Abstracts from AERA 2006 Paper Sessions

Micki M. Caskey, Program Chair

Supporting and Engaging Middle-School Students

Meeting Young Adolescents’ Self-Concept and Classroom Environment Needs Across the Transition to Middle School
Audra Parker (The University of Georgia)

The move to middle school, coupled with the onset of adolescence, is associated with a myriad of physical and emotional changes. The purpose of this study was to investigate the effect of different instructional structures on young adolescents’ self-concept and perceptions of classroom environment as they transition into middle school. Data were collected using the Piers-Harris Self-Concept Scale and the Modified Classroom Climate Inventory. The data suggest that neither students’ self-concepts nor their perceptions of classroom environment varied prior to or after the transition to middle school based on their fifth-grade instructional structure. In contrast, data suggest a significant time effect on students’ self-concept ratings across the transition to middle school, and a mixed effect on students’ perceptions of environment.

Natural Progressions: Building Language Knowledge to Reduce Reading Confusions for Struggling Middle-School Readers
Francine C. Falk-Ross (Northern Illinois University)

In developing a language-building approach to support reading activities for marginalized students, reading and language specialists collaborated to share disciplinary information and strategy suggestions for both remedial and classroom-based reading programs. Marginalized middle level students included classroom members who had language differences, language disorders, and language difficulties. Struggling readers’ language knowledge was supported through oral discussion, vocabulary clarifications, and reading rehearsal of content material. Using results of formal and informal language testing, literacy achievement screenings, and teacher surveys, students’ challenges and successes were documented related to compensatory interventions. The results of the study provide important information about, and case studies of, trends in reading programs at the middle level.

Learning through Democracy in Action: Service-Learning at the Middle Level
Virginia M. Jagla (National Louis University)

With well developed abstract reasoning capacity, young adolescents are caught in a state of practicing for life. Middle level educators are proponents of experiential learning. Through service learning adolescents experience democracy in action by planning and carrying through worthwhile activities to benefit others in society as they learn relevant subject matter. The number and depth of high-quality service learning programs is increasing in middle schools. Through qualitative research, which includes interviews of teachers and middle level students involved in some of these exemplary programs, I am garnering worthwhile data to elucidate the obvious strengths of service learning. Through presentation of the data and discussion with participants I expect to spark meaningful insights regarding this special aspect of experiential learning.

Maintaining Self-Worth in the Middle-School Years: A Developmental Perspective
Kathleen Roney (The University of North Carolina-Wilmington), F. Clark Power (University of Notre Dame), Ann Marie R. Power (University of Notre Dame)

Students experience a decline in self-esteem and self-competence during the middle school years (NMSA, 2003). This is not surprising when one considers the academic, social, athletic, and moral challenges that they face in increasingly competitive and impersonal environments. James (1892/1985) and Harter (1988) note that if self-esteem depends upon the ratio of successes to aspirations, the best way to preserve self-esteem when one is not succeeding is to discount that domain. Nicholls (1989) finds that students gradually differentiate ability from effort over the middle school years. His work suggests that many middle school students may lack the capacity to discount and may thus be particularly vulnerable to experiencing low elf-esteem. Using a cross-sectional sample of students from grade 1 to grade 11, we found that the discounting strategy emerged in the middle school years. We also found that the most advanced middle school students balanced a realistic appraisal of one’s limitations with an emphasis on effort combined with problem-solving the sources of one’s failures. We conclude with a discussion of the implications of our findings for the mastery-oriented classroom teachers and counselors.

Adolescents Speak Out: Consequences of Early-Grade Retention for Middle-School Students
Angela G. Fiske (The University of Georgia), Stacey M. Neuharth-Pritchett (The University of Georgia)

The current study examines qualitative responses from groups of adolescents who were retained in their early elementary school years. Data suggest a negative stigma associated with the retention practice well into adolescence. Adolescents who are off the developmental trajectory for middle school may experience increasing psychological stressors impacting their academic success and adjustment to middle school. In the near future, educators will be examining growing numbers of issues (e.g. dropout rate, social policy) associated with academic failure in light of changing educational policy.

Effects of School Reform on Middle-Level Education

Dilemmas of a Middle-School Social Studies Teacher: Being Culturally Responsive in a Standards-Based, High-Stakes Testing Environment
Mary Shelley Thomas (University of Louisville), Tim Holman (Meyzeek Middle School)

As co-investigators of a study, an eighth grade teacher and a teacher educator examined the relationship between standards based instruction, high stakes testing, and culturally responsive teaching in a middle school social studies classroom. This study documented curriculum decisions made by the teacher as he prepared his students for their high stakes test. When considering how to best meet the needs of his adolescent students, the teacher described tensions between the pressures of standards and testing and his commitment to cultural responsiveness. Both the teacher and teacher educator believe that the tensions and dilemmas described in this study are significant for teachers in the field as well as teacher education students entering the field in the current standards and testing climate.

No Child Left Behind Act in/out of Two Middle-School Classrooms
Enora R. Brown (DePaul University)

No Child Left Behind’s (2001) standardization/accountability mandates ushered new chapter in public education history. Though threatening public education and social equality, few examined NCLB’s impact on middle school policy, purpose of education, classroom practices, and curricula. Inquiry explores these issues through classroom observations, textual analyses, teacher/student interviews at one NCLB and non-NCLB middle school. Piaget’s, Vygotsky’s, Freire’s, and Bourdieu’s theories of knowledge construction, pedagogy, and NCLB’s assumptions undergird inquiry. Discourse analyses revealed NCLB prompted Turning Points’ revisions, standards-driven, banking method learning, constricted interaction, teacher dissatisfaction, in NCLB low-income classroom; open-ended projects, problem-solving curricula, social interaction, energizing teacher-student learning in non-NCLB classroom. Inquiry suggests vulnerability of middle school reform, social equality and public education advocacy needed.

Accountability and the Changing Practice of Middle-School Teachers: Unintended Consequences
Linda L. Samek (Corban College), Micki M. Caskey (Portland State University), P. Maureen Musser (Willamette University), William L. Greene (Southern Oregon State University), Marilyn R. Olson (University of Oregon)

This study investigated the effect of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 and state level accountability requirements on the everyday classroom beliefs and practices of middle school teachers throughout the state. The researchers employed qualitative procedures to analyze transcripts of focus group and individual interviews with teachers of core subjects from 13 middle schools. Results identified changing practices in middle school classrooms in curriculum, instruction, and assessment choices and the rationale for those changes. Based on these findings, this paper concludes with policy and practice recommendations for middle school teachers and administrators, professional development service providers, and state agencies that address academic excellence, developmental responsiveness, and best middle level teaching practices.

School Improvement Planning in Middle-Grades Schools
Vincent A. Anfara (The University of Tennessee-Knoxville)

This mixed-methods study focuses on school improvement planning in middle schools in east Tennessee. It critically analyzes what issues, problems, strategies, and action plans were consistently utilized; and the perceptions of both administrators and teachers regarding the school improvement process. Utilizing the improvement plans of 17 middle schools and surveys that were administered to 493 teachers and 35 administrators, this study found that there: (1) was an overemphasis on academic goals with a lack of attention to those factors most correlated to improved student performance (i.e., school culture/climate, teacher efficacy, rigorous curriculum, etc.); (2) was an over reliance on the use of “home-made” data collection instruments; (3) was a total lack of attention to the effective of school leadership; and (4) none of the research-based, middle school strategies were mentioned. Overall, the lack of utility of these school improvement plans is traced to the nature of the template that is required by the State Department of Education. Policy recommendations are offered.

Critical Issues in Middle-Level Education Same-Gender Grouping in Eighth-Grade Science Classrooms
Jennifer Ingrid Friend (University of Missouri-Kansas City)

This study examined two hypotheses related to same-gender grouping of eighth-grade science classes in a public middle-school setting. The first hypothesis, male and female students enrolled in same-gender science classes demonstrate more positive science academic achievement than their peers enrolled in mixed-gender classes. The second, same-gender grouping of students has a positive effect on classroom climate. The participants were randomly assigned to class sections. The science teachers did not vary instruction for the same-gender and mixed-gender classes. The results of this study did not indicate support for either hypothesis. Data led to the conclusions that same-gender grouping did not produce significant differences in student science academic achievement, and that same-gender classes did not create a more positive classroom climate

Understanding the Needs of English Language Learners and Its Impact on Their Identities
Bogum Yoon (Texas Woman’s University)

Grounded in culturally relevant pedagogy, this study explored a regular classroom teacher teaching middle grades English language learners (ELLs). The purpose of this study was to examine the teacher’s belief of her roles in teaching ELLs, and the impact of her teaching approaches on the students’ identities. Findings suggest that, according to the teacher’s belief and approaches, the ELLs’ identities were shaped through actions that positioned them as resourceful and intellectual instead of positioning them as powerless and inferior. The active involvement on the part of the teacher played a role in the mainstream peers’ positioning of the ELLs as acceptable and, as a result, the ELLs’ interaction with American peers was fostered.

Teacher Dispositions in the Middle Grades: How Do They Affect the Learning of Future Citizens of a Democracy?
Holly Jade Thornton (Armstrong Atlantic State University)

How are teachers disposed to think, to make meaning and sense of the world, and thus model such dispositions and inculcate them in their middle level students at such a critical developmental stage? How do these dispositions affect student learning and the nature of learning in the classroom, especially in terms of depth of understanding, and the nature of discourse which affects the potential to cultivate a democratic classroom, a place where students learn to become citizens of a future democracy for the public good? A comparative study of veteran middle level teachers exemplifying “responsive” and “technical” dispositions examines these questions.

Arkansas Middle-Level Best Practices Study
Calli A. Holaway-Johnson (University of Arkansas), Charles E. Stegman (University of Arkansas), Kristina A. Fritts Scott (University of Arkansas-Fayetteville), Sean W. Mulvenon (University of Arkansas), James E. Truelove (University of Arkansas), Crystal Beshears (University of Arkansas)

The Arkansas Middle Level Best Practices Study examines high-performing and average-performing middle schools in order to identify practices that school systems are using to improve student achievement. This study is part of the NCEA state-comparable Best Practices studies. Data collection for this study will occur from August to October 2005, and all analyses will be completed by December 2005. Data will be collected through interviews with district administrators, school administrators, and classroom teachers. Data will be analyzed using areas identified by NCEA as related to best practices: Curriculum and Academic Goals; Staff Selection, Leadership, and Capacity Building; Instructional Programs, Practices, and Arrangements; Compilation, Analysis, and Use of Data; and Recognition, Intervention, and Adjustments.

Meeting the Needs of Adolescents: Assessing the Condition of the Middle School in Northern Kentucky
Shawn A. Faulkner (Northern Kentucky University), Chris Cook (Northern Kentucky University)
This study examines the implementation of the essential components of the middle school philosophy in Northern Kentucky middle schools and the impact of state assessment programs on instructional practice. Responses from 215 certified personnel from seventeen middle schools indicate widespread acceptance of the middle school philosophy; however, most of the essential components of effective middle school programs are lacking in reported implementation. In addition, classroom teachers acknowledge the importance of instructional strategies that are engaging and meaningful to students, but choose, rather, to employ more teacher-focused approaches, which they perceive as more effective in meeting the demands of state-mandated assessments.

Examining Effective Practice in Preservice and Inservice Middle-Level Education

Writing in Middle-Grades Mathematics Methods: Developing Mathematical and Pedagogical Understanding
David K. Pugalee (The University of North Carolina-Charlotte), Patricia Douville (The University of North Carolina-Charlotte)

Writing is an important part of mathematical communication; however, few studies have focused on writing as part of a methods course. Students in middle grades mathematics methods wrote descriptions of their problem solving approaches each class session over the course of a semester. Products were assessed using a rubric focusing on mathematical content, conceptual understanding, procedural understanding, problem solving ability, and mathematical reasoning. Data indicate that students’ performance relative to these five facets or domains improved after explicit course emphasis on writing. Pre and post survey data on attitudes toward writing in mathematics showed shifts in views reflecting an intent to use more sustained and in-depth approaches in their own classrooms.

Middle Grades Teaching Practices: A Validation Study
Steven B. Mertens (University of Illinois), Nancy Flowers (CPRD-University of Illinois), Matthew Hesson-McInnis (Illinois State University), Cari Bishop (CPRD-University of Illinois)

This paper will provide the results of a factor analysis of teacher reports of levels of interdisciplinary team and classroom practices based on a large-scale sample of middle-grades teachers from four states. This validation study is part of a larger structural equation model, designed to measure the impact and effect of various components of middle-school restructuring (i.e., structures and organization, school contextual factors, teaching practices, and student outcomes, including experiences, socio-emotional, and achievement). The results demonstrate the validity of the measures used in this study and provide the foundation for subsequent exploration and research of this model for school improvement.

Exploring the Experiences of Young Adolescents

Orienting to the Common Good: Developing a Moral Self in the Middle Years
Kathleen Roney (The University of North Carolina-Wilmington), F. Clark Power (University of Notre Dame), Ann Marie R. Power (University of Notre Dame)

This year’s conference challenges middle school researchers to investigate the extent to which schools prepare young adolescents to commit themselves to serve the public interest. One way of assessing the children and adolescents’ orientation to the common good is through their emerging self-understanding. This study analyzes middle school student’s descriptions of the ideal, real, and dreaded selves. Less than half of the participants describe themselves with at least one moral characteristic and many of them focus narrowly on attaining material and social success. These findings raise questions about the hidden curriculum of individualism in schools as well as in the wider culture.

School Engagement and Drift Among Middle-Level Students in Ireland
Emer C. Smyth (Economic & Social Research Institute), Allison Dunne (ESRI), Selina M. McCoy (ESRI), Merike Darmody (ESRI)

This paper explores the identity of second year secondary students in Ireland, caught between first year in which they adjusted to a new school setting and third year which is strongly oriented towards a State examination. It draws on quantitative and qualitative data on over 900 students in twelve case-study schools. Firstly, the paper explores students’ experiences of being in second year, comparing their perceptions of their learning and school workload with that in their first year of secondary education. Secondly, it examines the extent to which students are already oriented towards the Junior Certificate examination. Thirdly, it looks at changes in attitudes to school life between first and second year.

Students’ Responses to an Experiential Learning Program: Exploring Academic Momentum With Eighth Graders Who Have Not Done Well in School
David B. Strahan (Western Carolina University), Victoria Faircloth (Western Carolina University), Sally Hundley (Haywood Co. Schools), Micky Cope (Haywood Co. Schools)

This study chronicled the responses of middle school students to their teachers’ efforts to provide them with experiential learning opportunities. Working with two teachers and their team of 42 students selected as “academically at-risk,” researchers observed lessons, interviewed participants, and analyzed students’ work samples. Results documented ways that teachers established a sense of community and co-constructed experiential learning experiences with students. Thirty-five students on the team developed a stronger sense of academic momentum, attributing their accomplishments to changes in attitude, task-specific successes, and supportive relationships with teachers, better self-control, and opportunities for community service. Results affirm the power of caring and energetic teachers to connect with students and underscore the complexity of remediation in the middle grades.

Educating At-Risk Urban African-American Children: A Comparison of the Effectiveness of Two Types of Middle Schools
Leo Mickey Fenzel (Loyola College in Maryland)

Evidence is clear that urban high poverty public schools are failing to meet the educational needs of its students, particularly students of color. The present study examines the effectiveness of two types of high poverty parochial schools for 354 African American middle school students. Results show that alternative middle schools, known as Nativity schools, are more successful than traditional schools in helping students improve in standardized test scores. Further analyses show that, regardless of school type, students perform better in school when their levels of intrinsic motivation for school work is higher. Intrinsic motivation is influenced by students’ self-worth perceptions and perceptions of their class environments as engaging and their schools as enjoyable and fair places. Implications for urban schooling for African American children are discussed.

Symposium: Relevant Methodologies for Relevant Middle-Level Questions

The aim of this symposium is to examine research methodologies that are relevant for middle-level education research questions. The session brings together five middle level researchers who will share pertinent research methods for the systematic study of middle level issues. The researchers will describe a variety of methodologies including quasi-experimental factorial designs, large-scale quantitative methods, mixed methodological approaches, visual methods, and action research. Each researcher will discuss the merits of specific methodologies for addressing significant questions in middle level education. Collectively, these researchers will focus on the critical need for more disciplined inquiry to expand the research base in middle level education. This symposium affords researchers with an opportunity to exchange ideas and think critically about relevant research methodologies.

Quasi-Experimental Factorial Designs
Richard P. Lipka (Pittsburg State University)

“The world is not a world of main effects; rather it is a world of interaction effects.” “For well designed difference question studies, a finding of no significant difference may have as many policy and practice implications as significant differences.” Using the aforementioned two postulates, this presentation will show participants how to employ naturally occurring variables such as grade level, age, gender, etc. in quasi-experimental factorial designs that ascertain both main effects and interaction effects. If time permits, the researcher will show participants how to employ chi square with qualitative data.

The Relevancy of Large-Scale, Quantitative Methodologies to Middle-Level Research
Steven B. Mertens (University of Illinois)

This paper will discuss the benefits and relevancy of utilizing quantitative methods with large-scale, longitudinal data sets to address research questions and policy issues. Research utilizing large-scale study samples (longitudinal or cross-sectional) offered the ability to generalize to the larger population. Generalizability of research findings is essential if research is to inform policy decisions. The use of large-scale quantitative data sources also afford the research the ability to partition the data by any number of independent and dependent variables, and apply multivariate statistical methods. Other topics discussed during this paper will include data collection form multiple sources, triangulation of data, multidisciplinary approaches, and mixed methods approaches to research.

The Importance of a Mixed Methodological Approach to Middle-Grades Research
Vincent A. Anfara (The University of Tennessee-Knoxville)

This paper will discuss the benefits and drawbacks of utilizing mixed methodological approaches to study issues related to middle grades schools. Part One of the discussion will be grounded in mixed-methods research already published on the organizational health of middle schools and its impact on student achievement (Henderson et al., 2005). Part Two of this paper will discuss the evolution of a purely qualitative study (Brown & Anfara, 2002) into a purely quantitative study and the eventual development of a quantitative instrument to measure the developmental responsiveness of middle level principals (Anfara, Roney, Smarkola, & DuCette, 2004). The qualitative findings and the results of the factor analysis conducted during the development of the Middle Level Leader Questionnaire will be compared and discussed. Researchers who have studied middle grades issues have typically focused on one research paradigm or the other. The time has come for more mixed methodological approaches.

The Promise of Visual Methods in Accessing Middle Schoolers’ Perceptions
Penny Bishop (University of Vermont)

While quantitative methods can yield the generalizability so important to informing policy decisions today, middle grades educators also require trustworthy evidence to inform their day-to-day local decision-making. Consulting learners directly about their schooling experiences can provide important information regarding conditions of academic engagement. Concomitantly, accessing student perception has historically presented unique challenges to researchers. This paper considers these challenges; asserts the importance of the student as a valuable and underrepresented data source in educational research; and proposes visual methods as a means to access student perception. In particular, the paper provides a brief overview of four qualitative research studies conducted in middle schools, in which the use of drawings, photographs, and videotape revealed the potential of these alternative data sources.

The Value of Action Research in Middle-Level Education
Micki M. Caskey (Portland State University)

This paper will address the value of action research in middle level education. Action research compels educators to take action and think reflectively about those actions to bring about positive educational change (Mills, 2000). This cycle of systematic inquiry affords educators with opportunities to gain insights into teaching and learning processes. Action research is associated with (1) the development of critical pedagogy in preservice teachers (Liston & Zeichner, 1987), (2) increased learning among new teachers (Wilson, Floden, & Ferrini-Mundy, 2001), and (3) expanding practice-based knowledge of inservice teachers (Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 2001). Educators conduct action research in a range of contexts (Zeichner, 2001). In middle level education, action research accounts for nearly 20% of the research studies published from 1991 to 2001 (Hough, 2003). Action research holds an important position in teacher education, professional development, and school reform (Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 1999).