By Amy Auletto
Middle school is a challenging time for young people. Adolescents straddle the line between childhood and adulthood, struggling to assert their independence and form their identities while also still relying on parents and other adults. The brains of middle school students develop rapidly, but it is not until age 25 that the brain fully matures. As a result, middle school students struggle with staying organized and anticipating the consequences of the decisions that they make. Young people are more likely to engage in dangerous or risky behavior and misunderstand social cues and emotions. Motivation also declines in middle school, with many students feeling less competent in their academic abilities than they once did in elementary school. Middle school students often opt for either high-energy activities or those that require very little effort. Many adolescents also struggle with their mental health. One in five young people has a mental health condition and the suicide rate for middle school students doubled from 2007 to 2014.
Success in Middle School is Critical to Future Outcomes
Despite middle school being such a tumultuous time, academic success in middle school is absolutely critical for students’ future outcomes. A 2014 study looking at the relationship between how students performed in middle school and their later success in high school found that high school graduation rates and college readiness could be reliably predicted based on middle school grades and attendance. The study found that students need at least a 3.0 GPA at the end of 8th grade to have any chance of attending college and that a 3.5 GPA boosts these odds to 50%. Similarly, a 2012 study found that 7th-grade GPA and taking algebra while in middle school were predictors of higher GPAs in 11th grade. Additionally, socio-emotional skills in middle school are related to later success. High scores on the Grit Scale have been associated with later success in both high school and postsecondary education. (The Grit Scale is a self-assessment that measures characteristics such as focus and follow-through).
Improving Middle School Teacher Quality
Teachers of middle school students must be prepared for the unique developmental challenges facing adolescents, especially given the importance of middle school in setting students up for later success. Middle school teacher preparation, however, does not adequately equip teachers with the skills they need to work with this age group. Even though 45 states have mandates for specific middle school teacher preparation, many teacher education institutions do not require any specific classes or experiences related to adolescents for preservice teachers who will later go on to teach middle school students.
There are no institutions in Michigan that offer stand-alone preparation programs specifically for middle school teachers, and only one institution in the state requires an adolescence-specific course or field experience. Michigan is not alone in its sparse offerings for middle school teachers. There are 20 other states without middle school teacher preparation programs. Several other states, however, have placed a greater focus on middle school teaching. A majority of teacher education programs in Georgia, Kentucky, Ohio, and Pennsylvania offer stand-alone programs focused on middle school teaching.
There is other recent evidence supporting the need for more focused training for middle school teachers. In the Journal of Teacher Education, a new study by Dr. Courtney Preston looks at the relationship between teacher preparation programs and teacher effectiveness in middle school. Preston suggests that increased college coursework in educational psychology and adolescent development may be one route to improving middle school teacher effectiveness.
Middle school teachers must be prepared to handle a unique set of challenges. Adolescents are undergoing significant developmental changes and facing an increasing range of mental health challenges as well. Since success in middle school is critical to later outcomes, it is absolutely imperative that we make improvements to teacher preparation programs so as to ensure that educators are prepared to work with this age group.
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