Schools team up on Grade 6. Study finds groups with several teachers most effective

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.''

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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.''

At Parker, the basic academic team of four teachers - specialists in math, science, social studies, and language arts - meets during common planning periods throughout the year to coordinate curriculum and homework assignments and to discuss individual students.

Once a year, the team plans a unit together; last fall, the three-week course was on ``The Living Constitution.'' Students, for example, studied the history and language of the US Constitution, discussed census-taking and chemical preservation of documents, and made old-fashioned ink with which to sign their names to a facsimile document.

The unit was a hit, especially with some of the otherwise low-achieving students, says David Williams, sixth-grade science teacher at the school. ``It's an excellent system to catch kids who are falling through the cracks.'' Teaming also helps teachers keep track of the needs of brighter students and coordinate special assignments to keep them challenged, he says.

``I learn more because different teachers teach different ways,'' says Lisa Bonfante, a sixth-grader at Oak School in Oceanside, N.Y. ``You get bored with one teacher all day.''

On the other hand, she says, having just three teachers in her team is better than changing for every class. ``You want to become friends with your teachers, and switching classes every period is confusing.''

``If you don't have a good teacher, you have no one to help you with your problems,'' says Lisa's classmate Craig Whitney. ``But with several teachers, there's always someone to help.''

In a large school such as Suzanne Middle School in Walnut, Calif., with more than 1,000 students, each team ``is like a little family,'' says principal Laurel Kanthak. Sixth-graders learn to accept more responsibility in teams, says Audrey Werner, the school's sixth-grade student-staff adviser.

In the four years since teaming was introduced in Walnut, moreover, student scores on the statewide mandatory skills assessment program have jumped from below the range expected for the school to well above in reading, math, social studies, and language arts. The number of days students were suspended has been reduced by nearly two-thirds.

And surveys of students and their parents show that both like the interdisciplinary teams. The team approach ``makes parents feel more comfortable with teachers,'' says Ms. Kanthak. ``They can call all the teachers at one time'' to discuss their child.

``Kids feel adults are there for them and care,'' says John Sizemore, principal of Lassiter Middle School in Louisville, Ky., where 70 percent of students are from low-income families.

Student scores on the statewide basic skills test last year showed a 10 percent gain over the previous year, and attendance improved 2.5 percent from two years ago, to a 93.5 percent daily average. Because of such accomplishments, the school was recently recognized by the state and was a finalist in the National Secondary School Recognition Program.

The NASSP study follows in form a 1985 study on the ninth grade, which ``still is having a considerable effect'' nationwide on how individual school districts organize ninth grade, according to George L. Melton, NASSP deputy executive director. He predicts the new study will ``lead to more teaming, less isolation of the sixth grade, and a reduction in the number of self-contained and departmentalized sixth grades.''

The sixth-grade study's recommendations on teaming may influence the education of many more students in the next few years.

US Department of Education statistics show that the steady decline in the number of sixth-graders is expected to reverse next fall as the children born to baby-boomers in the mid-1970s reach this level. By 1993, 3.3 million students will be enrolled in the sixth grade, according to department projections.

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