Middle Level Legacy Project

The Middle Level Legacy Video Series

The Middle Level Legacy video series documents the history of a major educational reform in American Education – the Middle School Movement. The Middle Level Education Legacy Project began in 2003 and included interviews with 18 prominent middle level leaders who provided their perspectives on issues such as critical incidents in the history of the Movement, important research and policy, curriculum, young adolescent development and identity, specialized middle level teacher preparation, significant debates, and challenges to the future of middle level education. These interviews were completed in 2009. The Legacy of Middle School Leaders: In Their Own Words (by Tracy W. Smith and C. Kenneth McEwin), published in 2011, includes extensive documentation, analysis, and synthesis on the results of these interviews. This Middle Level Legacy video series, also based on these interviews, was released in November 2013. This series of short documentaries is meant to provide a resource for middle level educators and leaders to learn about the rich past and legacy of middle school education so that its future and the future of young adolescents can be vibrant and promising.

Below are descriptions for the legacy videos:

1. Introduction to the Legacy Project (12:17)

This video, a digital text of the Introduction to the book, The Legacy of Middle School Leaders: In Their Own Words, by Tracy W. Smith and C. Kenneth McEwin, provides an historical view of the Middle School Movement as a social and educational reform movement that had its beginnings in the 1960s – an effort to raise awareness of and promote responsiveness to the needs of young adolescents by providing them schools and teachers appropriate for their particular and unique strengths and needs. Although a small number of middle schools existed before 1963, when William M. Alexander made his influential address at Cornell University which proposed middle schools, many credit this event as the beginning of the Middle School Movement. Video excerpts from interviews with Tom Gatewood and Conrad Toepfer are included in this clip as well as the words of Tom Erb, John Arnold, James Beane, Paul George, Tom Dickinson, and Joan Lipsitz.

This video was first shared publicly as part of the opening session at a special conference of Middle Level Professors held at Georgia College and State University in Milledgeville, Georgia, on May 12, 2011, when the first copies The Legacy of Middle School Leaders: In Their Own Words were released.

2. Founders of the American Middle School (25:40)

William Alexander, Don Eichhorn, John Lounsbury, Conrad Toepfer, and Gordon Vars are often referred to as the founding fathers of the Middle School Movement. Two of them, Drs. William Alexander and Don Eichhorn, unfortunately were deceased before the Middle Level Education Legacy project began; however, excerpts of their writings in the book and Legacy Video series are featured. John Lounsbury, Conrad Toepfer, and Gordon Vars are represented in this Founders Video, sharing their perspectives on critical incidents in the history of the Movement, important research and policy, curriculum, young adolescent development and identity, specialized middle level teacher preparation, significant debates, and challenges to the future of middle level education.

The Middle School Movement Series

3. Ideology and Identity of Middle School Education (14:30)

Early middle level leaders were deeply committed to improving middle level education in ways that benefit all young adolescents. This dedication resulted in them leading reforms designed to address the shortcomings of junior high schools as well as other school organizations that include young adolescents. There was concern among some leaders that the early Middle School Movement did not have a clear ideology or identity. In retrospect, some leaders believed that too much emphasis in the early years was placed on the importance of puberty and structural changes in middle level schools, and that too little emphasis was focused on areas like middle level curriculum and democratic education. Other Legacy participants, however, believe that the Middle School Movement did have a clear ideology and identity--progressive education. Still other middle level leaders noted that the middle level ideology was not adequately shared with educators and others outside the leadership of the emerging Middle School Movement. Lipsitz pointed out that the Middle School Movement would have been more successful if early alliances had been formed among educators, policy makers, and others to advocate for middle level reforms. The creation of the landmark position paper, This We Believe, is also discussed in this video and the role this document played in helping define the middle level education is expanded upon.

Although prominent middle leaders interviewed expressed somewhat differing views about the identity and ideology of middle level education, there was a great deal of agreement among them that has helped shape middle level education today and offers insight into future efforts that need to occur. Their advocacy for developmentally responsive middle level programs and schools was described by one leader as a moral imperative, and another recalled that there was an almost spiritual dimension to advocating for middle level schools that serve young adolescents well. This video includes many valuable lessons to be learned from pioneering middle leaders who have left an indelible legacy regarding the identity and ideology of middle level education.

4. Reorganization of Middle Level Schools (7:08)

This video documents a continued increase in the number of middle schools established in the nation since the early years of the Middle School Movement. The number of grades 5-8, 6-8, and 7-8 middle level schools has significantly increased while the number of grades 7-9 junior high schools has dramatically decreased. Many prominent middle level leaders interviewed observed that there is a substantial consensus among educators and others supporting the appropriateness of separately organized middle level schools for young adolescents and that there is widespread agreement about the kinds of programs and practices that should be incorporated into these schools. Several Legacy participants noted that there is now a rather substantial research base that supports middle level school components like interdisciplinary team organization. They also pointed out that desired components and organizational features generally associated with successful middle level schools should be authentically implemented and not become a checklist of components.

Middle level educators have been able to accomplish much on behalf of young adolescents and their schools as many developmentally responsive programs and practices have been implemented. However, middle level leaders observed that middle level schools are not without controversy. Some critics believe that that middle level schools have been too preoccupied with organizational orthodoxy and that this has resulted in many schools not serving young adolescents well in areas like middle level curriculum. Some middle level leaders also observed that a more flexible conception of middle schools has evolved and adapted to changing conditions in recent years. Legacy participants expressed their belief that the Middle School Movement has profoundly altered American education and that young adolescents have greatly benefited from efforts to transform their schools in ways that increase their learning and support their healthy development.

5. Components of the Middle School Philosophy (11:14)

Middle level leaders expressed their concern and disappointment regarding the lack of universal implementation of middle level components that have long been accepted as essential to the full success of middle level schools. Although there are numerous successful middle level schools in the nation, many middle level schools define themselves too narrowly and fail to implement all middle level components with fidelity. Middle level leaders observed that this problem has plagued middle level schools for decades, diminished their overall effectiveness, and lessened their ability to provide young adolescents with the level of educational excellence they need and deserve. Several middle level leaders pointed out that one contributing factor to the problem of partial implementation of middle level components has been that many leaders in middle schools have attempted to add various middle level components one at a time with their plan being full implementation over time. This has not worked well since middle level components are interrelated and designed to work together rather than function in isolation.

Legacy participants agreed that middle level components must be more than a list of programs and practices adopted by middle level schools. They also noted that there is a growing research base that reveals that middle level schools that follow the middle school concept/philosophy with fidelity have more positive results including higher scores on standardized achievement tests than those that have only partially implemented the middle school model. Middle level leaders recommend that middle level components be implemented with sufficient flexibility to take into account the individual needs of students, teachers, and communities of these schools. They believe that wholehearted commitments to fully implementing proven middle level components are crucial to reaching the point in American education where all young adolescents are served well by their schools.

Foundational Beliefs Supporting Middle Level Education Series

6. Unique Needs of Young Adolescents (10:28)

Legacy participants describe the benefits young adolescents have enjoyed as a result of the implementation of an approach to education that was specifically conceived to attend to their needs. Authentic middle schools are described as places of affiliation for young adolescents, places where young people feel connected to their schools and communities, where they are achieving academically, and where they feel good about themselves. Middle level leaders agree that great strides have been made in efforts to provide a developmentally responsive and appropriate education for young adolescents and that all stakeholders must continue to fight the negative media portrayals of young adolescents and to emphasize the "wonderful, rich, beautiful, intellectual, philosophical, and spiritual side of [young adolescent] development" (Doda).

7. Appropriate Curriculum for Young Adolescents (29:34)

Four of the five original founders of the Middle School Movement had advanced graduate education in curriculum. It is, therefore, no surprise that issues related to curriculum were central to the original conversations and initiatives to implement middle schools. However, in spite of the rich curriculum heritage of the Middle School Movement, and perhaps because of it, many Legacy participants expressed disappointment about the implementation of an appropriate curriculum for young adolescents. Legacy participants describe the history of curriculum in middle grades, including the entrenchment of separate-subject approaches to curriculum and glimpses of curriculum innovation promise. They challenge contemporary middle level educators and leaders to continue working toward an ideal curriculum that is innovative and appropriate for young adolescents.

8. Appropriate Teaching and Learning Practices (4:04)

The Middle Level Legacy Project participants cite changes in teaching and learning practices as one of the successes of the Middle School Movement. They discuss changes in teaching practice and learning experiences that have occurred since the 1960s. For example, middle school teachers today are more collaborative and are more likely to engage students in hands-on, active learning than did their junior high predecessors. Doda affirms that the early principles and approaches of the Middle School Movement offered relevance and affiliation to students – and challenges present-day middle level educators to return to those principles that are at the heart of an appropriate middle school educational experience for young adolescents.

Keys to Achieving Full Success in Middle Level Education Series

9. Substantial, Scholarly Knowledge Base (9:55)

A substantial, scholarly research base is critical to documenting progress, success, and limitations of any educational innovation. The evolution of and milestones in middle level education research are discussed by middle level leaders. Erb and McEwin, for example, assert research that has shown that implementing middle school practices makes positive differences for young adolescents. Arnold speaks about the power of descriptive research to convey what powerful teaching and learning can look like in middle schools. Other participants discuss the importance of research in other fields such as medicine, sociology, and anthropology that can inform the work of middle level teachers and leaders. Middle level leaders call for middle level educators and researchers to develop well-designed and implemented studies about young adolescents, their schools, their teachers, their communities, and other aspects of their healthy development – and to communicate that research far and wide.

10. Specialized Middle Level Professional Preparation and Development (11:44)

Legacy leaders in this video are advocates of middle level teacher preparation that focuses directly and distinctly upon the specialized knowledge, skills, and dispositions needed by teachers of young adolescents. They note that middle level teachers should be knowledgeable about young adolescent development, subject matter content, middle level curriculum and instruction, middle level schooling, and other key areas before they begin their careers. Legacy participants believe that middle level teachers should not have to learn to be highly effective after they begin teaching. It is unfortunate that the professional preparation many middle level teachers received was designed for those planning to teach young children or for those planning to be subject-matter specialists at the senior high school level. Middle level leaders noted that the lack of availability of sufficient numbers of teachers and other educators with specialized middle level professional preparation limited the success of early middle level schools and remains a barrier to full success today. Legacy participants acknowledged that progress has been made in many states and at the national level. However, malpractice continues in many states where almost anyone with some form of teaching license is allowed to teach at the middle level. Middle level leaders believe that the specialized professional preparation of middle level teachers, and licensure regulations that support this preparation, must become universal if full success is to be accomplished in the middle level schools of the nation.

11. Influence of the Middle School on American Education (9:09)

As part of the Middle Level Education Legacy Project, participants were asked, "What effect has the Middle School Movement had on American education?" This video provides a summary of their responses. They cite the significant contribution middle schools made to legitimizing a school in the middle that is deliberately different and focused on the needs of young adolescents. Arnold, Doda, and Johnston discuss how the Middle School Movement has influenced high school reform in American schools because middle schools, from the beginning, were focused on helping young people experience affiliation in small learning teams and communities. Participants also described challenges facing the Middle School Movement, including the lack of recognition in federal law, where middle schools are lumped into the secondary education category, even though the predominant schooling structure across America is a three-tiered system with elementary, middle, and secondary schools. Sue Swaim challenges middle level leaders to rise to the challenges of retrospection and introspection and to work collaboratively to rededicate themselves to present and future generations of young adolescents.

12. Influence of Policy, Politics, and Accountability Initiatives on Middle School Education (10:45)

Perhaps the two most influential elements of policy are related to teacher licensure and the curriculum, regulations that are generally set by state government. Many state policies acknowledge middle level schools as a legitimate level in a three-tiered system, by creating regulations for specialized middle level teacher preparation and licensure and by providing for a distinct curriculum for middle level learners.

Legacy participants pointed out that policies at the federal level have not been inclusive of middle level education. They discuss how major national bills such as Title I and No Child Left Behind ignore students, teachers, and schools at the middle level. Toepfer calls the lumping of middle schools into the category of secondary an "anachronistic, misinformed stance" when the evidence is clear that a "middle school unit can better address the educational needs of young adolescents." Sue Swaim argues that the success of the NCLB Grades 3-8 testing mandate rests "squarely on the shoulders of middle school students and middle school educators," even though they are not formally recognized in the law. Middle level leaders further criticized the narrow, content-only focus of "highly qualified teacher" and student success as they are defined in national policy. Middle level educators are challenged to work not only within the ranks of middle level educators but also to form alliances to protect teacher education and public education more generally. Emphatically, George ends this video, with a nod to Sam Houston's famous quotation: "We've got to do right and damn the consequences!"

RCOE building
Published: Nov 10, 2014 9:12am