Focus on mid-level education also needed
Arizona Daily Star
Jan. 24, 2006

 Opinion by Rex Scott

Tucson, Arizona

We have heard from numerous Arizona politicians proposals for what to do this year in the field of education. As 2006 is an election year, we can be sure to hear even more plans and promises from current or aspiring elected officials.

A topic that has been ignored so far is reforms in middle-level (grades six to eight) education. Smaller classes at the primary level and high-stakes testing in high school will grab a lot of attention, along with perennial debates over school choice, English-language learners and teacher compensation. Precious little will be heard about kids in our middle schools.

After spending the first 10 years of my career as a teacher and administrator in three middle schools, I am at the midpoint of my fourth year as a high school administrator. The kids I see struggling with their subjects sometimes lack content area skills, but they are just as likely to demonstrate poor habits in time management, study skills, prioritization of tasks and organization. They are also frequently students who have difficulty working and socializing with their peers.

Middle-level educators worth their salt will tell you that while content area knowledge is vital, they spend a great deal of time developing skills, habits and behaviors they know their students will need in the more-autonomous high school setting and throughout life. They will say the approaches to instruction and assessment most likely to be successful with middle-level learners are substantially different from those used in elementary and high schools.

Most critically, they will point to the physical, emotional, social and intellectual changes that occur in early adolescence, the impact these transformations have on learning and classroom management and the need middle schools have for skilled, caring staff to work with this age group.

But our state does not have a certificate for those who want to teach middle school. Any teacher with a grades K-8 or 7-12 certificate can obtain a middle-level "endorsement" by taking only two classes.

One of the many flaws of the federal No Child Left Behind law is that it asserts that content area knowledge supersedes any other qualification to teach. But, if you don't know the best way to teach your subject to a specific group of learners, you're sunk in the classroom along with your students.

Besides adopting a middle level certificate, it is also critical that our colleges and universities design programs that prepare teachers for working in grades six through eight. School districts, working when necessary with the Arizona Department of Education, should design ongoing professional development programs in middle-level pedagogy and adolescent behavior.

There is an abundance of research telling us students need to see the role and importance of education in their lives before entering high school. The middle grades are where we often have our last and best chance to reach a child.

As this year unfolds, I will be listening carefully to those who hope to represent Arizona at the state and federal level. Early adolescents can no longer be ignored and neglected. If we truly hope no child is left behind when their schooling ends, how can we continue to give scant attention to the middle part of their journey?

Rex Scott,, is an assistant principal at Ironwood Ridge High School.