Students matter. Teachers, not so much.

When advocating for policies to better meet students’ needs, teacher leaders can’t afford to bury our lead: the students. We need to explain how the changes we advocate will improve learning outcomes for students, not just working conditions for teachers. If we fail to make that case, we’ll never see the changes our students need.

Last week I wrote a column for Education Week on the damage done by a “D” grade awarded to our high-achieving, high-poverty public school:

Giving Excellence a D: When School Accountability Grades Fail

My editor responded to the first draft with a simple question:

“Has the grade affected students at all? You say that such policies have a punitive impact on high-poverty students but you don’t really spell out why.”

His question baffled me, because I thought I had spelled out the impact on students. It took a re-reading of my draft to realize he was right.

An effective teacher, by definition, focuses on the needs of students. We meet their needs all day in myriad ways. Sending books home with them at night. Figuring out their interests, strengths, and needs, then teaching in a way that honors those individual elements. Conveying to each child her potential and the hard work it takes to fulfill it.

We need to add another job to that list.

When advocating for policies to better meet student needs, we can’t bury our lead: the students. We need to explain how the changes we advocate will improve learning outcomes for students, not just working conditions for teachers.

Leading with the impact on students

Most teacher leaders have spent years thinking about the connections between the larger system and individual children. As a result, connections that may be evident to us are not always clear to policymakers or members of the public.

We sometimes stumble by making the same oversight I made when writing the first draft of that column.

We focus first on the impact felt by teachers from a bad policy, assuming our audience will make the logical leap to the impact on students. We can’t make that assumption.

Example: Consider my school’s “D,” awarded based on a new state formula that pays scant attention to growth. The following argument will gain little traction with non-teachers:

This failing grade hurts teacher morale.

You can imagine the responses:

  • “Who cares? Do a better job and your morale will go up.”
  • “You know what hurts student morale? Not learning how to read and do math.”
  • Or, in the immortal monosyllable uttered by Dick Cheney in response to data that most Americans opposed the Iraq war, “So?”

The three arguments below are much more likely to move policymakers, legislators, and the public at large to improve the formula that branded our school with a failing grade.

1. For children living in poverty to succeed in school, life, and a career, they need highly effective teachers and principals.  Systems that fail to measure growth often drive talented teachers and administrators away from high-poverty schools.

I know plenty of teachers, principals, and superintendents who are willing to work harder on behalf of high-poverty kids with daunting obstacles to their learning. But when these educators are publicly labeled as failures—even if they elicit greater growth than schools with more affluent populations—it creates a reverse incentive. These teachers and leaders may decide to move to a school or district with a population that requires less growth to reach proficiency.

In the case of my own school, we have the great fortune of being led by a superintendent, principal, and teachers who care too much about their students and are too deeply rooted in their community to leave. But talented educators considering their next career move might think twice about going to a school where harder work for greater growth still results in a failing grade.

2. When you publicly shame a school, you send an implicit message to students and families that they have failed, too. This stigma has potent consequences for communities already confronted with poverty and racism.

True, some schools and districts are failing their high-poverty students. They are not eliciting the growth you should be able to expect from a child despite obstacles like poverty or learning English as a second language.

Lack of growth in a truly failing school is not the kids’ fault. There’s nothing wrong with the children; there is something wrong with the system providing them a second-class education.

But many high-poverty schools throughout the nation have received failing grades due not to poor instruction, but to poverty. To be clear, children living in poverty—including English Learners—are capable of brilliance, remarkable growth, and the same levels of academic achievement as more affluent students. But for a child who enters our school several years below grade-level, it may take more than a single year for that child to catch up—even if she makes more than a year’s growth.

When students at schools like mine receive a schoolwide failing grade despite outperforming students at more affluent schools, they receive the message that they are failures.

When my 1st graders take the MAP test, I emphasize their individual growth goals rather than their overall score. If I didn’t do that, kids far below grade-level could make 20 points of growth and still look like failures, while students above grade-level could make no growth and still look like successes. The same principle applies to grading growth rather than overall attainment for schools.

3. Over-emphasizing a single test leads to increased time spent on test prep. This narrow focus eliminates many of the rich experiences that contribute most to student learning, like science experiments, engineering projects, and time devoted to the arts.

Some people disagree with this point. They insist that if you simply provide rich, rigorous classroom instruction, test scores will rise. But for children who live in poverty and speak English as their second language, it takes an enormous amount of time to teach the vocabulary, format, and strategy involved in standardized tests. Most of this skill set has limited application to any endeavor other than taking tests.

When a school’s public perception is based on a single standardized test, teachers and principals will spend more time preparing students for that test. The result is a narrowing of the curriculum.

The very system declared as an antidote to poor instruction for high-poverty students ends up damaging those students’ access to rigorous instruction. It robs them of opportunities to develop creativity, critical thinking, ingenuity, and other 21st century and non-cognitive skills—which tend to have a far greater impact on success in college, career, and life than accurately filling in bubbles on a multiple choice test.

Children living in poverty need the arts and sciences just as much as more affluent students. Their chances of attending and graduating college depend on that access.

More immediately, they deserve an education that ignites their imaginations. The saying that “a child is a candle to be lit, not a cup to be filled,” applies to all children—not just those in middle-class zip codes.

Connecting the dots 

Education policy impacts too many students’ lives to leave it entirely to non-teachers. For those of us who choose to teach and advocate for better policies, we have to keep one critical point in mind:

What we understand intuitively about the connections between our profession and student learning is not always apparent to people outside the classroom.

Professional autonomy, a role in shaping policy, and collaboration time in the school day all have an undeniable connection to better outcomes for students. But if we don’t connect those dots for people who haven’t lived the connections, it will sound like we’re just trying to make things better for ourselves, not for the students in our care.

When teaching a new concept to our students, we meet them where they are. We don’t assume they already know what we know.

We need to do the same thing with policymakers, legislators, and members of the public. It’s the only way to bring about the changes we know our students need.

Note: For an example of a teacher leader making the case for systemic change while keeping students at the center, read Brianna Crowley’s recent post Speaking to Power, Learning from Power.

  • marsharatzel

    Hi Justin,

    Hi Justin,

    I think it’s an interesting balance between the needs of students and the needs of the teacher.  When either of those trump the other one, I think the system is thrown into unbalance and problems start to occur.

    You said “For children living in poverty to succeed in school, life, and a career, they need highly effective teachers and principals.  Systems that fail to measure growth often drive talented teachers and administrators away from high-poverty schools”

     and I wanted to follow up on that.

    My point of clarification is that I would remove the qualifier of children living in poverty.  Don’t all students deserve that same thing?  I guess I pick at these kinds of statements because it assumes that if you’re in a non-poverty school, there are quality teachers in every classroom AND I think it drives a wedge between economic classes of schools.

    If we are advocating for high quality teacher, don’t we want to advocate that the whole system has them?

    And just another point.  Systems that fail to measure growth drive teachers away.  There is another point of view to be considered here.  In systems where students are high performers, achieving growth can be extremely difficult.  If a teacher has a classroom of students achieving in the 90th percentile, making even another point of growth is a tough, tough thing.  You work yourself into the ground and pray that students don’t regress.  When I taught the “plus” math classes, I had to work 2x as hard to get hit the class average growth projections as I did for my “regular” math class or the “collaboration classroom” where I had class-within-a-class.

    Again….I am looking for ways to unite all of us together.

    I totally think these statements work for you in your school environment.  I think they represent the improvement you tried to make from your draft.  My point in commenting is to raise the issue that these would not be improvements for all teachers in all kinds of school.

    And for me that is the rub of so much educationalese.  Big sweeping statements don’t apply because classrooms are so different.  Communities are different, schools are different, teachers are different and students are different.  The closer these statements can be made about the local school, the more accurately they reflect the realities of that situation.  The further away they are from the local community, the less likely they will be to represent all classrooms.

  • JustinMinkel



    Really thoughtful critiques. I think they’re grounded, and I need to give them more thought.

    On the first point, I absolutely agree that all children, including my daughter and son, need great teachers. I do think, though, that for kids in poverty, they rely more desperately on those great teachers as the only path to success.

    My daughter has a safety net. If she has an ineffective teacher for a year or even two, my wife and I will be reading with her at home, we’ll get her tutoring if necessary, and we’re also more likely to change her to another classroom or another school. I went to a low-quality school as a child in rural Arkansas, but my parents were able to make up for it with plenty of books, trips to museums, and one-on-one help with math and reading.

    My students and their families don’t have that luxury.

    So while I’m deeply grateful for my daughter’s remarkable teacher this year, and I have great respect for any talented teacher in any context, I’m troubled at a systems-level by the reality that the kids who don’t have any option EXCEPT high-quality school as a path out of poverty are also most likely not to get that high-quality school purely because of the neighborhood where they live.

    We all know that skilled, experienced teachers are not distributed evenly in high-poverty and middle-class/affluent schools. So I’m very concerned about policies like this grading system that drive away the talented teachers and principals who have chosen to serve high-poverty kids.


    • marsharatzel

      Let’s Drive Out the Grading System

      I can rally behind eliminating a system that grades schools with no end goal except to punish.  That seems against everything our industry stands for and what the public service sector represents.  

      Can you imagine grading fire stations?  

      Or hospitals?  

      Or water districts?

      Or different branches of the military?

      Just thinking about those options sort of made my mind pop.  It would be interesting to understand who uses this data for positive purposes and how we might create other ways of providing data transparency so that we could drive out grade cards for schools.

      Who uses the grade card data for something other than a headline?


  • JustinMinkel

    My school vs. your school…taking out the “versus”


    I realized I was about to write an epic in response to your thoughtful comment, so I’m splitting this into parts. On the pitting of schools against one another, whether it’s poor vs. rich or charter vs. public…

    I think this is a deeply rooted problem that weakens our profession. In the past week, so many teachers in our district from middle-class and affluent schools have reached out to express solidarity and support for our school. I respect every one of those colleagues, and they respect us. Part of why our district is so successful is this culture of mutual support and collaboration, rather than competition, throughout the district.

    I also regret that I wasn’t more careful to clarify that I don’t think middle-class/affluent schools are doing any less effective or impressive a job. I just want to make it clear that while there are low-performing high-poverty schools and high-performing middle class schools, the distribution isn’t as dramatic as the current state report card leads the public to believe. When you look at growth, a very different picture emerges.

    On the specific issue of growth, I’ve heard that point and even teaching in a high-poverty school, I run into the same issue. For example, I have a 1st grader who is at least a year beyond grade-level in math, so it doesn’t make sense to expect the same growth on the MAP test in math for him that kids below grade-level need, simply because I would need to teach him 2nd and 3rd grade content to get that kind of growth. MAP takes this into account in their system; his growth goal might be 7 points while a child below grade-level who needs to catch up might have a goal of 12 points.

    This seems to be more of an issue with conventional standardized tests, which are very blunt instruments and don’t differentiate for a child’s level. My daughter (a 1st grader) is currently reading on a DRA 30. That is a reflection of her excellent teacher who differentiated all year; rather than sending home the same worksheets and books to every child, her teacher made sure that each student has work on her level, and she continued to assess them beyond the cutoff for “proficiency” (16) for the end of the year.

    So, I favor two things in terms of policy changes:

    1. We need to use more assessments like MAP that capture growth in a given year, not simply how a child does compared to a single line marked “proficiency.”

    2. When we do use blunt instruments, it makes sense to me to have some kind of threshhold; for example, if a student starts the year in the 95th percentile, you don’t get dinged for not pushing him 4 percentile points. At the same time, you don’t get dinged if you have a child who moves from the 15th percentile to the 45th percentile.

    A deeper problem emerges: Why are we “dinging” teachers instead of supporting them? But in cases like the situation in my state, where the grading system is here to stay for now but the formula that calculates those grades is open to some revisions, I think we need to stop penalizing high-poverty schools, and one way to do that is to truly measure individual growth over time.

    Thanks for reading, responding, and pushing my thinking on this. Blogging is tricky because you end up using a kind of shorthand to keep a post from sprawling into 3,000 words, and sometimes nuance is lost. These conversations help tease out and clarify that nuance.


    • marsharatzel

      One number doesn’t tell the story

      Thanks Justin for your response.  I couldn’t agree more about helping people to look at multiple ways to measure what a school contributes.  Where my own children went to school, one high school always out produces National Semifinalists yet if you looked at the growth of those students from freshman to senior year you would see that their growth is pretty flat.  Nearby another high school doesn’t have any Semifinalists and if you look at their growth over the four years, you would see a sharp increase.  You said it.  One number doesn’t really tell the story.

      We use MAP tests in my district too….and every child is expected to meet their projected MAP growth targets regardless of where they start.  I think that’s a fair policy because the computer brain adjusts for where a student is in the range and doesn’t project as much for high achievers.  (at least in 8th grade)  I might quibble with you that the high achieving students deserve instruction tailored to their needs as the low performing students.  Since I’m a techie nerd geek, I’m hopeful that our digital tools will soon give us ways to find effective and efficient ways to do this beyond the typical drill programs.  I’m hopeful that we’ll see the emergence of gaming options….that allow students to play the same game with the same theme, but on different levels, all at the same time.  But I don’t see edtech doing a lot with gaming yet….but maybe that will be where the next explosion will come!!!

      Fingers crossed on that one!

      I thank you for hearing my point about finding ways to unite us.  I feel like it’s already teachers/school/students against the world (at least as far as the popular press and politicans go).  The more we can find ways to show support, as you mentioned in your response, the better for our industry.