Schools team up on Grade 6. Study finds groups with several teachers most effective
CAUGHT between childhood and adolescence, sixth-graders know school is not all fun and games. But it will likely be more interesting, and ultimately more fun, if they attend a school where instruction revolves around interdisciplinary team teaching, according to a national study of the sixth grade released here last month at the annual convention of the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP). According to many principals who attended the convention, the study confirms what some educators have known for years: The most effective approach to teaching 11- and 12-year-olds, who are smack in the middle of some distracting physical, emotional, social, and intellectual changes, is using teams of teachers who focus on academics without losing sight of students' emotional needs.Skip to next paragraph
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The team approach ``is like a school within a school,'' says John Delaney, principal of Parker Middle School in Reading, Mass. ``It's a way to bridge the gap from elementary to secondary school.''
Interdisciplinary teaming is ``on every guru's list'' of what makes for effective middle schools, says Joyce L. Epstein, director of the Middle Schools Program at the Center for Research on Elementary and Middle Schools, Johns Hopkins University. ``But we don't have hard data that says many people are doing it well or that it has a positive effect on student achievement. We have testimony which is rather convincing where it works.''
The study, ``Life in the Three Sixth Grades,'' says there is less consistency in the way sixth-graders are organized for instruction than in any other grade. ``There are very clearly three organizational styles used in the sixth grade,'' says John H. Lounsbury, the study's senior author, ``and students receive a very different learning experience based on which organization they have.''
According to the study, the self-contained sixth grade, a traditional elementary school classroom in which one teacher works all day with the same group of students, lacks diversity. The departmentalized sixth grade, similar to high school, where students attend different classes taught by subject-area specialists, is inflexible and relies too much on class lectures.
A third or ``evolving'' sixth grade featuring the team approach, in which two or more teachers work cooperatively with a common group of students, allows teachers to be creative and flexible in how they teach without sacrificing subject-area expertise.
Of the three, the team approach shows the most promise for all sixth-graders, including those at risk of school failure, says Mr. Lounsbury, an expert on NASSP's Council on Middle Level Education, which sponsored the study. About half the nation's 2.8 million sixth-graders are taught by teams, he says, adding that the approach has grown steadily in popularity since its introduction in United States schools in the late 1960s and early '70s.
Advocates of teaming say the approach contributes to academic improvement, better classroom discipline, and higher staff morale. These conclusions are reinforced by a 1985 national survey of 130 effective middle schools that found 90 percent of them were organized into interdisciplinary teams.
In the three years since teaming was introduced at Parker Middle School, says Mr. Delaney, ``We've seen a marked decrease in the number of angry, alienated, unhappy students.'' The reason, he says, is that the focus of instruction now is ```I'm teaching Johnny English,' not `I'm teaching Johnny' or `I'm teaching English.' The subject matter becomes a vehicle to deliver other things we consider more important, such as social, emotional, and skills development.''