Teaching means meeting the needs of ALL your students

Today’s New York Times includes an op-ed piece by Marie Myung-Ok Lee entitled “What I Learned in School.” The article is primarily memoir, a self-prescribed journey through two years of Ms. Lee’s high school career, a time when two influential English teachers recognized Ms. Lee’s love of reading and writing and gave her the space to grow into those loves. Although Ms. Lee’s affectionate memories of her teachers create enough of a warm and fuzzy feeling that most of us could agree with her argument that teachers have a bigger job than “teaching to the test,”  I’m not buying it.

Ms. Lee’s article begins with this:

The tumult over state budgets and collective bargaining rights for public employees has spilled over into resentment toward public school teachers, who are increasingly derided as “glorified baby sitters” whose pay exceeds the value of the work they do.

But how exactly do we measure the value of a teacher?

By the end of her trip down memory lane, Ms. Lee has reached something of a conclusion to her question:

If we want to understand how much teachers are worth, we should remember how much we were formed by our own schooldays. Good teaching helps make productive and fully realized adults — a result that won’t show up in each semester’s test scores and statistics.

I’m calling Ms. Lee on that last sentence:

Good teaching makes productive and fully realized adults–


–a result that won’t show up each semester’s test scores and statistics.


As a shy, bookish teenager, Ms. Lee was already a good student. She was academically successful and was capable of meeting all of the state literacy standards, acing the standardized tests. And so her teachers pushed her in a direction that allowed her to succeed above and beyond the state literacy standards.

But what about the other students in the class, the ones who were not naturally academic, who struggled to even read the words on the page, much less enjoy them? A teacher has an obligation to those students, as well, and for those students, success means meeting the grade-level standards.

Here’s where I think a disconnect happens between what public education is designed to do and what the public thinks it does. I’ve read many articles that decry “teaching to the test.” But here’s the thing about those tests: they are specifically designed to assess whether students have the knowledge and skills that very researched, very knowledgeable folks have defined as the knowledge and skills a child at a certain grade level should be able to demonstrate. A third-grader who can’t meet the benchmarks in the state standardized test in reading is going to struggle not only in school, but in life. So in order for this third-grader’s teacher to help this child become a productive and fully realized adult, the teacher needs to get this child’s knowledge and skills to a place that will put her on a path to successful adulthood. To do that, the teacher is going to use the state standards to guide the teaching, to define what knowledge and skills the child needs to be successful on those tests. In order for a teacher to make a productive and actualized adult out of this child, the teacher needs to get a child to master the knowledge and skills that will show up as positive results on each semester’s test scores and statistics.

Yes, good teachers will go above and beyond for their students that are already capable of performing on grade level. Good teachers and principals refer to this as “differentiated instruction,” and it is absolutely essential for ensuring that ALL students in a teacher’s classroom are successful. I don’t doubt that Ms. Lee’s teachers were good teachers because they clearly differentiated instruction to accommodate her heightened academic ability. From Ms. Lee’s essay:

I can now appreciate how much courage it must have taken for those teachers to let me deviate so broadly from the lesson plan. With today’s pressure on teachers to “teach to the test,” I wonder if any would or could take the time to coax out the potential in a single, shy student.

This wasn’t courage. It was good teaching. Ms. Lee was already capable of meeting the grade-level standards, those that are tested by “the test.” To keep her engaged and challenged, her teachers gave her alternate activities. That’s not courageous because Ms. Lee was going to perform well on those standardized tests, and her teachers knew that. So they gave her something else to do, something that would still allow her to practice and grow in the knowledge and skills defined by the state standards, but to do it in a way that aligned with what she was already capable of doing. Because they show differentiation in Ms. Lee’s instruction, I don’t doubt that these teachers were also differentiating instruction for their low-performing students. And that’s where the meat of this hullabaloo about teachers lies. Ms. Lee’s teachers were not only pushing Ms. Lee, but they were probably also pulling her lower-performing classmates up to where they should be, ensuring that ALL of their students were meeting state standards. That’s a good teacher. And that WILL show up on those end-of-semester tests and statistics.

There is one final piece of Ms. Lee’s essay that I’d like to cite:

If we want to understand how much teachers are worth, we should remember how much we were formed by our own schooldays. Good teaching helps make productive and fully realized adults — a result that won’t show up in each semester’s test scores and statistics.

That’s easy to forget, as budget battles rage and teacher performance is viewed through the cold metrics of the balance sheet. While the love of literature and confidence I gained from Ms. Leibfried’s class shaped my career and my life, after only four short years at Hibbing High School, she was laid off because of budget cuts, and never taught again.

Ms. Lee’s teacher was probably an outstanding teacher; her statistics, the test scores and data she gathered from her students probably reflected that. Quality-blind layoffs in the face of budget cuts meant the education system lost a good teacher. So I agree with Ms. Lee: good teachers are valuable, and cuts to education budgets endanger good teachers. But when defining a good teacher, in articulating the value of teachers as individuals who have chosen to teach, we can absolutely see that value in those test results and statistics.


11 thoughts on “Teaching means meeting the needs of ALL your students

  1. Your comment “This wasn’t courage. It was good teaching.” Is the key to this whole idea. Teachers (and I am speaking for mostly urban teachers) so often feel as though they aren’t allowed/encouraged to be good teachers. In my city, where supervise and mentor student teachers–the district does benchmark testing every 6 weeks and then for an entire month leading up to the state exam–all teaching stops and the teachers are only allowed to do fast, skill and drill test prep. This type of focus, by the administrators of these schools, to teach to the test in spite of everything else is what I have the problem with. It has become the central focus in schools. I know the importance of data, especially as a education researcher and policy maker, but I also know that at some point the data becomes central and the students and teachers become peripheral and that is the problem. There is no differentiation when teachers are required to run kids through test prep exercise after test prep exercise. This is what I mean when I talk about teaching to the test. Helping kids develop the skills they need is just good teaching. But I become wary when I hear, “For the test Johnny needs to be able to do X, so work on that at home.” When really, to be successful in life Johnny needs X–but by putting the test first, we make it more important than what kids need.

    Suburban districts whose students traditionally do well do not have this same singular curriculum focus. I agree that if teachers are doing their jobs well and teaching the way they know is best for kids, the test becomes a moot point. I have teachers in one of the graduate classes I teach tell me that she wants to learn how to beat the system at her school and teach writing. I have colleagues who are good teachers complain that there isn’t enough time to write multiple drafts or read more than one novel a semester. These problems/issues are products of our school testing culture. When the teachers are no longer allowed to do what is best for kids, because some policy maker in the capitol has decided the test is the most important thing, then I have a problem with it. It really is “rich kids get taught, poor kids get tested.”

    If we do our jobs well the kids will score well on the test. I believe this with all of my being. As a teacher, this is what I subscribed to. But teachers are loosing their autonomy to be good teachers. Teachers are being told what they can teach and how to teach it–often by people who weren’t teachers. My kids go to private school and will take twp standardized test in all their years of school (once in 5th grade and then the ACT or SAT) and I know that they will receive the best education possible because the school and teachers get to do exactly what they believe is best for kids.

    The problem isn’t the test. The problem is what the test does to our schools and how these changes/choice hurt kids. When kids are remediated (through test prep mostly), research shows, that more often than not they need more and more remediation and very rarely get to where they need to be.

    Good teaching is the key, but in our urban schools whose lives are on the line (our urban district is unaccredited) I don’t see that happening as long as the results of standardized tests are the focus. (one of the schools is only going to test students with a C or higher and find a way to subvert the system and not test D or F students–this is what standardized testing has done in our urban schools)

    • I think this is also evidence of why widespread education reform is a great idea, but it really needs to be tackled with a customized approach (like taking a curriculum designed in state A and teaching it in state B–it has to be aligned to the standards in the state in which it’s taught, regardless of the fact that it was designed to meet all standards for the state in which is was made). My school district doesn’t have the kind of “teaching to the test” you’re talking about. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever encountered this kind of month-long pre-test drilling; how does that even work? Do they just take sample test after sample test? I would agree; that doesn’t sound anything like what I’m talking about. My oldest daughter is in the public elementary school and my oldest foster daughter is in the public middle school. The teachers and administrators only push for the test on the day of the test: get enough sleep, eat a good breakfast, do your best. Of course they teach them test-taking strategies (e.g., do you guess on a multiple choice question, or do you leave it blank?), but they use very little instructional time to be able to do that. So I even think “teaching to the test” language is fuzzy; teaching to the CONTENT (i.e., the skills and knowledge necessary to perform well on the test) of the test is what good teachers do; teaching to the actual test-taking experience is not helpful for nailing down the content knowledge and skills kids are supposed to be mastering.

      I also think there’s a disconnect over the language of “data.” It automatically conjures up images of scan-tron standardized tests: fill in the circle with nothing but a number 2 pencil. But that’s not what classroom data is. It’s any kind of information gathered on students to determine whether they are progressing. An essay is data, a performance is data, a classroom conversation is data.

      I would agree with you that focusing on a testing for the sake of testing is ineffective. Testing should be about making sure kids are learning the things they’re supposed to be learning. What it actually sounds like is that your district has a teacher problem that’s being fostered by an administrative problem. Everyone is focusing on the raw data without having a plan of what to DO with that data. And what you do with that data (aside from award money) is CRUCIAL for the kids in the classroom. The data provided by any assessment should drive instruction, i.e., “I need to benchmark my students so I can see what’s working and what’s not working so I can adjust my instruction to achieve the end-of-year goals (i.e., meeting grade-level standards) for my students.” Benchmarking every six weeks is fine as long as the teachers take the data they’re gathering and apply it directly to their instruction. They should embrace the mandated testing as a source of feedback to improve their instruction, which will ultimately improve student learning, which will ultimately result in higher benchmark scores. If they’re not capable of doing that…well, then maybe they shouldn’t be teaching.

      (I’m not talking about the month-before shutdown to focus on testing you’re talking about; I have no idea how that would improve instruction, learning, or test scores in any way, shape, or form.)

  2. I would agree that test scores and statistical data can illuminate good, quality teaching. However, these data cannot be the only method for determining value in teaching. Students can do poorly on a test because their basic needs are not being met at home (food, sleep, love, etc.) and while teachers will do everything they can (including spending their own money) to help and educate, the fact is, that school studies will take a back seat to these most basic of needs. Subsequently, children who have lots of support and enrichment at home can still have success and fair well from a testing standpoint even though they may be unlucky enough to have mediocre educators at school.

    Or what about those teachers (myself included) whose subject matter do not appear in standardized testing? Physical education, art, music, etc do not appear in standardized testing. Are we to assume then (as many do, sometimes consciously sometimes unconsciously) , that these areas are simply unimportant, or that these teachers are not of value as they may not directly improve the school’s data?

    Perhaps my greatest concern with testing is those who look at it as an absolute indicator of success. Many of the greatest lessons learned (particularly from what I’ve seen at the elementary school level) are those things that cannot be quantified. Its the kindergarten teacher that fosters sharing and compassion toward others from an early age, its the principal that helped a child feel welcome with a kind word and a smile every morning, its the physical educator who put children on the path to healthy living, its the music educator who encouraged the non-verbal child to sing, the teaching assistant that took the time to show a child their self-worth. Yes, these unquantifiable things can sometimes improve test results, but an unsatisfactory score does not necessarily mean that there is not quality teaching taking place.

    Ok, climbing off the soapbox now 🙂

    • I totally agree that test scores shouldn’t be the only measure of success. And in most of the states with which I’m familiar that are incorporating a “student progress” component into their teacher evaluations, it’s not just standardized test scores that fill that “student progress” bucket.

      I’m wary of blaming home lives because that blames the student. Every kid can learn. Every single kid can learn. The goal of public education is to ensure that all kids, regardless of where they come from, can get the same education. We can’t control what happens at home. But we can control what happens in school. There was a report released on a series of schools referred to as 90/90/90 schools. They’re schools that are 90% minority, have 90% of their student body receiving free or reduced price lunches (i.e., are economically disadvantaged), and have 90% of their students hitting “proficient” on high-stakes tests. Those schools are doing something right, and it’s not about what’s going on at home.

      I think there are measurable markers of successful student learning for all subject areas. If that weren’t true, then why do we allow our kids to be graded in subjects like art and music? So I think there are ways to assess progress in all subject areas. And I think that because I make them. 🙂 I’m not about to be “the girl who gets fired for blogging about her job,” but I firmly believe that you can measure student growth in any area covered in school. I can use a really great personal anecdote: I’m a foster parent. My oldest foster daughter is repeating seventh grade because she was truant for most of last year. That’s a home factor, and there is precious little a teacher can do with an absent student, I concur. She came to us. I send her to school. Every. Single. Day. She’s smart and does fine on her own with most academic subjects, but she was not into PE. Her teacher is bogus in my book, and I’m saying that because my foster daughter was failing PE. She had As in every other subject, but she was failing PE. Motivation is a part of teaching. A good PE teacher would have found a way to motivate her, would have found a way to set goals with her and shown her how to progress. She would have failed PE every semester had I not stepped in to provide the motivation. It was as easy as this: I called her teacher. I had him outline exactly how her grade was determined, and I translated it to her (she didn’t know all of it before; crunching the math of how points are awarded helped her see how to set her goals). And then I said, “M, health is important. Your heart needs to stay healthy for you to live. And it’s a real shame that the only grade keeping you off the honor roll is this PE grade.” I said it once. She’s now on the honor roll because she’s passing PE. She doesn’t want to be in my house, her home life is still crappy because she’s miles away from her mom, but she could still be motivated. And a good teacher could have done that without parental intervention.

      I agree that it’s rough when school budgets are cut because standardized test scores are low and the first teachers to get laid off are those that aren’t even on the standardized test in the first place. A school scores low in reading, budget gets cut because the school’s not meeting benchmarks, the art teacher gets laid off–that is not logical. But that doesn’t mean the art teacher can’t be evaluated in a way that reflects that the teacher is actually having an impact on his students and that the students are learning and growing in their art knowledge and skills. Still measurable, still important, and can still fit into this framework of “good teachers,” even if it doesn’t crop up on the standardized test!

  3. Jenni–I agree with you. The problem is that the only data that anyone cares about is the standardized test data. Most at the schools don’t use the data to drive instruction but to measure each other. My urban district is extremely poor and approximately 95% african american. This issue certainly isn’t limited to my urban district. I have met enough professors and teacher educators from other urban districts to know that this is much of the problem in nearly all urban centers that are poor and mostly minority.

    Just trying to figure out how to change it all….

  4. Also, have you seen the 90/90/90 schools report? Good stuff, but it definitely requires a MASSIVE overhaul and a completely collaborative effort.

    • Yeah I’ve seen it. I sadly can’t see anything like that happening in the city I live in. Sad but true. Can’t wait to finish this PhD and get a job where I can make more of a difference. Maybe after all this work I’ve done with charter schools, I have to start my own 🙂

  5. Great thoughts; we as a society need more of this open-minded thinking to help make improvements in the education system. As you state, every child can learn and that philosophy needs to be the force driving education. The trouble is, that Public Education is such a massive entity that even a small change is very difficult to enact. The good news is, there are many, many people doing their very best to guide our youth as they mature and grow.

  6. Jenni,

    Personally I agree with many of the ideas you shared here. In theory, all of this sounds great! Generally speaking, if a teacher has significantly touched the life of a student, the resulting progress will be seen on standardized assessment. Holding teachers accountable for student progress thus seems like a good way to guarantee that students are meeting the appropriate benchmarks, thus learning what they should be learning.

    But unfortunately it doesn’t work that way in progress.

    Good teachers are good teachers because they are intrinsically motivated. They want more than anything to see their students achieve their maximum potential. These are the teachers who differentiate instruction, who stay an hour (or three!) before and after school (unpaid of course) to go the extra mile for their students, who go above and beyond expectations. They would take these extra measures whether or not anyone knew. They want to help these students because they sincerely wish to help. They don’t want credit – in fact most of them prefer to remain in the background.

    You just can’t force that.

    By tying student progress (ALL of it, standardized tests or not) to teacher evaluations, you are attempting to teach or force the proper motivation to teachers. But teachers who are motivated extrinsically (by paychecks, for instance) will NEVER be as good as those teachers who have a sincere desire to help students.

    Educational reform should focus on finding those teachers who have the proper motivation – those who do it WITHOUT gaining anything from it. When you tie this extra reward/punishment to it, you take all the heart out of it.

    It would be like paying a good mother. I’m sure many mothers appreciate that idea, mind you, but really think about what it means. Good mothers care for their children and are motivated intrinsically to bring out the best in their child – indeed, that is the only reward they get. But if you started paying mothers to do their “job” (raising their kids), the quality of the parenting would no doubt slip, except in those who already had the intrinsic motivation.

    I have much more to say, but I’m interested to see your response to this first.


    • Hi Joanna,

      I can’t believe I’ve managed to overlook your comment for more than a year! My apologies for that!

      I agree that good teachers are intrinsically motivated. I actually think this is true of all occupations; the people who are best at their jobs are people who are self-motivated and love what they do. I think the notion of tying financial incentive to student test scores is more about exiting the bad teachers, about getting those who are not making a difference for their students to come to the conclusion that perhaps teaching isn’t for them and giving administrators the power to get them out of the classroom. I also think it’s about rewarding good teaching for purposes of retention. There’s been a significant amount of research done regarding teaching as a profession (I’d have to dig out the studies; I don’t have them on the top of my head, but I know they’re out there). Most teachers–good, bad, or somewhere in the middle–generally don’t get good feedback on their own performance, and therefore aren’t valued for the skill set they possess. Teaching isn’t regarded as a profession the same way other professions are, so there’s no room for growth in the same way that other professions offer. Many good teachers leave the classroom because, despite their intrinsic motivation, they aren’t recognized for the good work they’re doing. I really believe that recognizing success via test scores is an attempt to applaud and retain good teachers and exit bad teachers, which serve to improve the overall school and how it affects the students enrolled there.

      Thanks for weighing in!


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