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December 1, 2000
Vol. 58
No. 4

The Evolution of Middle Schools

How have middle schools changed over the past 30 years? What is their status today?

Florida is a bellwether state, where changes in lifestyle, demographics, politics, and education often predict what will happen in other U.S. states. In the case of the middle school movement, changes in Florida since the 1960s and 1970s have, indeed, been indicative of one of the most substantial educational reorganizations that this nation has ever witnessed.
In 2000, the context for middle-level education is visibly and dramatically different from what it was when the movement began. Florida's 500 middle schools are large and becoming larger; the average size is nearly 1,400 students, and too many have more than 2,000 students. Middle schools are more racially desegregated at the school level, but not necessarily by classroom. Safety and security are great concerns, and school administrators carry two-way radios at all times. Some schools have more security staff members than they do counselors, and every school has a police resource officer on campus daily. Uniforms for students are also more common, and full-service schools are providing health services that were, 30 years ago, considered a family responsibility.
Transition into and out of middle school remains a problem, especially the transition from middle to high school. Several districts have created separate 9th grade centers as educational way stations between middle and high school. Florida educators have found that these centers have positive effects. When centers are not physically in the schools, districts often organize the high school's 9th grade teachers into academic teams that resemble the interdisciplinary team organization of the middle school. High school educators, however, have not been involved in Florida's middle school restructuring as frequently or as thoroughly as necessary.

Three Decades of Change

What other changes and challenges in Florida offer insight into middle school trends?

Interdisciplinary Team Organization

Academic teaming has triumphed in Florida's middle schools. Of all of the components of the middle school concept, teaming is the one that school leaders refuse to give up. The great majority of middle schools are organized so that teachers share the same students, the same part of the building, the same schedule for common planning time, and the same responsibility for the major portion of their students' curriculum.
Most middle schools have team leaders who receive stipends that often match or exceed those paid to department chairs ($2,000 a year in Dade County). Most middle school teams are made up of four teachers who teach up to 110 students or more. Teams often have names, colors, and mottos—much like athletic teams or military outfits. Developing group cohesiveness is an essential part of teaming.
Teaming is not monolithic, however; the shape varies from school to school. In some schools, teachers and students remain together for more than one year through multi-age grouping and looping. Inclusion teams are also common. Smaller two- and three-teacher teams are the trend in many schools; one large district has two-teacher teams in all 34 of its middle schools.


Two contradictory curriculum paradigms are at war in Florida's middle schools. Many middle school educators remain committed to a developmentally appropriate curriculum that springs from the needs of young adolescents. Advocates of an integrated, student-centered curriculum are convinced that student-centered plans are in the best interests of today's students and tomorrow's nation.
The competing curriculum model grows from the standards movement and the high-stakes assessment and accountability process. The pressure of Florida's Sunshine State Standards; the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT), Florida's version of state testing; and the Governor's A+ Program, which grades schools on how well they score on the FCAT, have led to a comprehensive process of curriculum alignment and pacing to an extent never before experienced in our state. Once fiercely proud of local curriculum autonomy, many Florida educators have yielded to the pressure to teach what is tested—or at least to try to find congruence among standards, assessments, and the classroom curriculum.
The arguments for and against each perspective are clear, rational, and strong. Advocates for the integrated curriculum point to the appeal that their approach has for students: It enlivens the classroom for everyone and connects to the best thinkers in education, such as John Dewey and Carl Rogers. Advocates for the standards-based curriculum point to the popularity of such measures with the public at large. They assert that new testing procedures focus on real-life applications and critical thinking.
A casualty of the curriculum wars has been the central concept of teacher-based advisory (or advisor-advisee) programs. Always enthusiastically advocated but never firmly in place, these programs have mostly fallen by the wayside in Florida's middle schools. Weakened by poor implementation, inadequate training, little faculty or leadership support, and parental misunderstanding, the programs are not surviving the FCAT and the Governor's A+ Program. School leaders and teachers feel compelled to devote every available school minute to academic purposes, and schools that do include time in the schedule for advisory programs focus on standards and assessment.
One survivor of the curriculum wars has been the exploratory portion of the day. An important part of the curriculum since the early days of the junior high school, exploratory or elective programs are present in every middle school in Florida. Every day, students take one exploratory course, usually organized around a "wheel," along with the four or five main academic courses and physical education. Typically, 6th graders take all the courses on the wheel for about six weeks each, exploring art, music, technology, foreign language, and family and consumer science. The choices narrow as students get older. Students who wish, or whose parents insist, can take instrumental music all three years.
Technology is a much greater part of the exploratory curriculum than in earlier decades. Industrial arts and home economics have given way almost completely to technology. Usually, a 6th grade student will take a beginning technology course on keyboarding; then he or she will take more sophisticated options, including the most advanced software application programs in graphics and data management. More and more, middle schools are investing in technology-based labs for business education, home economics, and advanced technology courses. These labs usually feature centers in which students encounter units in different areas: robotics, graphic design, Web-site construction, flight simulation, and rocketry.


The way in which time is organized for teaching and learning is a matter of some controversy in Florida's middle schools. For many years, the middle school concept has advocated flexible block scheduling. This typically means placing most of the academic day in the hands of individual interdisciplinary teams, permitting the teams to divide up the day into discrete periods or to use one big block of time—whichever the team members see fit. Once they adjust for physical education, exploratory courses, and lunch, the teams of teachers have the remainder of the day at their disposal. In theory, bells would no longer ring to announce separate periods. But in reality, almost every Florida middle school initially adopted standard six- or seven-period days.
In the last five years, however, the long block schedule has found its way to the middle school. In Florida, approximately one-third of middle schools have implemented, or are planning to implement, a block schedule. Longer periods, ranging from 85 to 120 minutes, are gaining popularity. As many as half of Florida's 500 middle schools will be using a block schedule in the next five years.


At one new middle school of 1,200 students in central Florida, each classroom has six computers, each science classroom has 10, and the three computer labs have 30 each. And what most middle school teachers and their students are doing with technology is dazzling. Teachers and administrators communicate by e-mail rather than memo or loudspeaker; even parents have conferences with their children's teachers by e-mail. New Web-based search engines permit students working at home to gain access to school computer systems. Teachers no longer spend hours figuring out grade averages because computer programs complete the task for them. The daily announcements in almost every middle school are conducted by live TV crews from studios that, 30 years ago, would have made network news crews proud. And the media specialist—formerly the librarian—is now the technology specialist in many schools. The technology specialist wheels wireless computers and Internet labs—complete with Apple iBooks—from room to room on large carts, much as the librarian used to wheel library materials to classrooms.
More important is the vitality that the Internet adds to school curriculum resources. In one social studies class, students bypassed the library's 30-year-old books on Latin America with newer CD-ROMs and Web pages. In another classroom, students studied the campaign literature on Al Gore and George W. Bush on the candidates' Web sites. In yet another class, students collected data on birds outside their classroom and compared them to data on the same birds in 10 different states. Educators in Florida's middle schools envision that technological resources will continue to dramatically transform schools.


Although much has changed in Florida's middle schools over the last three decades, some practices have remained the same. The way that teaching is conducted, for example, has only started to change with the advance of technology. In many classrooms, teachers seem caught in what their students might call a time warp, relying on traditional teacher-directed, whole-class instruction. Presentation, question-and-answer sessions, practice drills, and reteaching are components of the most common instructional sequence.
Teachers and school leaders have recognized the need to differentiate instruction even if they have not been able to accomplish it. Cooperative learning has, consequently, become a permanent part of hundreds of middle school classrooms. Few teachers question its utility, especially with group-oriented middle school students. But only schools trying to challenge gifted students in heterogeneous classrooms have implemented other methods of differentiation, such as case studies, Socratic seminars, simulations, and independent study. One instructional strategy may hold particular promise for the middle grades: The workshop classroom, popularized by language-arts educators, is ideal for younger adolescents.
The way that middle schools group students for instruction is a special concern to Florida's educators. The concern rises from educators' decades-long advocacy of educational equity for all groups of students and their equally firm commitment to help individual students achieve whatever levels of excellence their talents permit.
Inclusion. Florida's special-education students are increasingly joining the mainstream. In one large district, at almost every school, every team is an inclusion team, and the schools have a support specialist at each grade level to help teachers make inclusion work. More often, teams at each grade level include a number of special-education students and teachers. This coteaching and collaboration lead to daily benefits for every student on the team, not just those with special needs or disabilities.
Ability grouping and education of the gifted. Florida's middle school educators have been unable to resolve the debate surrounding tracking and gifted education. As our schools become more demographically diverse, parents of highly able, majority-culture, middle- and upper-middle-class students have increased the pressure to group their students in separate classrooms for most of the school day. Although a few middle schools remain completely heterogeneous in their instructional grouping, the great majority provide advanced classes in math and language arts, if not social studies and science. Many middle schools have four or five levels of classes in such subjects as mathematics. Some schools organize separate teams for gifted students, who have few or no opportunities to interact with other students. In not a few schools, isolated islands of educational plenty are surrounded by a sea of discouragement and disappointment, which only further increases the fevered advocacy for special, separate programs for the gifted, mostly white, upper-middle-class students.

The Corporate Presence

Practices from the corporate world increasingly influence our middle school leadership. Many central offices have initiated centralized planning that removes the traditional autonomy that building leaders enjoyed during the years of school-based management. District leaders work to ensure a system in which every school day in every school reflects the state and district goals. They match classroom plans with school and district goals and state standards.
The distance between Florida's middle school students and the corporate world has also narrowed dramatically in the last three decades. Large numbers of students watch brief news shows every morning, which include two minutes of commercials for products like Snickers, Juicy Fruit, and Pepsi. Companies offer free computers in exchange for monitoring students' Web habits, breaking down information by gender, age, and zip code—and potentially linking to their parents' credit card numbers. Other middle schools, weakened by diminished resources in a time of great corporate profits, compete to sign up as many corporate partners as possible. Banners announcing the presence of partnerships hang in hallways and auditoriums, with some school lobbies festooned with more corporate symbols than a NASCAR race track.
What will the next decade bring? Will the testing companies that already publish textbooks "created by the same company that created your state assessment program" find more ways of penetrating the school market? Will we have textbooks with as many ads as People magazine? Will school lunches be sponsored by Nike? More than a few school lunchrooms are already dominated by Subway and Pizza Hut. (These restaurant chains have at least eliminated the once ubiquitous "mystery meat" in school cafeterias.)
The corporate paradigm has an increasing influence on Florida's middle school programs. Centralization threatens local autonomy and school-based planning. Standardization may completely replace curriculum planning around students' needs and interests. Competition between and among students, teachers, school leaders, and schools supplants trust, cooperation, and collaboration. Assessment and accountability managed from a distance supplant local decisions about effectiveness, worthiness, and the assignment of resources.

School Leadership

The person in the middle school principal's office today is much more likely to be female, and she's not the secretary. No longer are African American or Hispanic leaders a rarity in Florida's middle schools, especially in larger, more urban districts. These leaders believe in shared decision making, in which faculty are involved in school-level decisions.
Instructional leadership. Florida's middle school principals now see themselves as instructional leaders. Although our best leaders have always cared deeply about instruction, recent programs initiated by the state government have mandated this change: Instructional leadership is now a professional survival strategy. Athletic programs are scarcely noticeable in, if not totally absent from, the language of middle school leaders, who now speak about what teachers in the building teach and how well they perform.
Governor Jeb Bush's A+ Program has driven Florida's middle school principals beyond instructional leadership to a preoccupation with academic achievement. Scores on the FCAT test determine a school's "grade," dictate bonuses for the staff, bring public praise or disapprobation, and may result in the termination or promotion of school leaders and teachers. In many Florida schools, nothing else matters but the FCAT.
As a consequence, staff development really counts now; school leaders see the direct connection between teacher learning and student achievement more clearly than ever. Once, a school principal might have introduced a workshop leader and then left the room; today's school leaders not only stay for the workshop, but they also help choose inservice goals and resources. Principals participate fully in training, care deeply about the results, and follow up with supervision that integrates teacher training and classroom observations. Classroom supervision, professional development planning, strategic planning, shared decision making, curriculum alignment, school scheduling, technology, teacher teamwork, school organization, and grouping tactics—all are vitally important to today's middle school instructional leader.
Succession planning. Sooner or later, every middle school takes on the characteristics of its leadership—and that is the problem. The impending retirement of dozens, perhaps hundreds, of leaders who pioneered the middle school concept poses a significant threat to the continued viability of middle schools. The dearth of training programs for leadership at the district or university levels adds to the severity of this problem. And all too frequently, no succession plan exists for middle school leaders in Florida's districts.
Instead, the route to the middle school principalship is often only a slight variation of the traditional pathway. Today, a middle school principal is likely to have had prior experience as a high school assistant principal. Often, this means that the new middle school leader has been a high school teacher or a coach, then an assistant principal; no middle school experience, training, or knowledge is required. In unusual circumstances, elementary school principals are appointed to the middle school but with equally thin preparation.
The unwritten rules of succession often push the successful middle school leaders to become high school principals. Many high school assistant principals agree to take on the leadership of a middle school until they are sufficiently seasoned to be "promoted" to the high school. In relatively few districts are new middle school leaders identified first as master teachers at the middle school level, then promoted to the assistant principalship at that level, and then to the school leadership role.
The success of succession planning, and of middle school development as a whole, seems directly related to the presence of a district-level supervisor who has direct and comprehensive responsibility for the middle schools. When a district appoints a middle school supervisor to the district office, the middle schools are generally more successful. The state and university leadership programs, however, do not seem to be aware of the crucial nature of central office leadership for middle school development.

Future Challenges

So much has changed in Florida's middle schools during the last three decades, yet the challenges remain relatively constant. Can we build and operate schools that feel small regardless of their size? Can we find opportunities to create curriculum experiences that match adolescents' needs? Can we satisfy our patrons, especially those who are affluent and influential, without sacrificing the children of the poor? Can we find a new generation of effective leaders?
The middle school movement of the last 30 years, in Florida and throughout the United States, has been one of the most dynamic and successful educational innovations in the history of education. The next 30 years should be equally interesting.

Paul S. George has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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