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Issues In Educational Research, Vol 15, 2005
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Moving middle schooling reform from policy to practice: Issues for Queensland teachers

Fiona Bryer and Katherine Main
Griffith University
Three well-established issues for educational reform to insert middle schooling into the traditional primary-secondary tiers are (a) lack of preservice training of specialist middle school teachers, (b) the absence of clear positive educational outcomes linked to the promotion of middle schooling policy as a philosophy of teaching, and (c) the ad hoc approach to professional development for teachers working within middle schools. Persistent uncertainties about whether middle schooling is an educationally distinctive and developmentally helpful phase of schooling have operated in conjunction with the informal preparation for middle school teaching typical in all western systems of education. These issues can be applied to the recent experiences of Education Queensland teachers with primary and secondary training who have worked within the new middle school environment.

A single site investigation at an Education Queensland trial of middle schooling addressed teacher perceptions of how eco-organisational features of a middle school were facilitating or hindering their practice. After individual teachers were primed to be alert to five aspects of middle school ecology, six teams of teachers (n = 21 teachers) discussed summaries of their Likert data and written comment on these categories. Analysis of data indicated ongoing struggles about 'how' to implement middle schooling practice across these eco-organisational features. For such trials of middle years in Queensland to become sustainable educational reform, the experience of these teachers suggests that progressive and integrated approach to micropractice generation needs to temper the open-ended approach to macropolicy advocacy.

Middle school reform from policy to practice

A middle schooling phase has been introduced into western educational policy in order to improve developmentally appropriate educational opportunities for young adolescents. This policy reform has sought to smooth transitional disruptions of student learning associated with structural change between the two-tiered approaches to teacher practice (Eccles, 2004). That is, this phase has been said to support developmental processes and help students negotiate the environmental changes involved in moving between educational tiers, whenever that transition occurs, from a fairly integrated primary system into a more compartmentalised and specialised secondary system (Eccles, 2004; Fuligni, Eccles, Barber & Clements, 2001; Hallinan & Hallinan, 1992; Rice, 1998; Roeser, Eccles & Sameroff, 2000; Yates, 1997). Such alternative approaches to middle schooling have been in place in the United States and in the United Kingdom since the 1960s and have existed in Australia at least since the 1980s.

Adherence to traditional teaching practice and entrenched structural patterns of educational institutions have limited the scale and sustainability of most western educational reforms, however articulately justified, theoretically grounded, and empirically based (Elmore, 1996). When an educational reform is introduced, the task of making conceptual and practical changes to existing systems falls directly upon individual teachers and individual schools (Connell, 1998; Koios, 1999; Whitehead, 2000). They are typically likeminded, passionate teachers, who volunteered to participate in a workplace reform (Clarke, 2003) and who assumed ownership of and enthusiasm for new practice (Elmore, 1996). These teachers also expected the beneficial effects of reformed practice on student learning and behaviour to become evident over time.

With respect to middle schooling innovations in western education systems, policy-led occasional introduction of a middle schooling phase of education has also featured a combination of rapid and comprehensive generation of teacher practice (ie, by revolution rather than evolution) and deferred and desultory evaluation of student learning. The task of monitoring enhanced developmental outcomes and associated improvements in system performance in middle school reform efforts, however, has lacked stakeholder ownership.

Existing investment in two-tier primary or secondary infrastructure and teacher training have constrained international and Australian ventures into middle school reform. That is, reform efforts have involved variations in educational policy to enable middle school reform but have never achieved a general shift to a three-tier approach to infrastructure and training in western education. Instead, small-scale policy innovations have typically provided the opportunity to make an holistic or total change within specific schools or districts, in which all students and teachers experience the reformed environment. Implicit and unarticulated assumptions about practice reform have been built into such policy variation.

For example, the expectation that primary and secondary teachers in the state educational system in Queensland can generate new practice has appeared, in a sense, reasonable in that these teachers have been trained to work with students overlapping this age range. Yet this assumption has caused teachers to generate practice from their diverse personal understandings of middle schooling for students within some specific setting. The effort involved in creating and fitting practice to the presumed ecological demands associated with the general organisational, social, and instructional nature of a 'middle' school setting (Eccles, 2004) may have consequences for the success of these ventures and their effective dissemination into the formation of a third tier of education that actually provides developmentally appropriate student learning.

The struggle by middle school supporters to establish an educational identity as a unique phase of schooling is an ongoing one. In the USA, it was found that pedagogical practices reverted to more traditional ways, such that practices needed to be revitalised in a second-generation implementation of the reform process (Dickinson, 2001). Continuing criticism and analysis of practice relevance and community participation in the international literature have raised questions about how reform efforts have progressed from policy into practice (Williamson & Johnston, 1998). Current activities in Australia have raised these same issues and questions, particularly when 'untrained' teachers are attempting to implement policy and then disseminate practice to teachers in other settings attempting to come to grips with the new policy (Main & Bryer, 2003; O'Neil, 2001).

A student centred need for reform

A third phase of research into adolescence is now beginning to build developmental assets, quality of student life, and future basis of civic communities from activ e collaboration between developmental scientists, practitioners, and policy makers (Lerner & Steinberg, 2004). Following an extended first phase of grand but limited nature and nurture theorising (Lerner & Steinberg, 2004), developmental research on young adolescents gained momentum in the 1950s and 1960s (Muuss, 1971). The second phase of research on adolescence reached a new plateau of understanding in the late 1970s (Adelson, 1980, 1986; Collins, 1991), disseminated a developmental systems view of adolescence (Bronfenbrenner, 1974, 2001; Bronfenbrenner & Morris, 1998) and accelerated in the 1990s into extensive research on social, emotional, cognitive, and physical developmental processes and their contextual supports (Braggett, 1997; Eccles, 2004; Eccles et al, 1999; Fuligni et al, 2001; Huebeck & O'Sullivan, 1993; Lounsbury & Clark, 1990; Wigfield & Eccles, 2002).

In Australia, the student centred argument for middle schooling took the same general course but tended to shadow the larger international reform movement. Thus, the second phase of the study of adolescent development took place after some delay. Thus, Australian research in the 1960s and 1970s also described issues of normal and abnormal development, located an emerging generation of adolescents in mass participation in secondary schools, noted their developing capacity to cope with responsibility in that setting (Collins, 1975; Collins & Harper, 1978a, b), and discussed the sociopolitical struggle between a controlling school institution and freedom-seeking students (Connell, Stroobant, Sinclair, Connell, & Rogers, 1975). Developmental support for middle schooling in Australia showed a comparable lag behind substantial educational innovations introduced throughout the United Kingdom (UK) and the United States of America (USA) in the 1950s and 1960s. In Australia, the innovations of a small number of schools in the 1980s provided the impetus for recent policy support for the 'neglected' middle years (Hill, Mackay, Russell, & Zbar, 2001).

Ideas about how the school ecology can promote healthy adolescent development have changed in tandem with changing phases of the scientific study of adolescence. In the early high school traditions based on early leaving ages for most students, various aspects of school ecology (Gump, 1980) assumed the presence of maturing organisational skills in students (ie, the student fitted complex environmental characteristics). In the rationale for traditional secondary pedagogy, it was assumed that normal developmental changes, at least for students with a supportive socio-economic background, would enable a self-motivated, individual adolescent student to cope with specialised instructional and other environmental demands for independence. For example, the youngest students in this new environment were expected to be competent enough to cope with temporal divisions of the school day, varying social conditions within classrooms, and changing role demands across subjects (Hallinan & Hallinan, 1992).

The limitations of earlier assumptions about the fit of student to school became evident as educational massification expanded into the secondary school sector. The modern high school population increased as a proportion of the total community of adolescents, and more students stayed longer in secondary education. Although it is recognised that education matters to the future of modern adolescents, the notion of the intrinsically motivated learner is not working for many students (Larson & Wilson, 2004). For a significant minority of adolescents (Compas, Hinden, & Gerhardt, 1995), high school experiences have become associated with problem behaviours such as drug taking, sexual experimentation, dropping out, academic decline, and personal vulnerability (Baer, 1999; Roeser, Eccles, & Sameroff, 2000). For the majority of adolescents, moreover, the initial high school experience provided a relatively low trajectory towards independence: that is, expectations for adolescent competence in regular secondary education have been set relatively low. For example, an Australian study of school environments showed that only students in Years 11 and 12 realised their aspirations to more choice and independence (Wheldall & Beaman, 1993).

Some interest in facilitating the transition into secondary school has been present across the three phases of adolescence research and across the growth in western educational institutions. By the end of the second phase of adolescent research, there was clear research evidence of a problematic fit between young adolescents and conventional secondary schooling. Much recent American research revealed the mismatch between the needs of young adolescents and traditional educational settings (Baer, 1999; Eccles, Midgley, Wigfield, Buchanan, Reuman, Flanagan, & McIver, 1993; Roeser et al., 2000). This research demonstrated ecological interference with student learning and teacher discomfort with their youngest adolescent students. Eccles et al (1993) showed that over 75% of students entering high school experienced negative effects from the traditional classroom climate and 'overcontrolling' teaching, which contributed to student alienation. Eccles et al (1993) argued that positive motivational consequences would follow when the two trajectories of early adolescent growth and environmental change across the school years were in synchrony.

Middle school reform, therefore, offered the prospect of a more developmentally targeted educational environment that pursues such synchrony. The environment could accommodate emerging developmental capacities while supporting 'best practice' pedagogy for this cohort of students. In the United States of America (USA) and the United Kingdom (UK), policy support for infrastructural changes to accommodate young adolescents drew on ecohistorical events relating to the post-World War II 'baby boom.' However, the search for a viable school entity exposed the ephemeral and contextualised decisions made about the nature and boundaries of early adolescence, middle schooling, and teacher pedagogy for this age and phase.

Teaching in a distinct and separate entity

Policy and practice have been unclear about teacher preparation for a developmentally necessary and educationally distinctive middle phase of schooling. Political and economic factors have affected international efforts to conceptualise a distinct and separate phase of schooling in the middle years. This phase "overlaps the traditional boundaries of both primary and secondary schools" (Hill et al, 2001, p.3). However, a somewhat different entity is constructed when either the lower or upper face of primary-secondary boundary is shifted to accommodate a middle phase. The choice of boundary has then involved different adjustments of curriculum development from either primary or secondary perspectives and, concurrently, little international coherence to teacher training for practice in this setting.

Moreover, national reform in the UK and the USA displayed a lack of universal support for middle schooling as 'best policy' and piecemeal implementation within the prevailing two-tier tradition. Apart from the major impetus to middle schooling in both countries that flowed from the post-World War II baby boom, specific features of the political and economic motivations for national reform in the UK and the USA were different. The kinds of national rigidities and disparities that resulted were also different, which further complicated the emerging literature. The extra resources needed for this growing student population meant more buildings and more teachers, but the sourcing of the infrastructure and the staff differed.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the UK national education system experienced pressures to expand rapidly at a time when economic resources were limited. The postwar baby boom resulted in a rapidly increasing school population. The aspirational raising of the minimum school leaving age to 15 in 1972-73 also added to student numbers. Moreover, there was political pressure to provide a more egalitarian e ducation system based on academic ability rather than ability to pay.

Middle schooling seemed to provide an economical alternative to other, more expensive schemes. Debate over transfer ages from primary to secondary schools also contributed to its acceptance. In areas where middle schools were adopted, primary schools were extended to incorporate middle schools (ie, shifting the lower boundary upwards). This option required fewer 'specialist' teachers and specialist teaching areas. The Plowden Report provided the educational arguments to support this change (Hargreaves, 1986; Taylor & Garson, 1982).

Yet middle schooling generated new problems in UK education. Transition between schools for students moving in and out of an area was difficult because middle schools accommodated a variety of age ranges (eg, 8-12, 9-13, 10-14, and 11-13). Curriculum issues were also a problem: The number of years in 'middle school' and the availability of specialist teachers determined the range and depth of schoolwork. Lack of sufficient specialist teachers within middle schools encouraged the attitude that middle schools are "simply a prolongation of the primary stages" (Taylor & Garson, 1982, p.25) and thus contributed to the failure to establish separate status and identity in the UK.

In the USA, the history of middle schooling research and practice has been dated to 1909 (Beane, 2001). By the late 1950s, dissatisfaction with the two-tier system and recommendations to smooth the transition from elementary to high school led to 'junior' versions of senior high school (ie, shifting the upper boundary downwards). High schools acquired a new wing to house students from Year 6 (taken from the elementary schools) to Year 9. This structural reform was cost-effective in the spacious American suburbs and enhanced the high school's place in the community.

The baby boom problem in the UK and the USA was the same, but the boundary decision altered the middle school solution. Whereas the UK middle school tended to extend primary nonspecialist pedagogy into the young adolescent years, the USA middle school tended to extend secondary specialist pedagogy into the young adolescent years. The baby boomers' extra demands on educational systems in the USA fostered increased acceptance and creation of more junior high schools into the early 1960s (Beane, 2001). There was some concern that reform relied on a few organisational innovations and "changing the name on the school stationery" (Beane, 2001, p.xviii). Concern about the educational experience for 'students in the middle' and the lack of distinct and separate teaching created a continuing need for review of these schools (Williamson, 1996).

In current teacher training programs in these major western countries, primary and secondary trained teachers have been certified to teach in the middle years. Only 12% of US teachers working in middle grades have obtained specialist qualifications (Flowers, Mertens & Mulhall, 2002; Hargreaves, 1986). Middle level certification has become mandatory in only 11 states, which also provided most of the training (Williamson, 1996). As Elmore (1996) has observed, however, major reforms localised in particular schools and regions have not exerted spreading influence. From 1968 to 1991, the 28 American states that offered special middle level teacher certification increased only slightly to 33 states. Similarly, few Australian teachers have been specifically trained in middle grades education. Some certified training is currently being introduced in Queensland, but random placement of graduates of these programs into nonmiddle school settings may dissipate the benefits of such training.

Training thus poses an ongoing challenge to policy-to-practice success and sustained implementation. According to The National Forum to Accelerate Middle-Grades Reform (Reising, 2002), the success of middle schools will require specialised training of middle school teachers. Teacher acceptance is integral to the success of any educational reform (Koios, 1999; Whitehead, 2000). In early education and special education, which are the other major areas of specialised teacher training, teachers have enabled and expanded practice through a mix of formal training, strong values about development and family, and clear evidence of effective practice related to those values. To date, teacher enthusiasm and student-centred values have maintained the initial establishment of a middle schooling phase in Australia, but research data is needed to "support changes...[and to] have evidence of the benefits for students of the things we do" (Linke, 1999, p.1).

One lesson from ecological review of research on previous major educational policy reforms is that retraining is an important mechanism in maintaining teacher engagement in new practice. Gump (1980) observed that reform needed to be evaluated for negative effects on teachers and on students. For example, teachers working in the new physical milieu of open classrooms often returned to their previous practice. In a similar way, American teachers returned to traditional practice in their middle schools. In another example of unexpected effects of reform, Gump (1980) found that some students in open classrooms experienced unanticipated learning and personality problems in interactions with new and larger groups of students and in new and socially unstructured programs for learning. In middle school reform, neither policy nor practice has been clear about unexpected and negative ecological effects (Gump, 1980). Yet there have been reports that middle school ecology has continuing problems in meeting the social, emotional, and cognitive needs of young adolescents (Eccles & Roeser, 1999; Pitton, 2001). In particular, American 'junior high' students were still being relocated from a highly supportive environment into one with new methods of organisation, several teachers, and changing classrooms (Pellegrini & Bartini, 2000).

Educational principles of the reform agenda

Developmental research fostered the listing of educational recommendations for middle schooling that provide a framework for introducing and reviewing middle schooling. In 1989, the Carnegie Corporation Council on Adolescent Development released Turning points: Preparing American youth for the 21st century. This developmentally grounded document made eight recommendations to "vastly improve the educational experiences of all middle grade students" (p.9). Recently, the council released Turning points: 2000 (Jackson & Davis, 2000). It included seven recommendations to improve schooling, which combined two of the 1989 recommendations (viz, 'Re-engage families in the education of young adolescents' and 'Connect schools with communities'). In line with advancing research knowledge about young adolescents and their developmental and educational needs, explicit 20 to 40 page explanations elaborated the brief arguments supporting each 1989 recommendation (Davis, 2001).

In turn, these recommendations have provided some guidance and support for the generation, identification, and clustering of signature practices in middle schools. These practices have included interdisciplinary teams, curriculum correlation (integration), block scheduling, authentic assessment practices, formation of strong relationships with students, and advisory programs of pastoral care (Australian Curriculum Studies Association, 1997; Boland, Cavanagh & Dellar, 2001; Braggett, 1997). For example, signature practices in curriculum integration can include teaching across traditional subject boundaries, rethinking the curriculum to make it more focused around problems and themes (viz, less subject oriented), and teaching subjects for larger blocks of time.

Table 1: The seven recommendations for reform from Turning points: 2000

1Teach a curriculum grounded in rigorous, public academic standards for what students should know and be able to do, relevant to the concerns of young adolescents.
2Use instructional methods designed to prepare all students to achieve higher standards and become lifelong learners.
3Staff middle grades schools with teachers who are expert at teaching young adolescents and engage teachers in ongoing, targeted professional development opportunities.
4Organise relationships for learning to create a climate of intellectual development and a caring community of shared educational purpose.
5Govern democratically, through direct or representative participation by all school staff members, the adults who know the students best.
6Provide a safe and healthy environment as part of improving academic performance and developing caring and ethical citizens.
7Involve parents and communities in supporting student learning and healthy development.
Note. Recommendations have been regrouped in order to cluster teacher-centred practices (1-4) and community-centred practices (4-7), with some overlap in Recommendation 4.

In reforming schools, teachers have put such policy recommendations into idiosyncratic practice. They have combined and prioritised signature practices into various models of middle schooling. From their teaching perspective, they have tended to use a combination of teaching in small teams and curriculum integration as the teacher-centric medium for academic rigour, lifelong learning, professional development, and the purpose of the school community (see Recommendations 1-4 in Table 1). Teams who plan curriculum together and who share face-to-face class contact have provided larger blocks of time for individual teachers to pursue closer relationships with students. For teachers, practice related to contextual relevance and community engagement (see Recommendations 4-7) has tended to have less immediacy.

The two versions of Turning points have encapsulated the difficulties of the reform agenda for middle schools and, hence, recent critiques of this policy. The seven recommendations in Turning points: 2000 were represented as interconnected parts of a system that, together form a whole. Because certain assumptions in the original Carnegie report were not made explicit, reforming schools have struggled with trial and error experiments and have engaged in piecemeal implementation. In particular, the 1989 report did not outline how recommendations interact, did not articulate the perceived necessity of holistic implementation of all recommendations, and did not allow for the piecemeal nature of education systems internationally (Davis, 2001). A lack of 'exemplary' middle schools from which other schools could model their reform process made it difficult to establish schools and appropriate teacher training consistent with the Carnegie recommendations.

It was later acknowledged that successful reform hinges on implementation of all recommendations (Dickinson, 2001; Jackson & Davis, 2000). Dickinson (2001) noted a misconception that "some is better than none [but]...the original [middle school] concept is a totally integrated ecology" (p.4). With respect to the available body of research efforts on specific signature practices, summarised in the revised Turning points: 2000 report, collection of such data did not provide insight into whether practices worked together and how they worked together. This work was therefore characterised as wasteful. "The interaction between those recommended practices and the impact those practices together have on achieving the Turning Points vision have not, by and large, been investigated in any great depth" (Davis, 2001, pp.218-219).

Davis (2001) conceded that implementation of all Turning points: 2000 recommendations at once would be difficult, if not impossible. However, there was an alternative to holistic versus piecemeal implementation. Specifically, a gradual evolutionary approach to reform would introduce parts of the recommendations and proceed in stages, in order to avoid unnecessary disruption and dislocation arising from the reform process itself. Middle schools able to demonstrate improved student outcomes reported "a process of continuous improvement" (Jackson & Davis, cited in Davis, 2001, p.223) rather than a sweeping revolutionary movement from 'bad-to-good' schooling. For example, a teacher could work with other teachers on a curriculum plan but deliver it within a single class. The next step would be for teachers to plan together as well as to develop collaborative delivery for combined classes. This integrated but progressive vision for middle school reform, accompanied by appropriate teacher training, alternative student settings, and active community engagement is far from actual practices.

Recent critiques of middle schooling policy-to-practice

International critiques of reform have focused on issues such as rigid orthodoxy of policy implementation (Williamson & Johnston, 1998), organisational rather than pedagogical change (Beane, 2001; Dickinson, 2001), and concern about overemphasis on emotional development of adolescents rather than academic rigour (Bandlow, 2001). Recent American research on various topics in middle schooling has noted difficulties and emerging challenges that have put pressure on educational districts to abandon their middle school models (Reisling, 2002). American researchers have reported staffing problems due to inadequate preparation of many teachers (Useem, 2001), excessive demands of collaborative teaching (Pianta, 1999; Warren & Payne, 1997), and uncertain administrative leadership (Gerrick, 1999).

Williamson and Johnston (1998) argued that the strongest advocates of middle schooling have inflicted most damage on its sustainability. In their view, an unintended outcome of embracing 'true' middle school orthodoxy has been that the implementation of program characteristics becomes its primary function. Insistence on across-the-board implementation of assorted signature teaching practices in teaching middle school may have overlooked important recommendations of responsiveness to local needs of students and their community (see Table 1). Williamson and Johnston (1998) also suggested that, if the primary aim of middle schools is to meet the developmental needs of young adolescents, then alternative organisational patterns within the same school should be explored. A flexible mosaic of options or modules within a middle school setting might accommodate learning needs ranging from highly structured teacher-directed to highly independent, student-integrated settings. In a two-tier system in which a student may migrate into a middle school, such flexibility may be appropriate.

Thus, international reform efforts to implement middle schooling as a distinct and separate phase of schooling has placed increased pressure on teachers who are generally untrained in the details of teaching this specialised area. Also, many changes have not served to make this transition smoother for students but have substituted another substantial turning point in adolescent development. Disruptive changes in direction have continued to occur during this educational transition through these developing years (Elder, 1998).

Australian reform

The main topic of analysis of the Australian reform process has been the measurability and sustainability of practices used in policy implementation. Some critiques highlighted problems of "ad hoc projectitis, where the latest innovation is taken on often without careful or critical assessment or regard to sustainability" (Bond, Glover, Godfrey, Butler & Patton, 2001, p.369). There have been larger questions about the need for a 'separate' middle school to assure good pract ice with young adolescents (Chadbourne, 2001). A particular type of school structure "does not guarantee that middle schooling will take place" (Chadbourne, 2001, p.iii). According to Cormack (1996), "middle schooling remains a loose collection of good ideas and uncritical rationalities" (p.11). The South Australian Primary Principals' Association (2002) in their position statement on middle schooling stated that they "do not endorse ad hoc trials ... [that] are not grounded in clear educational outcomes" (Paragraph 3).

Australian middle schools have not adopted any single model of reform (see Table 2). An analysis of eight case studies (Chadbourne & Haslett, 1998) indicated the need to make distinctions among middle schooling, multiaging, and other ways of grouping and stranding students. Middle schooling did not appear to be connected directly to specific ways of grouping students for the purposes of instruction.

Table 2: Four kinds of government and nongovernment reform of the middle school in Australia

In holistic reform, a new, purpose built school has provided the physical infrastructure for a separate middle school and implements the community's previously adopted principles for staffing, resourcing, curriculum, pedagogy, and assessment that promote a middle years of schooling philosophy.
In superficial reform, schools have incorporated the physical infrastructure for a separate middle school without adopting the philosophical underpinnings of middle schooling.
In engaging reform, which may not be as easily identified as the holistic or superficial models, schools may not have the resources for major structural change. Within a traditional organisational structure, however, they have applied either signature features of a middle schooling philosophy or 'best practice' in generic teaching (Chadbourne, 2001).
In a nonengaging model, historically traditional primary and high schools have maintained the status quo.
A fifth, illusory model can be added to these four reform variations, in which some portion of the classes in the two-tier system (eg, Years 6 to 9 or Years 4 to 10) are subject to convenience recoding as the 'middle years', in line with some other agenda. That agenda may include middle school practice associated with engaging reform.*
*This fifth classification is distinct from but often confused with the other four kinds of middle schooling described by Aspland & Nicholson (2003).

The Western Australian report (Chadbourne & Haslett, 1998) revealed a variety of phase-age definitions and structural arrangements and reached the conclusion that the eight schools did not fit within any 'one' model of middle schooling. Differences included age range of the students, reform model (see, for example, Table 2), and motivations for reform. Reasons for reform varied from "research on adolescent alienation...participation in the National Schools Network, pressure from local community groups, opportunities provided by Local Area Education Planning and the leadership of an innovative school principal" (Chadbourne & Harslett, 1998, p.3).

Chadbourne and Haslett (1998) also noted that middle schools were not new in Western Australia. As long as 30 years ago, a small, innovative rural school was treating middle schooling as a 'philosophy' rather than a structural change. It was also noted that physical changes to create a 'middle school' such as structural reform, teaching teams, and block timetables were easier to establish than a middle school culture that included student-centred pedagogy and negotiated curriculum (Chadbourne & Harslett, 1998; See also, the ecological analysis of school reform by Gump, 1980). In the short term, moreover, "middle schooling seems to make more observable difference to interpersonal relations among and between teachers and students than it does to student outcomes" (Chadbourne & Harslett, 1998, p.3).

Study of one of Education Queensland's trials

The policy approach to reform in Education Queensland's current trials, with new buildings and new philosophies within these buildings, can be broadly characterised as holistic (Aspland & Nicholson, 2003). This policy influenced the construction of some new schools. It then determined the choice of location for new middle school buildings as a separate but integral structural unit within the whole building system of this relatively new school. For the most part, it then allowed teachers to generate practices and procedures within these structures. Micropractice generation has been focused on how teachers work together in these shareholdings to build specific teams and curriculum within a P-12 continuous curriculum. Practice in this educational context appears to blend a prolonged primary curriculum of the UK and a specialist secondary curriculum of the USA, within purpose built structures (eg, pods).

Queensland teachers currently working in middle schools have typically obtained their professional training in either a traditional primary or high school setting. Within this new environment, they have worked with other teachers to unite teaching teams around some combination of signature practices. For many teachers, identifying practices such as curriculum integration and its contextual support system (see Recommendations 5-7 in Table 1) have required considerable adaptation of their training and experience for the reformed workplace (Clarke, 2003).

In one Queensland trial in a government P-12 school, teaching teams of primary and secondary teachers in a middle school reviewed their holistic practice ecology (Gump, 1980; Jackson & Davis, 2000). Individuals rated physical features of the middle school and its scheduling and spatial formats, relationships among teachers and between teachers and students, and programming of curriculum and assessment. Teams then discussed the ratings, and individuals reflected on that discussion.

Figure 1

Figure 1: Word analysis from whole group utterances and individual reflections

Notes for Figure 1: Words are represented by greatest frequency and clustered according to closer association in either utterances or text. For example, references to 'teach' appear in conjunction with other words in three quadrants of the content array. This mapping indicates that teachers can usefully distinguish middle schooling (upper quadrants) and traditional schooling (lower quadrants), and professional and interpersonal aspects of practice (left and right quadrants, respectively).

Figure 1 shows that the content of that discussion clustered around two generic dimensions of tradition versus reform and teaching at a personal level versus schooling at a professional level. For example, text in the upper left quadrant characterised as traditional teacher practice involved transition into senior school, with an academic work and learning focus. In the upper right quadrant, text characterized as reformed teacher practice involved a different way of learning, with teaching teams and an individual and development focus.

However, there were areas of consensus and areas of disagreement among teachers within and between quadrants. Teachers agreed that middle schooling policy benefited students (Main, Bryer, & Grimbeek, 2003a; 2003b). They shared the view that middle schooling benefited relations between teachers and their students and, specifically, that it facilitated teachers' sense of being aware of and responsive to their students (see also Chadbourne & Haslett, 1998). Moreover, team discussions, and subsequent individual teacher reflections, also articulated a student centred policy consensus that the middle school can provide students with a way of learning and social interaction that is different from that of traditiona l teaching and dealings with students. That is, inspection of topics of traditional school policy and teacher practice in the two quadrants on the left side of Figure 1 revealed little academic-social differentiation between issues of learning and year-to-year curriculum respectively. In contrast, the reformed school policy (lower right quadrant) was concentrated on emotional and social aspects of schooling, and reformed teacher practice was concentrated on teacher-facilitated learning (upper right quadrant).

However, teams and individuals within teams did not agree on how policy led to teaching practice. Structural and curriculum issues dominated professional debate. Primary and secondary teachers experienced mutual uncertainties about many aspects of practice and procedure. Teachers were actively adjusting teaching techniques to the new setting, but team meetings on curriculum and communication were time-consuming. Teachers held a range of views about the school environment provided by the middle school, the involvement of parents, and the effects on individual students.

Conclusions and implications

The present study at a single site explored teacher views. Teacher discussions and reflections were open and forthcoming. Their data showed that teachers knew what middle schooling was supposed to do but that they were trying to figure out how to do it. What they are sharing with other teachers and what other teachers are learning from this process of disseminating new practice is unclear. A systematic approach to practice identification and reform evaluation is needed. Individual teachers should not be expected to take holistic responsibility for affirmations of effective practice without system-level support.

Queensland trials are at a crossroad. Single-site field reporting, which has been the established method of sharing ways to make policy into practice around Australia, has continued to be the method used to disseminate emergent practices among the teaching community in Queensland. The 'bottom-up' process of generating practice in single sites and sharing practice through professional development, therefore, needs to be balanced with empirical research on practice. Middle school reforms in Queensland need to bring about practices that are achievable by teachers in balance with practices that are academically and socially motivating to students and their parents. Specific components of practice on which there is consensus within single sites and across middle schools need to be first, identified and, second, validated.

Several questions are pertinent to research on how practice in these trials compare with practice in traditional settings. What teacher practices are more feasible and sustainable in a middle school setting? What middle school practices are measurably more effective in achieving student outcomes in relation to learning and social behaviour? What practices are more valued and more attractive to parents in meeting their academic and developmental goals for their children? What practices are more supportive and positive in this alternative school environment provided for students than in traditional classrooms?

Middle schooling reform has an international history of waning enthusiasm and re-assimilation into a 'nonengaging' model of practice (Beane, 2001). The initial energy investment of Queensland teachers to make and disseminate new practice as they teach is difficult to sustain. The teams participating in this trial included some individuals in their first year in the middle school working with other teachers with 4 years' experience and plans to move on. New teachers are again added to the trial and have to make holistic changes in practice. Administrators change. The natural cycles of school staffing tend to foster reversion to traditional practice. The enthusiasm of Queensland specialist graduates in 2004, who have middle schooling training from two Queensland universities, may stave off an early reversion to traditional teaching if their appointments target middle schools.

Only the enthusiasm of a generation of students and their families, however, can be expected to maintain and extend middle schooling in the longer term. Davis (2001) recommended progressive and measured introduction of holistic middle school practice. Homogenous changes to everything can be wearing on teachers and students and can fail to meet the diverse needs of students in this age range (eg, the specialist academic progress of students into senior school, social inclusion of students throughout middle school). The Turning points: 2000 recommendation of small learning communities, for example, was lost in multiage class progressions. For example, in a class of Years 6-7, Year 6 students became Year 7 students in the next year and Year 7 students joined a Year 8-9 multiage class, such that half of each class moved on each year; Together with eight integrated curriculum combinations over a 2-year period, the concept of a small community was moot.

In the meantime, school-based monitoring of practice in middle schools can use simple, normally available measures (eg, student incident reports and teacher turnover). Various developmental variables can be used to mark successful innovation (eg, 'seamless' and smooth) at entry to middle school, through the phase, and at exit. For example, achievement-related variables could include progression rates of students from feeder schools compared to students continuing through the K-12 system (viz, to assess and avert possible disruptions at entry to middle school from feeder schools outside the P-12 school), progression rates of girls compared to boys working intensely in mixed-sex cooperative groups (viz, to assess possible disruptions within the middle school experience and thus act to avert known gender-specific declines in girls' motivation in early adolescence), and student attrition rates (viz, to identify possible disruptions in successful academic transition into the senior school and thus avert premature student exit to seek 'specialist' preparation for the senior curriculum at a traditional high school).

How early practices have been interpreted and implemented in this Education Queensland schooling initiative will establish models for future practice. What appears to work in current trials in Queensland to move policy into practice will be used to revisit policy in order to establish models and guidelines for continuing practice. The history of educational reform and the research on that history has shown that this ad hoc approach, even when based on strong theory and research (Pianta & Walsh, 1998) is rarely long lasting (Elmore, 1996; Gump, 1980).

In these current trials, research on teacher practice and student outcomes has been relatively neglected. Until these schools have stabilised their respective and differing new systems, coping with change may be their priority. Administration and staff may regard documentation of change in these 'protomodel' schools and comparison of performances with existing schools and with other trial schools as premature. This pattern is consistent with the prevailing international pattern in middle school reform (viz, macropolicy advocacy and micropractice generation within schools). However, coordinated educational research (ie, the third phase of adolescent research involving collaboration between practitioners, policy makers, and scientists) is needed in order to justify efforts expended by teachers, students, and community to work within a middle school policy and in order to obtain lasting developmental profit from this investment of scarce educational resources.


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Authors: Fiona Bryer has an honours and doctoral degree in psychology from The University of Queensland. She is a senior lecturer at Griffith University. Her teaching is focused on applied development and positive behavioural support for primary and middle school, especially on effective teacher practices for students with socioemotional risk behaviours. Email: F.Bryer@griffith.edu.au

Katherine Main has a Bachelor of Education (Honours) from Griffith University. Her honours study and current doctoral study are focused on middle schooling in Australia. Her main areas of interest are teaching teams within middle schools, specifically collaborative skills and time efficiencies. Other interest areas include beginning teachers and multiaging. Email: K.Main@griffith.edu.au

Please cite as: Bryer, F. and Main, K. (2005). Moving middle schooling reform from policy to practice: Issues for Queensland teachers. Issues In Educational Research, 15(2), 123-144. http://www.iier.org.au/iier15/bryer.html

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