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Keeping the faith: Conversations to advance the middle school concept with integrity

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Keeping the Faith: Conversations to Advance the Middle School Concept with Integrity
Many educators continue to provide authentic middle school programs and practices - even when faced with budgetary challenges and public misperceptions. Presenters will share suggestions for articulating and advocating the middle school concept. Using presentation software, audience participants will engage in discussing these issues in an open forum.
Presenters: Bob Houghton, Howard Coleman, Kathleen Roney, Laurie Ramirez & Dave Strahan-Appalachian State University, UNC-Wilmington, & Western Carolina University

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Keeping the faith: Conversations to advance the middle school concept with integrity

  1. 1. The John Van Hoose Memorial Session North Carolina Middle Level Education Association, March 17, 2014 Keeping the faith: Conversations to advance the middle school concept with integrity Program description: Many educators continue to provide authentic middle school programs and practices – even when faced with budgetary challenges and public misperceptions. Presenters will share suggestions for articulating and advocating the middle school concept. Using presentation software, audience participants will engage in discussing these issues in an open forum. Presenters: Bob Houghton, Western Carolina University; Howard Coleman and Kathy Roney, University of North Carolina at Wilmington; Laurie Ramirez, Appalachian State University; Dave Strahan, Western Carolina University Please participate: We invite to share your thoughts on some of the issues we will address. Please select one or more of these questions and jot your notes on a 4 X 6 card. We will use these cards in our discussion. 1. What are the most important premises of the middle school concept? 2. Why does it seem that the the middle school concept is sometimes “under attack?” 3. How should we respond to our critics? Overview: In March 2013 Dr. Paul George delivered the John Van Hoose Memorial Lecture at the North Carolina Middle School Association Annual Conference entitled “The Struggle for the Middle School in North Carolina: Taking the Long View.” Those of us in the auditorium were captivated and inspired and we knew immediately that we needed to make this speech available to a wider audience. Dr. George agreed to allow us to publish his speech in its entirety. The Winter 2014 issue of the NC Middle School Journal begins with his speech in a special section. In his analysis of “the long view,” Paul George describes many of the ways that the middle school concept “represents progressive education at its finest” (George, 2013, p.2). He argues that the essence of progressive education is “a set of elemental beliefs in essential human goodness and the possibility of progress” and that, for most of human history, this world view has competed with one that believes in competition and survival of the fittest. As individuals and as societies, we are at our best when we struggle to overcome a worldview rooted in selfishness, greed, fear, and anger and, instead nourish, intentionally feed, a worldview based on a spirit of optimism, trust, hope, love, cooperation, and community in our own lives-- and with young adolescents.(p. 4) Paul describes how policies that stress accountability have undermined the progressive spirit in many middle schools. In this session, we share highlights from the commentaries we wrote in response to Paul’s speech. In “Addressing our critics: Research evidence for the middle school concept as a pathway to higher test scores,” David Strahan presents results of studies showing that the middle school concept is the best pathway to higher test scores for young people in middle grades schools. In “The Long View and the Long Haul,” Howard Coleman and Kathleen Roney explore implications for middle level leaders and offer four recommendations to those who want to commit to work for the success of every student in middle grades school.
  2. 2. In “The Long View – Perspective of a Middle Level Teacher Educator,” Laurie Ramirez zeroes in on Dr. George’s call to action and expands that to include a confirmation of the good work that is being done by countless middle grades practitioners. In “The Long View – Curriculum into the 21st Century,” Robert Houghton reflects on what the Long View means for middle grades curriculum and asserts that the long view must involve us in global centers for self-directed learning and composition. Excerpts from Strahan, D. (2014). “Addressing our critics: Research evidence for the middle school concept as a pathway to higher test scores,” North Carolina Middle School Journal. At first glance, it might seem reasonable to assume that organizing the school day around core academic subjects and having teachers focus exclusively on their content areas would yield higher achievement. Research evidence shows that this is a false assumption. The fundamental message of this commentary is that students in grades six through nine learn best when schools conscientiously implement the middle school concept. Evidence for this conclusion includes comparative studies of schools implementing the middle school concept at varying levels, studies of successful middle level schools, and case reports of schools that have used the middle school concept as an agenda for school reform and have “turned around” accordingly. The authors of Research and Resources in Support of This We Believe (AMLE, 2010) identified three aspects of successful middle schools that provided constructs to frame data collection and analysis over time: Effective curriculum, instruction, and assessment for young adolescents. In authentic middle schools these are “as diverse varied, and lively as the students themselves” (p. 13) Interdisciplinary teaming with common planning time. This organizational structure “creates smaller learning communities where middle grades youth are not lost within the larger school community. Evidence links interdisciplinary teams with positive student outcomes – notably greater achievement “(p. 28). Activities and structures that focus on students’ affective needs as well as academic needs. Such activitiesinsure that the school programs meet the demand for “much broader attention than the traditional focus on cognitive domains and teachers’ actions” (p. 44) While the “middle school concept” is a broad construct that encompasses philosophical perspectives as well as organizational structures, these three aspects of successful middle schools provide a working definition for research purposes. In the 1990’s, three studies using longitudinal data demonstrated that students in schools that provided the highest levels of these three aspects demonstrated higher levels of achievement than students in comparison schools. Since those studies were completed, recognition programs such as the Schools to Watch initiative have provided continuing evidence that authentic middle schools address both developmental needs and subject matter knowledge. Standardized test scores from recognized schools are higher than those in the schools selected at random. Case studies conducted with schools that used the middle school framework to transform their practices are providing examples and illustrations of authentic practices. From a distance, critics of the middle school concept might assume that an old-fashioned emphasis on academic content produces higher test scores. Given the weight of evidence for the power of the middle school concept, it may be reasonable to conclude that the middle school concept, as operationalized in Research and Resources in Support of This We Believe and enacted in Schools to Watch, isa much better pathway to higher test scores.
  3. 3. Excerpts from Ramirez. L. A. (2014). “The Long View – Perspective of a Middle Level Teacher Educator,” North Carolina Middle School Journal, in press. In March 2013, I was honored to hear Paul George deliver the John Van Hoose Memorial Lecture in Greensboro, North Carolina. For teacher educators, it was both affirming and urgent, both a confirmation of our good work and a call to action. The Short View One of the most heartening moments in Paul George’s keynote occurred when he claimed that, based on over forty years of observation and in spite of the current media criticism, scapegoating, and lack of support: “Teachers and school leaders, in your buildings especially, are better-trained and more professional than in any other period… I’ll be that the curriculum in your school is far more rigorous than it used to be, and expectations have never been higher” (p. 2). He went on to suggest that academic achievement is at an all-time high and that parents give high marks to the schools their children attend. While this may be true and we may have come far since the inception of the middle school movement, there is still much work to do. The “long view” for teacher education will require us to persevere as what Paul calls the “attack on public schools” continues. In the short view, we might take a moment to appreciate that the middle school concept and the importance of preparation specific to young adolescent learners have finally been acknowledged and our work has yielded gains. The Long View Paul George reminds us, “We cannot expect that the values we cherish and the programs we prize will win out simply because they have won the struggle for our hearts, just because they are an expression of the human spirit at its best. If those of us who hold to a progressive worldview fail to keep this vision alive, our society and its schools may endure a long dark period until another group gathers the courage to pick up the banner and carry it forward (p. 8). In the long view, we need to act. We need to continue to carry the banner, especially as teacher educators. We need to hold true to what we believe is best for young adolescents, which, for us, means continuing to advocate for specialized middle level teacher preparation programs. We must continue to educate not only prospective teachers and principals, but also the general public, many of whom believe there is nothing unique about young adolescents or do not understand the knowledge , skills, and dispositions necessary to teach at the middle level. Paul ended his speech with a quote by Eleanor Roosevelt; “the future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams (in George, 2013, p. 9).” As teacher educators, we need to dream big. We need to acknowledge the power we possess, individually and collectively. We need to wield that power for the good of the movement that was begun with individuals like Paul George. Our work must honor their legacy of thought and action and keep the momentum of the movement. We must take up their fight when they can no longer engage in the battle and be the breakthrough the middle school movement needs. I relate strongly to a statement made by Nancy Doda (in Smith & McEwin, 2011); like Paul George’s speech, it spoke loudly to me and reminds me why I care so deeply about this movement: “I would like to be remembered in my life and profession as having been a part of something great and not have on my grave that I raised test scores, but that I actually raised the dignity of life, the quality of life for young people and the schools in which they found themselves” (p. 194). Paul George’s speech was inspirational and, ultimately, a call to action for all middle level educators. Individually and collectively, it is time we answer that call.

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