools in mathematics and language arts, but their performance in both subjects dropped dramatically when they switched to middle school in 6th grade. After the 6th grade transition, middle school students fell by .12 standard deviations in math and .09 standard deviations in reading compared with students at K-8 schools, and then that gap continued to widen throughout middle school and into high school.
Moreover, students who had attended a middle school were 18 percent more likely than students who attended a K-8 school before high school to not enroll in grade 10 after attending grade 9—an indicator that they may have dropped out.
While the middle school drop was most pronounced in urban schools, Mr. West said the same general pattern was repeated in suburban and rural schools.
The Florida findings are “almost identical” to the results of a smaller, 2010 study of New York City public schools, Mr. West said. In it, Columbia University researchers found that students who started in K-5 or K-6 schools performed slightly better than their K-8 peers in math and language arts in 5th grade, but when they moved to a middle school, the K-8 and middle school students changed places, and the achievement gap between those groups increased through 8th grade.

Middle Versus High

Mr. Hough has found there is “much popular experience about the shock students experience when first entering middle school from an elementary school, but precious little empirical data have been collected to examine it.”
Rather, he said, most researchers and policymakers focus on the transition into high school. In part, that may be because most students who drop out of high school do so in 9th or 10th grades, yet the Florida study found that the transition from middle to high school was much less traumatic for students than the one from elementary to middle school.
Florida students entering high school did see a drop in achievement, but it was temporary and only one-fifth the size of the drop seen during the middle school transition. “For the high school switchers, they suffer a little one-time drop but then recover,” Mr. West said. “It looks like a much less disruptive transition than the one to middle school; the high school transition is not that different from what you’d see in a typical school transition.”
The onset of puberty can exacerbate normal transition problems for younger students, according to Patti Kinney, an associate director of middle-level services at the National Association of Secondary School Principals, in Reston, Va. “You’re looking at students making a transition during a time when tremendous physical, cognitive, and emotional transitions are going on at the same time,” Ms. Kinney said. “There’s a wide variety of maturation among different children at that level.”
In contrast, the Mountain View, Calif., research group EdSource found no difference between K-8 and 6-8 school achievement overall in its 2010 study of middle-grade achievement in California, “Gaining Ground in the Middle Grades,” but it did find students often faced a tougher transition into middle school than high school, according to Matthew Rosen, an EdSource senior research associate.
“The picture we got was schools that were having higher-achievement outcomes were being more intense and intentional about looking at a wider array of student data [during the middle school transition] and finding out what interventions were needed quickly,” Mr. Rosen said.

Easing Transitions

For example, the 1,400-student La Merced Intermediate School, part of the Montebello Unified School District outside Los Angeles, asks the elementary teachers of all incoming 6th graders to fill out academic-history reports, including their previous grades and test scores, problem areas, favorite subjects, and extracurricular activities. “Those sheets allow teachers to go, ‘OK, what is the range of our students’ interests and how do we get them involved in the activities that really resonate with their interests?’ ” Mr. Rosen said.
The teachers from the smaller elementary schools that feed into La Merced also accompany their 5th grade students on a site visit to the middle school, to help the students learn the campus layout and prepare for the differences in structure from one grade to the next.
For the Florida study, the researchers used a survey of principals to compare instructional practices at the various schools, but did not find much difference between practices or class sizes at K-8 and 6-8 schools. However, they did find that 6-8 middle schools had more than twice as many students at each grade level, 363, than the 125 students per grade on average at K-8 schools.
That larger grade-level group may make it harder to tailor instruction and ease the moves from grade to grade, Mr. West suggested.
Ms. Kinney of the NASSP said that effective transitions should be “a process, not an event.”
“A lot of times, people talk about transition programs, and they are talking about what they are doing in 9th grade, when they really need to be working with their middle schools to support students much earlier,” she said.
“Kids develop at their own rates; what’s important is how you are personalizing that environment for them,” Ms. Kinney said. “The grade configuration in a lot of ways is a secondary consideration.”
The NASSP’s Breaking Ranks in the Middlebook on improving student achievement in middle grades calls for schools serving those grades to provide each student with a “personal adult advocate” to help him or her understand the changing academic requirements and social dynamics.
“It is easy for those who don’t work regularly with middle-level students to forget that 6th graders are only five or six years removed from their teddy bears,” Breaking Ranksnotes, and “those who do work with middle-level students sometimes forget that, by the time students leave ‘the middle,’ the rigors of college are only four short years away.”

What Do You Think?
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2:40 PM on November 28, 2011
Having served on State Education Advisory boards in Florida over the past 10 years, we have known that the middle school model does not work. The better model is K-8 for many reasons such as are cited in this article. However, school districts find no capital funding for building new schools or adding on to existing schools to accommodate the K-8 model while some schools are land-locked and cannot expand. All the while, in Florida, schools must meet the class-size amendment demands above all else. It is quite a dilemma. 
Parents of 5th and 6th graders have known for a while that the middle school system is not working. I'm glad to read this article.
Score: 1

K. Marshall

8:57 PM on November 28, 2011
I spent 26 of my 37 year career with sixth graders, and I believe firmly in the need to focus more attention on the needs of these pre-adolescents. Because they are going through so many changes physically, emotionally, and socially, the addition of sudden academic change simply overwhelms many sixth graders. In a middle school of 2000+ students, only a small percentage figure out how to navigate the system if they have problems. Keeping students at the same school K-8 not only eliminates this academic change. It also means students know a number of adults if they need to seek help, and they can gain much needed self-esteem by having close relationships/partnerships with younger students.
Score: 2


10:25 AM on November 29, 2011
The middle school transition is incredibly important to discover interventions and apply innovative methods and lessons in the classroom that not only prepare students for their education longevity, but it will begin to mold them as they grow to become professionals. You must get them involved with activities, technology, and examples that resonate with their interests to keep their attention and feelings towards education. The digital curriculum my team creates at is soley focused on postive outcomes in regards to these issues and statistics. We define ourselves as Middle School, and will continue to empower educators to reach these mentioned demographics through localized digital instruction and assessments. I cannot express enough how important articles like this are shared with the public. Kids do develop at their own rates, and we give solutions for teachers to personalize that environment.

Here is a personal story of a Middle School embracing digital curriculum to transform their student's success:

Thank you for the wonderful publication.
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S. Varga

11:29 AM on November 29, 2011
For the last nine years I taught 6th grade math in a large urban district. The school in which I taught was diverse both culturally and economically. My observations each year were consistent in that boys struggle mightily with the transition from elementary to middle school. Girls manage to adapt to middle school after about the second week. Because boys are lagging 1-2 years developmentally behind the girls, they are not equipped mentally or physically to adapt to the middle school paradigm. Invaribly, the vast majority of interventions and retentions were directed at the male sixth grade population.
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11:47 AM on November 29, 2011
Middle school students need help before they transition into high school, nationwide. One would be amazed at the lack of organisation, respect, study habits and behaviours present in my current high school. Our students need and deserve help for this grand transition. I am currently searching for such a position if anybody knows one-regards, Monsieur
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12:02 PM on November 29, 2011
While I believe research is important, to make the blanket statement that the "middle school model is not working" is irresponsible. The middle school model IS working in places where the staff works at it. Many times, the sixth grade really becomes the 'training ground' for seventh and eighth grades, which is not developmentally-appropriate. The sixth grade transition is difficult, especially for boys, so our sixth grade teachers work to provide procedures and interventions targeted to help those students.
Thankfully, for our district, it has nothing to do with building facilities and money - it's about students and how we can best serve them. Young adolescents have different needs than eight year olds and thus, we have created an environment that supports them.
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12:49 PM on November 29, 2011
I don't believe the article is saying that the middle-school model doesn't work - it is saying that in order for it to work, the transition piece has to be very carefully structured. I've worked with many K-8 and middle school districts and can honestly say that when middle school is done well and there is a close link between the middle school and it's feeder elementary schools, the students feel more secure and their needs are better met. I admit that this is a rarity. I have seen many k-8 schools that neglect to recognize that adolescents are very different from elementary-age students and have very different needs. 6th, 7th, and 8th graders should not be treated like bigger versions of their younger selves; they need an environment that can focus on their unique needs. The study on which this article is based does not seem to identify whether schools truly implement the middle school model or simply group 6-8 graders in the same school. There are many junior highs that call themselves middle schools, and I would readily agree that these are rarely if ever the best thing for kids.
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7:30 AM on December 1, 2011
Dear JClark-When I stated that the middle school model is broken and not working, I stated that from facts retrieved from studies in the Florida education system. I served on a State Education advisory board for K-20 and the middle school model is over 20 years old and is not working if Florida. Because some of your schools in the middle school system are, in your opinion working, does not mean that my statement is irresponsible. This is a tough time for 6th graders and the dropout number prove that middle school is tough. I'm not saying every middle school student has a tough time but the dropout rate shows that many do. When students are in a K-8 model, they know adults that they have known since 1st grade-as someone stated in another post- so they feel confidence and they are the leaders in a familiar setting during a time of great change in many ways.
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11:25 AM on December 1, 2011
Just a thought - I wonder if the reason the transiiton is not working is due to the amount of time students spend in each content area if that's the reason why they are failing and dropping out of school. In a regular K-5 model, students are in a self contained classroom. If the students didn't master the concept, the teacher has the flexiblity of "stealing" minutes from other subject areas to "boost" the level of student mastery in a given subject. When students trandition, either to a middle school or to the upper grades of a K-8, most of the time these classes are set up by periods. Teachers don't have the luxury of stealing minutes at this point. Whether they are in a K-8 model or middle school model would then negate the theory being presented here in this article unless the upper level (6-8) are self contained.

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