Meeting standards without sacrificing quality curriculum in the middle school, LM Bailey

Tags: National Middle School Association, curriculum, content standards, experience, Florida history, Florida, archeology, teaching, curriculum unit, activities, student achievement, multidisciplinary unit, middle school, interdisciplinary unit, student teachers, social studies class, teachers, team teachers, geology students, foreign language teacher, Missouri State University, language arts class, social studies, Frenship ISD, Accountability, mathematics performance, Educational standards, Straut, D., American Educational Research Association, References Adams, negative criticism, Educational Leadership, content areas, classroom teacher, research, David Hough, classroom teachers, curricular unit, student teacher, University of Central Florida Citation, Middle Level Education, disadvantaged students, Lynne M. Bailey, gifted students, effective learning, Instructional Unit, sixth grade students, Exploratory teachers, art teachers, Achievement Test, middle school students, quality curriculum
Content: RMLE Online--Volume 26, No. 2 RMLEOnline Research in Middle Level Education
David Hough, Ph.D., Editor Missouri State University Springfield, Missouri
2003 · Volume 26 · Number 2
ISSN 1084-8959
Meeting Standards without Sacrificing Quality Curriculum in the Middle School
Lynne M. Bailey University of Central Florida
Citation: Bailey, L. M. (2003). Meeting standards without sacrificing quality curriculum in the middle school. Research in Middle Level Education Online, 26(2). Retrieved [date], from http://www.nmsa.org/Publications/RMLEOnline/tabid/101/Default.aspx Abstract
The purpose of this research was to examine how effective learning could be curriculum-driven while still addressing mandated content standards at the middle school level. Having recently participated in planning and implementing a team interdisciplinary unit, the researcher sought to address three questions: 1) How did students perceive their learning experiences after participating in such a unit, 2) Could a quality interdisciplinary unit be developed without initially being derived from content standards guidelines, and 3) Would participation in such an extended curricular unit affect student achievement? The primary positive aspects for the unit that were cited most often by students were making journals, watching videos, experiencing a "real" archeological dig, the field trip, and being a student teacher.
For classroom teachers, the issue of addressing content standards and benchmarks as a matter of instructional accountability has become a mandate. As the demand for high-stakes testing and the pressure for schools to raise student test scores increases, teachers are feeling the strain of being required to document meeting the standards criteria in their planning, instruction, and assessment. As a result, teachers might be getting the impression that the only alternative is to forego creativity and spontaneity in their work so that the record keeping can progress. In this climate, teaching and learning are in danger of becoming standards-driven, not curriculum-driven.
At the middle school level, for example, curriculum should be integrative and exploratory. Integrating curriculum can help early adolescents establish connections among various content areas, making learning more meaningful. Thinking and problem-solving skills are developed using this approach, and teachers often focus on a particular theme. To integrate concepts across the subject areas, classroom teachers attempt to create an environment where students feel secure as risk-takers in embracing new learning opportunities. Teachers may use a variety of assessment techniques in assessing early adolescents to accommodate a broad range of intellectual and developmental characteristics (National Middle School Association, 1995).
For the classroom teacher who shares this vision, a standards-driven approach that focuses on discreet sets of departmentalized content skills seems, quite simply, inappropriate. Admittedly, there is nothing inherently wrong with having standards for what students should be able to learn or know. The problem arises when teachers are made to feel that all learning experiences should be derived from them exclusively. Much profound and valuable information is learned by students in schools that does not appear anywhere on a list of content standards and benchmarks. Teachers who know their content and their students do not necessarily need to begin from the list; they can begin instead with ideas of what they believe would be engaging and productive for their students. ________________________________
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Review of Literature According to Reigeluth (1997), "standards should not be a one size-fits-all approach to education. A student can not and should not be expected to know and do exactly the same things as his or her peers. Developmental and flexible standards provide different students in the same classroom with opportunities to work on a range of concepts and skills according to individual abilities, needs, and interests (Kluth & Straut, 2001, p. 43, 44)." This belief is strong testament to a system of education that recognizes the inherent diversity of student populations. How disheartening then, to function within a context where many school administrators, 42% in one California study (Brown-Welty, Bushman, Dorn & Goodman, 2001), concern themselves with curriculum articulation that confuses teaching to standards with teaching to the test. As Brown-Welty et al pointed out, the administrators they surveyed "focused mainly on the written, taught, and tested curriculum (p. 35)." Reports on the implementation of standards-based reform efforts at state and district levels throughout the past several years have indicated several key elements that contribute to the success of such reform. Among these were the need for effective changes in teaching methods, schools that operated as teams, the availability of consistent and ongoing professional development, time for teacher collaborative planning, and the help and involvement of parents and families. Inquiry-based learning, hands-on activities, the use of technology, exploratory programs, and integrative/interdisciplinary curriculum practices were recommended as effective curricular and instructional tools for encouraging effective standards-based reform in the classroom. Furthermore, the curriculum should enhance the development of students' problem-solving abilities and reasoning skills (Clay-Chambers, Moussiaux, Norman, & Stein, 1998; Celio, Hill, Lake & O'Toole, 1999; Adams, Brower, Hill & Marshall, 2000). Schools that reported implementing such practices were successful in meeting or exceeding standardized testing goals regardless of the number of advantaged and disadvantaged students tested (Madden, Simons & Slavin, 1999; Celio, Hill, Lake & O'Toole, 1999; Cordogan & Stanciak, 2000; Duttweiler & Madden, 2001). Schools who implemented standards-based integrative or interdisciplinary curriculum at the elementary, middle, and secondary levels reported positive effects on student achievement in a variety of subject areas. These schools also noted improved student behavior and less absenteeism. Teachers preferred the instructional approach over that of traditional approaches, although many agreed that a lack of planning time could be problematic (McKinnon, 1997; Kling & Zimmer, 1999; Cordogan & Stanciak, 2000). Drake (2001) studied the progress of one fourth grade teacher who successfully moved from addressing discrete standards one at a time, to an integrated curriculum model in which students not only thrived, but also allowed the teacher a more comprehensive treatment of the standards for all the content areas. Using a model developed by Drake (2000), the fourth grade teacher planned and implemented a curriculum where students learned content and research skills as well as group cooperation, problem-solving skills, and responsibility. Although this study was published before standardized test data could be gathered, the rubric and observation data collected from the study indicated that students were maintaining high levels of achievement. Interestingly, the teacher conceptualized the topic for the unit first then interwove the planning of interesting and appropriate activities with the identification of targeted content standards simultaneously. Methodology The setting for this study was a suburban middle school in Central Florida during the 2000-2001 school year. At the time of this research, district demographic statistics for this school reported a distribution of students that included 44% White; 29% Black; 23% Hispanic; 3% Asian-Pacific Islander; and 1% Native American and Other. The sample group was a team of approximately 170 eighth grade students whose demographic composition essentially reflected the distribution for the school. The group included students of all achievement levels, including mainstreamed exceptional education and Limited English Proficient students. This sample group participated in an interdisciplinary curriculum unit that lasted from November 2000-February 2001, approximately 50% of the calendar school year. This period, however, also represents two-thirds of the school year for which teachers and students are held accountable on the year's standardized tests. The students test in March, with 25% of the instructional school year remaining.
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The other participants in the interdisciplinary unit included eight teachers, 130 sixth grade students, and 49 parents. Community resource volunteers included two directors and a speaker from the local Historical Society, four geology students from the local state university, and three docents from an historical museum in St. Augustine, Florida. The four core team teachers included a science, mathematics, social studies, and me, a language arts teacher. Exploratory teachers included two art teachers, one foreign language teacher, and one agri-science teacher. Each of the participating teachers had more than five years experience in working with Middle School Students. All of the teachers had worked at this particular school for at least the past two years. Several of the teachers had worked together previously on different teams and on a variety of multidisciplinary curriculum projects and all were strong advocates of the middle school philosophy. Operational Definition of Multidisciplinary Unit For the purposes of this research, a multidisciplinary unit refers to an instructional unit that centered on the theme of archeology. The unit involved the integration of content and skills from the science, mathematics, social studies, language arts, agri-science, art, and foreign language content areas in addressing that theme. Planning the Unit The original idea for the unit was suggested at the beginning of the 2000 school year by the one of the art teachers who was interested in working with a team that would be enthusiastic about integrating content. She proposed the theme of archeology after learning about theme-based integrated curriculum from a workshop she had attended over the summer. When she proposed the idea to the team, she shared that she had already begun to think about the natural connections between the content areas around the theme of archeology. After agreeing to participate in the unit, the questions that guided our initial planning were: 1) how is a themed unit on archeology of value and/or relevance to middle school students living in Florida? 2) What do middle school students living in Florida need to know about archeology? 3) What do the students need to know to participate in such a unit? 4) How does each of the content areas contribute to such a study? 5) What activities will actively engage middle school students in learning about archeology? 6) How will students be assessed in what they have learned? As planning commenced, questions about gathering resources had to be addressed, a schedule of events and activities had to be formulated, decisions of who would be responsible for facilitating the events and activities had to be made, and ideas for securing funding had to be considered. Funds were subsequently secured from school improvement money for the purchase of materials. Guest speakers from the community and parents volunteered their services. The planning phase alone for this project took three months and many hours of work by the teachers involved. Following the completion of the entire planning process, the teachers then aligned the content and objectives of the unit with their individual content area standards. This process is referred to by Beane and Vars (2000) in their discussion of using standards in curriculum integration as back mapping. The documentation was required in all teachers' lesson plans by the administration of this particular school. Implementation and Assessment The implementation of the unit began in November 2000 and culminated in February 2001. The winter break occurred between mid-December and mid-January. The period prior to the winter break was characterized by instructional activities, while the period following the winter break involved the application and synthesis of knowledge and the final assessment of learning. The final assessment required students to evaluate their learning experiences in writing. The content teachers used any time not spent on the unit activities at their discretion. Data Collection The data for this research were collected primarily from the student sample in the form of written final assessments for the unit. Teacher observations and standardized test scores were also included in the data. The stu-
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RMLE Online--Volume 26, No. 2 dents were asked to evaluate their learning experiences in an essay format and to discuss what they had learned. The evaluations were to include what they felt was positive and negative about the multidisciplinary unit as a unit of instruction. They were asked to explain what was useful to them in their learning and what was not. Finally, students were asked to suggest what would make this unit more educational and meaningful if the team chose to use it again. The written data were reviewed and categorized. Teacher observations were reconciled with the student comments. Finally, because the unit encompassed a large part of the school year and differed from the typical traditional curriculum approach of the year prior, standardized test scores were reviewed to note any major changes in student achievement. Data Analysis and Findings Ninety-nine student essays were collected by the researcher and were reviewed for content. The data were then categorized and listed based on frequency of response. The data from the student written assessment essays are summarized in Figure 1 and are discussed in the narrative. Meeting Standards Figure 1 Student Positive and Negative Responses to the Multidisciplinary Archeology Unit Positive Aspects of Instructional Unit · Making journals for sketches and gridding · Preparatory activities provided useful and interesting background knowledge · Achieved a new appreciation for the field of archeology · Activities were fun and game-like · Videos were informative and interesting · Participating in an actual dig was educational, fun, and exciting · Field trip was educational and fun · Student teaching was valuable and enjoyable · Speakers from the field were credible and interesting · Teachers worked hard to make learning fun Negative Aspects of Instructional Unit · Journals were not really used during the dig · Bookwork, worksheets, and study reading were boring · Guest speakers were informative, but very boring · Instructional activities were pointless, not useful · Too much repetition of information · Documentary videos were boring · FCAT reading practice was inappropriate · Non-attendance at the dig left students unenthusiastic about the unit · Students had no choice of which activities in which to participate · Flow of activities was disorganized · Unit was too long · Information was irrelevant for gifted students · There was no coordination with the gifted teacher Figure 1 shows that the primary positive aspects that were cited most often were making journals, watching the videos, experiencing a "real" archeological dig, the field trip, and being able to be a student teacher. The primary negative aspects that were cited most were having to do bookwork, having to listen to guest speakers, having to complete activities that seemed pointless or useless, and having to complete any exercise that relat-
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ed to the FCAT (Florida Comprehensive Achievement Test). Interestingly the majority of the students claimed to have enjoyed and learned from the unit overall. The ten gifted students on the team were extremely dissatisfied with the whole experience.
Teacher observations support the student written data, especially with regard to the students' satisfaction with the hands-on, experiential nature of the unit. Teachers were also aware via student verbal feedback throughout the unit that some of the activities/materials were not viewed as useful or appropriate by some of the students.
The Florida Comprehensive Achievement Test (FCAT) scores for the year the students completed the unit and the year prior to that are displayed in Table 1.
Table 1.
Florida Comprehensive Achievement Test Scores for the 2000 and 2001 School Years
Reading Mathematics
2000 308 326
2001 314 325
Writing
3.9
3.8
The data in Table 1 showed that the scores for Reading achievement increased by six points. Mathematics and Writing achievement decreased slightly by 1 and .1 respectively. Discussion The first research question posed in this study asked how students perceived their learning experiences after completing the multidisciplinary unit. Based on the findings of the student written response data, students noted several key positive and negative aspects of the unit. The following is a discussion of these key points. By far, a majority of the students claimed that the dig was a high point of their experience. This was an elaborate venture that required hours of preparation on the Saturday before the dig and involved the cooperation of both teachers and parents. The school's agriculture department offered the use of their garden plot for the dig site. The site was divided into multiple 4' X 4' plots and marked off with wooden frames. Deep holes were dug in the framed spaces and various artifacts were buried beneath stratified layers of dirt, soil, and sand. Each stratified layer of artifacts represented a different era of Florida history and civilization. On the day of the dig, the following Saturday, the students arrived to put their newly-acquired archeological knowledge and skills to the test. Working in small groups, the student archeologists excavated their plots. This gave them the opportunity to use the tools of the trade and to demonstrate their knowledge of gridding and sketching in the journals they had made. Because they had learned about various periods of Florida history, the artifacts the students unearthed were recognized in the proper chronological context. One student was particularly articulate in his assessment of his experience: The archeological dig was interesting because there were neat things I have never seen before like certain types of bones. I also thought it was interesting because I got to work with people I didn't know and got to meet. I liked the hands-on work in the dirt. The dig was educational because I learned about how to excavate in the dirt. I also dug up a lot of artifacts that were of many different cultures and time periods. Finally, I learned what it would be like to be an archeologist. This experience has granted me with some excavation skills. I could decide to go to college and learn more about this. I could also get a career in the field of archeology as I progress in knowledge of the subject. Interesting to note here is the fact that a student who was typically extremely unmotivated in class submitted this response. A change of environment and the opportunity to approach learning in a more physical way than sitting in a desk evidently worked for this student.
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RMLE Online--Volume 26, No. 2 The experience was a clarifying one for many students. One admitted that being an archeologist was hard work and was often performed in poor weather conditions (The weather turned cold and rainy on the day of our dig!). Another student said that her favorite part of the dig was that "it felt great to understand the real meaning [of the task] and then perform it. I found great stuff like fossils, bones, jewelry, corn, pottery, and wooden furniture. It helped me understand a lot better." A third felt that "the long awaited dig made me think about everything I learned on the field trip." There were a few students, however, that did not enjoy working in the dirt and rain. Some students did not enjoy the fact that the dig was held on a Saturday, which they claimed interrupted their weekend. Students who opted not to attend the dig were less than enthusiastic about the unit as a whole. This is not surprising because these students missed out on a culminating activity, a primary reason for learning all the material prior to the winter break. Predictably, the field trip to St. Augustine was another popular activity in the unit. One would be safe to assume that students appreciate most field trips because they allow students to, once again, be out of the classroom environment. A highlight of this trip was the visit to an historical museum where docents led the students through three different "villages," each representing a different period of Florida history and civilization. Students experienced hands-on demonstrations of crafts and implemented tools that were used during each period. One student felt that "the field trip was both informative and intriguing. You had fun, but it still made you think about all the different types of people and their cultures." Another student claimed that the field trip was the most educational and entertaining aspect of the program: One characteristic of this trip that stood out was actually visiting and experiencing the locations that we had studied. This caused me to fully understand and appreciate the history of the United States. Hands-on activities at the museum seemed authentic and enabled me to understand the basic lifestyle of ancient Florida inhabitants. Finally, the opportunity to socialize with my friends and enjoy the restaurants made this a well-rounded and memorable trip. A third student recalled specific activities that she enjoyed: We got to learn about the Indians who lived in Florida. We got to learn about the Spanish coming to Florida. We also learned about the pioneers. At the museum, we got to do a few hands-on activities. We got to get our faces painted like Native Americans did. We got to make candles and play some of the games the Spanish and Native American kids [hundreds] of years ago. I really enjoyed getting to write with quill pens. That was one of my favorite activities. An important observation here is that the students had fun in the context of what they were learning or had learned. The students recognized an authentic purpose in being on location. There was only one student who claimed not to have enjoyed learning from the field trip. She insisted that she was a big city girl and that town was just too slow-paced for her. A third unique and well-liked experience that was afforded some of the students was that of acting as a student teacher. Following the completion of the eighth grade dig, 14 students were selected by the social studies teacher to lead sixth grade Spanish classes through the dig site and teach them about archeology and Florida archeology and history in particular. Because the sixth graders were studying Spanish, the presentation was delivered in both English and Spanish by the eighth grade student teachers. One student felt that the experience was particularly beneficial for her: Not everyone got a chance to teach the sixth grade classes, but I did, and that helped me. You really had to know everything about what you were teaching in case someone asked a question. Teaching forced me to use every little thing we ever did on this unit so that I could teach as well as I could. The saying, `you don't know something until you teach it' is true.
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RMLE Online--Volume 26, No. 2 Some of the student teachers learned that "teaching is not easy, but by teaching the sixth graders about the eighth grade archeology dig, it gave them an incentive to want to be on our team when they get to eighth grade." Positive advertising! Another student realized how fatiguing teaching could be: After the first three sets of kids, I got a little tired. To me, it was because of the sun, because the sixth graders were really good. Some of them weren't, but most were. Then I started to realize that it wasn't just the sun, it was the students, too! When I had my last drop of energy I would tell them, `don't pull out anything you find [from the plots].' As soon as I could blink I saw a kid waving a huge bone in the air saying, `look what I found!' I was furious! That's when I started to get tired. A third student felt that "sixth grade Spanish classes should respect the site and should pay attention to the guides." Obviously, this student believed she was a stakeholder in the dig situation. Unfortunately, not all of the students on the team had an opportunity to be student teachers. How valuable a learning experience that would have been if more students had had the opportunity to reinforce their content knowledge and skills by sharing them with others in that capacity. The insight gained from realizing that teaching is hard work that requires a great deal of responsibility would have been significant as well. Although no single curriculum unit is going to inspire every student, some of the negative criticism of this multidisciplinary unit could actually be viewed as constructive. Several students felt that one of the guest speakers in particular was extremely boring. Truthfully, her presentation was informative, but very dry. She had chosen a lecture/slideshow format on the topic of Florida archeological history that was rather lengthy. To compound the situation, she was very soft-spoken and unanimated. Although students admitted valuing the information, the delivery and length of the presentation was more than many of them could bear. Perhaps the format of this activity was not appropriate for the interest level and attention span of these early adolescents. Many students suggested that she try to find a more interesting way of presenting next time. A final, but extremely important, criticism of the unit must be discussed before concluding and that is the dissatisfaction of the gifted students who participated in the unit. These students received their gifted instruction through social studies class. The teacher of that course, for whatever reason, opted not to participate in the multidisciplinary unit. Arrangements were made to accommodate these students to make sure they received the same information as the other students on the team. This meant that the students had to be excused from my language arts class so they could attend orientation and instruction in the team social studies class. Many resented missing language arts class so they could learn material that they perceived as irrelevant to what they were learning in gifted social studies. In addition, these students missed many of the workshops because of scheduling differences, as one student explained: Since I was in Mr. R's class, I could not afford to miss class time to attend the workshops and I missed all the activities in Mrs. M's class. Therefore, the dig was confusing and not nearly as educational as it should have been. I was also disgusted at having to miss language arts class to catch up on dig information and having to make up work. A method needs to be worked out to better involve Mr. R's students, or to leave them out all together. From this response, one might gather that the dissatisfaction might not lie solely with the unit itself, but with other issues like scheduling and problems that stem from all members of a team not wanting to participate. The students ultimately lose out because they are alienated from what the rest of their peers are doing. They benefit neither intellectually nor socially. Based on the analysis of the data, the second research question can be answered affirmatively: quality interdisciplinary units can be developed without initially being derived from content standards guidelines. As found by Drake (2001), successful integrative curriculum can begin with a topic idea and the brainstorming of activities. Standards identification can follow or be noted as the unit planning progresses.
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Finally, the third research question can be addressed through an analysis of the FCAT data. The data clearly indicate an increase in Reading achievement. Although one cannot claim that the increase in scores was due to the eighth graders' participation in the interdisciplinary unit, their participation was obviously not a hindrance in Reading achievement. As for the Mathematics and Writing scores, the slight decrease in each score cannot be directly attributed to the students' participation in the unit. If anything, one might claim that the unit evidently had no drastic negative effect on student Mathematics or Writing achievement. The fact that the scores for this particular school in each tested area have remained consistently above the state averages should also be taken into account. The students' participation in the curriculum unit did not necessarily bring forth momentous gains in achievement on this particular measurement, but it obviously did no great harm either. The students did benefit in additional ways, as the essay and observation data clearly show. Recommendations and Conclusion One limitation of this study was that the findings are strongly biased in favor of the students' point of view. What would have made this study stronger would have been to gather feedback from the participating parent volunteers and the participating teachers. Parents could have offered their perceptions on the effectiveness of the interdisciplinary unit, as could the other teachers. Soliciting feedback from the sixth grade students who were taught by the sample team students might also have been enlightening. In closing, the outcomes of the multidisciplinary experience described in this study confirmed that effective learning could be curriculum-driven and still address mandated content standards at the middle school level. Beane and Vars (2000) surmised that teachers might deal with standards before, during, or after instruction that actively involved students in focusing on their personal and social concerns. Furthermore, inviting students into the planning process helps to develop Critical Thinking, shows students that their ideas are valued, and allows them to embrace serious concerns for education in our society. References Adams, K., Brower, S., Hill, D., & Marshall, I. (2000). The components of an effective mathematics and science middle school: Standards, teaching practices, and professional development. ERIC document 449 032. Beane, J., & Vars, G. (2000). Integrative curriculum in a standards-based world. ERIC document 441 618. Brown-Welty, S., Bushman, J., Dorn, S., & Goodman, G. (2001). California testing: How principals choose priorities. Educational Leadership, 59(1), 33-37. Celio, M. B., Hill, P., Lake, R., & O'Toole, L. (1999). Making standards work: A Case Study of Washington State. ERIC document 434 123. Clay-Chambers, J., Moussiaux, S., Norman, J., & Stein, M. (1998, April) The effect of the Detroit Urban Systemic Initiative on perceived instructional practice and curriculum adequacy. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the National Association for Research in Science Teaching, San Diego, CA. Cordogan, S., & Stanciak, L. (2000, April). An examination of the effects of an interdisciplinary curriculum program on behavior and academic performance in a suburban high school. (A compilation from the first three years of a four year study). Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, New Orleans, LA. Drake, S. (2000). The curriculum handbook: Integrated curriculum. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and curriculum development. Drake, S. (2001). Castles, kings...and standards. Educational Leadership, 59(1), 38-42.
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RMLE Online--Volume 26, No. 2 Duttweiler, P., & Madden, M. (2001). The district that does what's best for kids: Frenship ISD. Special Report on Standards, Assessment, Accountability, and Interventions. Report #5, Winter. Kluth, P., & Straut, D. (2001). Standards for diverse learners. Educational Leadership, 59(1), 43-49. Kling, D., & Zimmer, K. (1999). Weaving curriculum strands together: Data-driven results on the implementation of an interdisciplinary/integrated model for high school reform. ERIC document 429 457. Madden, N., Simons, K., & Slavin, R. (1999). MathWings: Effects on student mathematics performance. Report No. 39. McKinnon, D. (1997, March). Curriculum innovation involving subject integration, field-based learning environments, and information technology: A longitudinal case study of student attitudes, motivation, and performance. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Chicago, IL. National Middle School Association. (1995). This we believe: Developmentally responsive middle level schools. Columbus, OH: National Middle School Association. Reigeluth, C. (1997). Educational standards: To standardize or to customize learning? Phi Delta Kappan, 79(3), 202-206.
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LM Bailey

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Title: RMLE Online Vol. 26, No. 2 - Meeting Standards without Sacrificing Quality Curriculum in the Middle School
Author: LM Bailey
Author: Bailey
Subject: The purpose of this research was to examine how effective learning could be curriculum-driven while still addressing mandated content standards at the middle school level.
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