The National Forum
In recent years, many organizations and individuals have called for teacher education reform. The Forum is specifically concerned with creating excellent middle-grades teachers who are prepared to teach challenging content to young adolescents. In order to ensure that middle-grades teachers have the knowledge, skills, and dispositions to teach their students well, teacher preparation programs must focus on three critical areas:
Ultimately, the focus of all teacher preparation programs must be on results. Teacher preparation programs must provide prospective teachers with field-based experiences where they have the opportunity to apply what they learn in the classroom to real-life settings. Graduates should be able to demonstrate that they contribute to middle-grades students' healthy development and their ability to perform at high levels on multiple indicators of academic success. Moreover, they should leave no young adolescent
NEED FOR SPECIALIZED PREPARATION OF MIDDLE-GRADES TEACHERS
An effective teacher is the single most important factor affecting student learning. It’s more important than standards, more important than class size, more important than how much money is spent. Each of these is significant, but the quality of teaching dwarfs them all (p. 2).
Studies conducted by the University of Tennessee Value-Added Research and Assessment Center (Sanders and Rivers, 1996) and by the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future (Darling-Hammond, 1996) bolster Geringer's assertion that teachers are a critical influence. In the press to respond to public schools' urgent need for more teachers, policymakers must remember that the essential need is for more highly qualified teachers. We cannot sacrifice the quality of middle-grades education and the next generation of young adolescents to the immediate problem of teacher shortages. Schools must hire teachers who know how to help students meet rigorous content and performance standards and who educate them to live in an increasingly diverse, democratic society. In middle-level schools, with their myriad challenges, high-quality teacher preparation is a must.
Turning Points 2000 (Jackson and Davis, 2000) reports a growing consensus to support specialized teacher preparation at the middle-grades level:
the need for and perceived value of specialized teacher preparation,
relatively few middle-grades teachers in this country receive such
preparation before they begin their careers (McEwin, Dickinson, and
Jenkins, 1996; Scales, 1992; Scales and McEwin, 1994). The National
Forum believes that the time is right to establish specialized
middle-level teacher preparation programs that prepare the next
generation of teachers for the next generation of students. Yet,
research shows that specialized teacher preparation will not become the
norm until middle-level licensure is universally required. Only then
will teacher preparation institutions be compelled to offer
comprehensive middle-level programs, and will teachers of young
adolescents have the specialized preparation they need in order to
become effective teachers.
MANDATE FOR MIDDLE-LEVEL TEACHER LICENSURE
Despite the need for well-prepared teachers, nationally, only 20 percent of teachers are formally prepared to teach at the middle level (and that figure is much lower in some states). The lack of subject expertise is equally glaring. For instance, approximately 30 percent of grades 7 and 8 teachers assigned to teach math or science lack the subject knowledge to do so. Teacher quality especially suffers in poor urban and rural schools, where even larger percentages of teachers teach outside their fields and areas of certification. As Kati Haycock reports, "Poor students, minority students, and lower achieving students of all races are far more likely than other students to be taught by undereducated teachers" (Haycock and Ames, 2000).
Some signs of improvement are beginning to appear. A national study of teacher licensure regulations conducted by Gaskill (2002) found that increasing numbers of states are adopting specialized middle-level licensure regulations for teachers. The study found that 43 states and the District of Columbia now have some form of specialized licensure requirement for middle-level teaching. This number has increased substantially over the last several decades.
While these results are encouraging, credentials still are not necessarily required for middle-level teachers. Gaskill found that only 21 of the 43 states that offered some form of middle-level teaching credential (a license, certification, or endorsement) required middle-level teachers to have this credential. In the majority of states, almost any kind of teaching credential allows a teacher to take a middle-level position. Such leeway is rarely permitted for those teaching elementary or high school students, a reflection of middle-grades schools’ low priority among state departments of education, policymakers, teacher preparation institutions, and other stakeholders.
In too many states, licenses cover overlapping grade levels (e.g., grades K–8, 5–8, 7–12). This discourages prospective teachers from enrolling in specialized middle-grades preparation programs, because they can acquire a license that covers six (7–12) or nine (K–8) grade levels in the same length of study that is required to qualify for a middle-grades license that covers only four grade levels (5–8). As noted in Turning Points 2000:
This dilemma can be avoided by greatly reducing or eliminating the grade level overlaps between elementary, middle, and high school licensure regulations. Prospective teachers should have the opportunity to decide upon a career which focuses on a single developmental age group and a rigorous preparation in the subjects they will teach. This specialized professional preparation should be rewarded by a distinctive license that accurately informs all concerned that the teacher receiving it has demonstrated his or her abilities to teach young adolescents effectively (Jackson and Davis, p. 103).
In an attempt to respond to these credentialling issues, some states have launched "endorsement" options, rather than authentic teaching licenses. But, however well-intentioned, such add-on endorsements have done little to ensure the special preparation of middle-level teachers. Typically, in endorsement plans, prospective teachers must first earn a degree and a license in elementary education, a secondary subject area, or some other teaching field. Then, by extending their study, prospective teachers can also be licensed to teach at the middle level. Endorsement requirements often amount to little more than two or three courses that may or may not focus directly on middle-level teaching. However, since most states allow elementary- and secondary-level teachers to teach young adolescents, few teachers choose even this limited route to middle-level specialization (McEwin and Dickinson, 1996).
In summary, progress has been made in the number of states adopting specialized middle-level teacher licensure; 86 percent of all states now offer a specific middle-level credential as an option. However, only 42 percent actually require a middle-level license for teaching in middle-level classrooms. The National Forum to Accelerate Middle-Grades Reform joins others in advocating that every state require middle-level teachers to have middle-level credentials. This will encourage more colleges and universities to offer rigorous programs that focus directly on middle-level teaching, and districts and schools to hire teachers with the appropriate preparation.
ELEMENTS OF MIDDLE-LEVEL TEACHER PREPARATION PROGRAMS
A high-quality middle-grades teacher-preparation program includes many of the components that other top-notch teacher-preparation programs offer (e.g., integrating technology, forming collaborative partnerships, promoting teacher leadership). It also has the following key elements that are especially appropriate to this grade span:
Young adolescents need and deserve caring, knowledgeable, and skilled teachers who want to teach them and have the professional preparation to do so successfully. The National Forum to Accelerate Middle-Grades Reform believes that middle-level teacher preparation programs must be different from programs designed to prepare teachers of young children in elementary schools or older adolescents in high schools. Again, we urge colleges and universities to design teacher preparation programs that specifically prepare future and current teachers to work with this age group and to ensure that students meet academic standards. Further, we strongly recommend that states establish mandatory requirements for middle-level licensure that do not overlap significantly with licensure for elementary or high school teaching. This will serve as an incentive for both institutions and individuals to pursue middle-level specialization and for districts and schools to hire teachers who are well prepared to teach this age level.
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