The tool you use to measure is going to determine what kind of results you get. If all you have a is a thermometer, you’re going to measure the temperature. If all you have is a ruler, you’re going to measure the length. Sometimes, the limitations of our measurements can cause us to miss out on important observations.
How Do We Measure Success in Schools?
When we talk about school success, we are often talking about averages and a pool of statistics. Students are lumped together as schools are ranked against one another and held up to state-mandated benchmarks. The result is that school administrators are often primed to think about success as a collective statistic rather than an individual one.
The sad side effect of this reality is that teachers in traditional classrooms tend to teach to the middle. It’s not their fault. It’s simply the limitations placed on them by the class setup. Most classrooms have at least 15 and sometimes as many as 35 students in them. The average class size for middle school teachers in departmentalized education is 25.5 students. In high school, it’s 24.2 students per departmentalized classroom.
That’s a lot of students to account for, and many teachers only have an hour or so a day to connect with each of them. It’s only natural that teachers faced with this reality will find their attention gravitating toward the weighty middle where the majority of their students’ abilities and interests lie.
What Happens When We Teach to the Middle?
The hard truth about teaching to the middle is that the needs of the students at either end of the curve don’t get met. Students who perform below standards are going to feel lost, left out, and discouraged in a classroom that consistently talks above their level of understanding, and each day that moves on without them widens their achievement gap. At the same time, students who perform above standards are going to feel bored, stifled, and out of place.
Students on either end of this spectrum might start showing signs of apathy and disconnect. Maybe these are the students with their heads on the desk during class discussion. Maybe these are the students that stop doing homework and never participate. These students are at an even higher risk of getting ignored and looked over in a traditional school setting.
Another possibility is that these students could start acting out as a result of not having their needs met. They could become the class clowns or even have emotional outbursts as a result of their frustration and self-perception. Many students who aren’t getting their academic needs met have behavioral problems as a result.
What’s the Solution?
We need to change how we think about success. Instead of holding up the class or school as a whole, we need to take the time to determine the individual measures of success for each student.
At the Tenney School, we believe that each individual student should be their own measure of success. Rather than hold students up as a group and promote a “teach to the middle” mentality, we believe each and every student deserves individual attention to meet his or her own individual goals, ones that are tailored to interests and abilities.
Teachers who are empowered to see their students as individuals and are given the resources, time, and space to meet those students where they are can take them where they want to go. Students who get the chance to work one-on-one with a teacher can find strengths they didn’t know they had, strengths that would have remained invisible in a group setting.
The Tenney School believes that each student deserves the chance to succeed, and that’s why we focus on One Success Story at a Time, giving our teachers the power to make a difference in each student’s life.