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Q-and-A: Middle-grades forecast

6 min read


What does the future look like for middle-grades education? John Norton, founder of, bravely took on this topic in an interview with SmartBrief’s senior education editor Melisa Greenwood. Here, he discusses the possible emergence of intermediate schools, educators’ place in the iGeneration classroom and implementation of the Common Core State Standards.

What are some of the top trends in middle-grades education for this school year?

I see a couple of trends affecting educators working with students in grades 4 to 8. They won’t be a surprise to many folks working in schoolhouses, but here goes:

The Common Core State Standards and Assessments will dominate school planning discussions, education publishing and professional development offerings for the next five to 10 years.

We’ll see more school systems reconfiguring schools to include grades 4 to 6 in the same learning space. Looking through the standards lens, CCSS breaks the math and English/LA standards into two chunks: K to 5 and 6 to 12, with a lot of hope on the part of the standards writers that teachers in grades 4, 5, 6 and 7 will align or “articulate” their instruction so that students’ learning builds smoothly from month to month and grade to grade, creating a strong foundation for upper secondary education.

We can already see some evidence of a trend to organize schools in such a way that at least grades 4 to 6 are served by the same community of educators. Some of this is about parent preference, bullying issues, etc., but the CCSS may accelerate that trend, with more “intermediate” schools emerging. When the National Middle School Association changed its name recently to the Association for Middle Level Education, that seemed to signal that the middle school (which really emerged as a dominant U.S. model in the 1970s) will likely become less and less synonymous with “adolescent education.”

If you’ve ever worked in and around schools, you’ll know how hard it is to really “articulate” curriculum and instruction across buildings. So it won’t be a surprise, if state standards continue to be high-stakes, to see school configurations morph into shapes most conducive to good performance on the CCSS-related tests.

The other huge trend, of course, has to do with the digital age. Computers, mobile technologies and the Internet are relentlessly pushing teachers and school administrators to change their practices to accommodate the iGeneration — those kids who cannot remember when we didn’t have cellphones or a high-speed connected world. In my view, teachers are really at a tipping point: They will either master and incorporate new technologies into their everyday teaching, and use them to offer more student-driven, inquiry-based instruction, or they will find themselves relegated to an “assistant” role in support of flashy and sophisticated teaching software. And I hasten to say that however good that software is, it will be a pale substitute for the human mind and talent of an excellent teacher.

What one or two current education issues do you predict will be a game changer for middle-grades education? Why?

Well, the Kong-sized, 800-lb. gorilla in the room is the Common Core State Standards. I think middle-grades educators, like public-school educators across all grades, will begin to feel the full effects of the CCSS movement this year. A few states are unaffected directly by the CCSS juggernaut, but most schools will be sharply focused on the new national standards and the assessments now being developed to measure student progress toward meeting them.

The CCSS reform movement is controversial — with some folks worried about diminishing state and local control over education and others fearful that this will be “No Child Left Behind” wearing some shiny new clothes. At MiddleWeb, we’ve prepared a resource guide that can help teachers and non-educators explore both the basics of CCSS and the different points of view about its intent and prospects.

One key CCSS issue is whether the claim of proponents — that these standards will broaden a curriculum narrowed by NCLB and ultimately promote deeper learning (and better teaching) — will hold up. A good article from this point of view appeared in the July/August issue of the Harvard Education Letter and was summarized in a number of SmartBrief’s education newsletters. It’s well worth reading. Robert Rothman’s core message is that these are not “pretty much the same” standards schools have been using for the past decade.

Middle-grades educators are the pylons underneath the learning bridge between primary school and high school. They’re the folks with the job of establishing students as mathematical thinkers, problem solvers, users of the scientific method and effective and efficient readers and writers. The very large challenge before them will be figuring out how to blend CCSS standards into everyday curriculum and lesson planning, teach them “deeply,” and still cover enough content to make sure students are prepared for high-stakes CCSS-oriented tests.

What do you think middle-grades education will look like in five or 10 years, especially with implementation of the common core standards, the consistent push for STEM education and the growth of technology in the classroom?

Over the past 25 years or so, since I’ve been following “middle-school reform,” middle-grades education has proved to be pretty resistant to top-down change mandates. Advocates for a more whole-child approach, a more academic approach or a more “get them ready for high school” approach have all mounted major campaigns to remake the middle grades. Just last fall, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan described a “new consensus” on what middle-grades reform should be about.

Will the volatile nature of middle-grades education change in the next five to 10 years and settle down to focus on the Common Core, STEM education, and generally shoring up the learning bridge between primary and high school? Given the volatile nature of middle-graders themselves, I wonder. For the most part, I think the teachers and principals who love to work with youngsters going through the tween and early teen years are doing a good job. To use a rural analogy (I live in the rural South), they’ve got two lively mules by the tail — one labeled “Academics” and the other “Adolescence.” And quite often they’re just trying to hang on to both without getting kicked too much.

For more information on middle-grades trends, follow the MiddleWeb Recommends feature in MiddleWeb SmartBrief.

John Norton is the founder of, and co-editor with Susan B. Curtis. A former award-winning education reporter, he was the first director of the S.C. Center for Teacher Recruitment and served as vice president for information at the Southern Regional Education Board. He is also a writer and communications consultant whose clients include Powerful Learning Practice LLC and the Alabama Best Practices Center. In 2003, he co-founded the national Teacher Leaders Network.