California Department of Education
Taking Center Stage – Act II

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Historical Perspective: Setting the Stage for California's Middle School Reform Movement

Taking Center Stage. 2001, California Department of Education, p.6

Those who were engaged in middle-level education during the latter half of the twentieth century are familiar with the debate over the most appropriate kind of schooling to be provided for young adolescents. During that period deep concerns developed over the failure of many junior high schools to respond adequately to the unique developmental characteristics of middle-level students. The typically rigid organization of junior high schools, which mimicked the departmentalized structure of secondary education, rendered young adolescents unprepared for the transition from the emotionally safe haven of elementary schools to the demands of the junior high schools.

Two things became increasingly clear. First, students in grades six, seven, and eight required schools that would focus on the students’ physical, social, and emotional development. Second, they needed schools that would respond effectively to the students’ rapidly developing intellectual abilities. Unfortunately, the staffs in many junior high schools in California were ill prepared by training or inclination to take on that dual requirement. Nor were conventional elementary schools, kindergarten through grade eight, prepared to alter their self-contained classroom structures to provide for a more rigorous academic emphasis, particularly in mathematics and science, even though their nurturing student-centered focus was laudable. In short, young adolescents found themselves caught in the middle.

Concerns about meeting the needs of those students led to the publication in 1987 of Caught in the Middle: Educational Reform for Young Adolescents in California Public Schools,1 which captured the essence of a new kind of school for young adolescents. Before its publication many California educators and parents saw the middle school years as a period of time to be endured rather than celebrated. But much of that mentality has disappeared with the advent of middle schools. Because of concerted efforts by middle school principals to hire teachers who embrace this more positive philosophy, a much higher number of those teaching in middle grades schools today do so by choice, not by chance. Teachers with specialized training in core subjects are attracted to middle schools that emphasize high academic standards. At the same time, school administrators have been successfully recruiting teachers with serious interest in the promise rather than the problems of early adolescence.

Early adolescence is one of the most exciting periods of intellectual, physical, social, and emotional development in the human life span. To energize the education of the state’s young adolescents, hundreds of new middle schools have emerged throughout California during the past decade. The resulting changes that have occurred in middle-level education constitute one of California’s most successful educational reform efforts.

Combining demands for academic proficiency and enlightened responsiveness to the physical, emotional, social, and intellectual challenges of students in the middle grades, teachers and principals have created middle schools in which students are no longer caught in the middle. Their efforts, together with those of approximately 500 middle grades partnership schools in the California Middle Grades Partnership Network, have produced dynamic new learning environments (see also Appendix 1-A, “California Middle Grades Partnership Network,” at the end of this chapter).

A research-based report funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, Turning Points 2000: Educating Adolescents in the 21st Century,2 documents the progress made by middle schools in the last decade. The first Turning Points report and recommendations, published in 1989,3 called on middle schools to “transmit a core of common, substantial knowledge to all students in ways that foster curiosity, problem solving, and critical thinking.” Turning Points 2000 reshapes and adds precision to that recommendation and the others, having based the new recommendations on practices found to be effective.

The new recommendations call for “middle grades schools that:4

  • Teach a curriculum grounded in rigorous public academic standards for what students should know and be able to do relevant to the concerns of adolescents and based on how students learn best. . . .

  • Use instructional methods designed to prepare all students to achieve higher standards and become lifelong learners. . . .

  • Staff middle grades schools with teachers who are expert at teaching young adolescents and engage teachers in ongoing, targeted professional development opportunities. . . .

  • Organize relationships for learning to create a climate of intellectual development and a caring community of shared educational purpose. . . .

  • Govern democratically, through direct or representative participation by all school staff members, the adults who know the students best. . . .

  • Provide a safe and healthy school environment as part of improving academic performance and developing caring and ethical citizens. . . .

  • Involve parents and communities in supporting student learning and healthy development. . . .”

The Turning Points 2000 recommendations are consistent with those of California’s Middle Grades Task Force (see Introduction). California’s Middle Grades Task Force’s recommendations reflect the best of middle grades philosophy (including equal access to the most demanding curricula, interdisciplinary team teaching, active and cooperative learning, flexible scheduling, inclusive classrooms, multicultural education, complex reasoning, and differentiated instruction, along with mentoring, tutoring, and counseling experiences) and an increased emphasis on academic expectations through standards-based education. The task force’s recommendations follow.

Taking Center Stage Key Elements and Recommendations

IBID, pp.2,3.

Key Element I—Rigorous Academic Content and Performance Standards

To ensure the success of all students:

  • Recommendation 1: Implement rigorous and consistent standards while maintaining a dynamic student-centered culture. (See Chapters 1, 2, 5, and 10.

  • Recommendation 2: Provide sustaining resources and support for standards-based education. (See Chapters 2, 3, 5, 7, 8, 10, and 12.)

Key Element II—Curriculum and Instruction

To ensure the success of all students:

  • Recommendation 3: Demonstrate commitment to essential elements of the middle grades philosophy. (See Chapters 1, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, and 12.)

  • Recommendation 4: Align curriculum, instruction, and assessment practices with the California content and performance standards. (See Chapters 2, 3, and 14.)

  • Recommendation 5: Connect the contributions of California’s diverse multicultural population as standards are implemented. (See Chapters 6, 10, 12, and 14.)

  • Recommendation 6: Use technology as a tool to improve and increase student academic achievement. (See Chapters 6 and 14.)

  • Recommendation 7:   Examine the use of time to provide students and teachers opportunities to plan, integrate, teach, and learn. (See Chapters 7, 9, and 11.)

  • Recommendation 8: Work with feeder elementary schools and destination high schools to provide consistent expectations and seamless transitions. (See Chapters 2, 4, 11, and 13.)

Key Element III—Assessment and Accountability

To ensure the success of all students:

  • Recommendation 9: Relate performance standards to content standards to define levels of academic excellence and proficiency. (See Chapters 2, 3, and 4.)

  • Recommendation 10: Develop classroom and local assessment data systems that are used to determine appropriate instructional practices. (See Chapters 3, 4, and 8.)

  • Recommendation 11: Hold all stakeholders accountable for high academic and behavioral expectations. (See Chapters 1, 2, 4, and 11.)

Key Element IV—Student Interventions

To ensure the success of all students:

  • Recommendation 12: Provide appropriate accelerated interventions based on the results of relevant assessment instruments. (See Chapters 3, 10, 11, 12, and 14.)

Key Element V—Professional Development

To ensure the success of all students:

  • Recommendation 13: Provide relevant and appropriate school-based, comprehensive, ongoing professional development. (See Chapters 7 and 14.

Key Element VI—Parent and Community Partnerships

To ensure the success of all students:

  • Recommendation 14: Engage families and the community to support student achievement. (See Chapters 9, 12, and 13.)

Key Element VII—Health and Safety

To ensure the success of all students:

  • Recommendation 15: Create and sustain safe school environments. (See Chapters 6, 8, 12,
    and 13.)

  • Recommendation 16: Provide access to health and social services to maximize student well-being. (See Chapter 13.)

1Taking Center Stage. 2001, California Department of Education, p. 6
2Anthony Jackson and Gayle Davis, Turning Points 2000: Educating Adolescents in the 21st Century: A Report of Carnegie Corporation of New York. New York: Teachers College Press, 2000.
3Turning Points: Preparing American Youth for the 21st Century. Report of the Task force on the Education of Young Adolescents, Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development. New York: Carnegie Corporation of New York, 1989.
4Jackson and Davis, Turning Points 2000.

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